Pete's Dragon is as cuddly as the mountains of plush toys Disney hopes to sell from it. A disarmingly homespun blockbuster, this loose remake of the studio’s 1977 live-action/animation hybrid is perhaps best defined by all the things it's not: It's not a soaring action flick, nor an indulgence in smarmy comedy, nor a wish-fulfillment fantasy, nor even really an adventure story (despite its many protestations that it is). Although the central dragon is a wondrous creation, even the special effects seem understated. More than anything, this is a slice-of-life tale, whisper-thin but still full of feeling and a generous sense of place — with the world’s most adorable dragon at the center of it all.
That's somewhat in keeping with the original, which was distinguished by its sea-swept Northeast milieu and a cute, klutzy, hand-drawn title creature. (That movie doesn’t get much love nowadays, but I think I watched it more than 50 times as a child, and I can probably still sing its hit song, “Candle on the Water,” from memory.) This time, director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) sets the action in a Pacific Northwest logging town called Millhaven, where local legend, much of it circulated by rambling wood carver Robert Redford, tells of a dragon lurking in the forest. Throughout, the film weaves myth into its reality. Even before we see Redford spinning his tales, we’ve seen the dragon: The film’s opening scene gives us 4-year-old Pete being saved by the kindly beast after the sudden death of his parents in a car crash.
The kid names the dragon Elliot, after a lost puppy in his favorite children’s book. Six years later, Pete (now played by the very good Oakes Fegley) is a feral child living with Elliot in the darkest part of the woods, running through the trees and leaping off cliffs onto his big green friend’s back to fly through the clouds. When he’s discovered and taken in by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and young Natalie (Oona Laurence), the boy struggles to adapt to his new human surroundings. Pete begins to trust Grace, Natalie and local sawmill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), even starting to think of them as a new family — much to the dismay of Elliot. Meanwhile, Jack’s ambitious, somewhat dim brother Gavin (Karl Urban) leads a group of local men out into the woods to hunt the creature, which he’s beginning to suspect is real.
Anyway, that’s about it. The tale is a modest one, and Lowery shoots it gently, downplaying even the most heartbreaking moments by focusing on texture and perspective. In the opening scene, we quietly see a harrowing car crash from the backseat point of view of a young child who doesn’t quite grasp what’s happening. We continue to observe through his eyes as Pete discovers Millhaven, a world bright and new in its strangeness. (My favorite touch: When Pete jumps on top of a school bus early on in an attempt to get away, we briefly glimpse how odd things look to someone standing atop a moving bus — a fleeting moment of wonder amid the child’s fearful escape.)
Elliot has the power to make himself invisible, and although he is certainly very real — indeed, the dragon is the most full-blooded character in the whole movie, the one whose need and hurt come through most vividly — Lowery subtly presents him as a half-myth, a kind of folk-art subject. We see the creature in crude pictures and wood carvings and hear about him in tall tales and songs almost as much as we see him rendered via state-of-the-art special effects. That approach creates a sense of anticipation and wonder every time Elliot does show up; seeing the dragon never feels secondhand or mundane.
Still, the film’s resolute folksiness and humility can sometimes be a bit much. Its refusal to indulge in overt villainy or elaborate set pieces (the climax is stirring but short) is certainly admirable — and it’s downright supernatural that Lowery got a big studio to let him turn a reboot project into something so placid and unassuming — but you sometimes get the sense that the film is trying too hard to defy expectations, that the glancing blows of its narrative occasionally come at the expense of drama. But maybe that’s the point, too. Too much conflict would betray the film’s generous, gentle spirit. Pete’s Dragon is the cinematic equivalent of a great big hug.