After an exhausting summer buffet of set pieces and superheroes, the gentle "Pete's Dragon" is a welcome palate cleanser. Where other summer movies are chest-thumping, it's quiet; where others are brashly cynical, it's sweetly sincere; where others are lacking in giant cuddly dragons, "Pete's Dragon" has one.
Few may remember the 1977 Disney original, in which a young boy's best friend was a bubbly dragon invisible to others. As part of Disney's continuing effort to remake its animated classics in live-action, "Pete's Dragon" has been confidently reborn as an earnest tale of green-winged wonder.
David Lowery, a veteran of the independent film world and the director of the lyrical crime drama "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," inherits a far bigger film. But his "Pete's Dragon" still maintains the homespun feel of an American fable. Spielberg-lite, you might call it.
The film begins, in the "Bambi" tradition, in parental tragedy. Pete's family is driving through a remote Pacific Northwest forest with Pete nestled in the backseat of the station wagon, reading a children's book about a dog named Elliott. A deer sprints out and, in poetic slow-motion, the gravity of the car's interior is upended. The car flips off the road and Pete staggers from the crash.
Flashing forward six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild 10-year-old orphan living in the woods alone except for his magical companion, the dragon Elliott. As far as CGI creatures go, Elliott is an irresistible one. Furry as a fairway, he's like an enormous emerald-green puppy. Far from the "Game of Thrones" dragon variety, he's more adept at chasing his own tail than breathing fire.
He's also the subject of local folklore, mostly as told by Robert Redford's wood-carving storyteller. But it's his forest ranger daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), that first encounters Elliott and ultimately leads to the dragon's discovery.
Grace coaxes Elliott back into society and into the fold of her family. She has a daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), and lumber mill-running husband Jack (Wes Bentley). It's the push by a logging company – where Jack's brother, Gavin (Karl Urban) is a gun-totting lumberjack – into the forest that simultaneously begins flushing out Pete and Elliott from their home in the trees.
The lush forest (New Zealand, again, subbing for North America) reigns over "Pete's Dragon," a tale scored with soft bluegrass and exuding an environment-friendly love for the beautiful and exotic splendors of nature. When competing interests come for Elliott, they are really fighting for the soul of the forest.
There are Spielbergian gestures here of magic and family and faith, perhaps better orchestrated than Spielberg's own recent try at a Disney film, "The BFG." But it's missing a spark, a sense of danger, and maybe a little humor.
The lean simplicity of "Pete's Dragon" is its greatest attribute and its weakness. It doesn't quite achieve liftoff until the film's final moments. But it does at last catch flight, finally soaring beyond its humble folksiness.