Pete’s Dragon doesn’t simply want to update a movie from 1977. It wants to be a movie from 1977. This is both to the film’s credit and its detriment.
Directed by David Lowery, Pete’s Dragon spins the tale this way: after surviving a (traumatic) car crash in which his parents are killed, 5-year-old Pete wanders into the wilderness, where he manages to survive for the next six years with the help of a furry green dragon (convincingly rendered in state-of-the-art CGI). Elliott, the dragon, and Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) live an idyllic, if savage, life together—at least until the arrival of a curious park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and encroaching loggers (led by a vaguely villainous Karl Urban).
Pete’s Dragon has a patient, unhurried manner that’s almost unheard of in children’s movies today. Even with an army of computers at his disposal, Lowery seemingly prefers to center his action on something like Pete running across the top of a moving school bus, as the town’s policemen are in pursuit. Add an ambling, folksy soundtrack, and the movie works even without its fantastical, effects-heavy “wow” moments (although those, including Elliott’s emergence from his cave, work wonderfully too).
Yet for all their antic emphasis on large-scale action, the best modern family films have also developed a newfound sophistication that this Pete’s Dragon lacks (as did many kids’ flicks of the 1970s). The adult supporting players are especially thin and dopey, including Robert Redford as an old-timer who encountered Elliott years ago. Meanwhile, the family-values scenario—in which Howard’s park ranger needs Pete to complete an approximation of the traditional nuclear family—feels awfully heavy-handed. And so there are After School Special elements here that make some of Pete’s Dragon feel stale, even as its leisurely demeanor will strike modern viewers as pleasantly fresh.