Like many studios these days, Disney has been reaching back into its archives to find movies that it can update for modern audiences, and though “Pete’s Dragon” is a film that didn’t really need to be remade, it’s one that most people can agree has plenty of room for improvement. The original 1977 musical was okay for its time, but it could hardly be described as a classic. Perhaps even stranger than the decision to remake it, however, is the involvement of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery, who’s not exactly the first person you’d think of to helm a family-friendly movie about a CG dragon. While Lowery’s soulful, more character-driven adaptation is a refreshing change of pace from the typical summer film, it never really goes anywhere.
After surviving a car crash that kills both of his parents (a classic Disney move), orphaned boy Pete wanders into the nearby woods where he’s almost devoured by a pack of wolves before being rescued by a large, green furry dragon that he names Elliot. Six years later, the now-feral Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his magical guardian Elliot are enjoying a quiet, isolated life together in the forest when a logging company encroaches on their land and Pete accidentally reveals himself. Brought back to town by kindhearted forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), Pete learns what it means to be part of a family when he’s welcomed into Grace’s home with her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Meanwhile, Elliot believes that Pete is in danger and sets out to rescue him, but after Jack’s opportunistic brother Gavin (Karl Urban) encounters the dragon and plans to capture it for personal gain, Pete must assume the role of protector for once in order to save his friend.
“Pete’s Dragon” doesn’t work if the audience isn’t charmed by its titular creature, and fortunately, that’s one of the few things that Lowery nails. Though Elliot looks less like a dragon than the pink-haired cartoon version from the 1977 film (in fact, it more closely resembles a dog with wings), he feels like a real living thing, providing much of the movie’s heart through his loving/playful relationship with Pete. Newcomer Fegley is also good as the other half of that duo, doing a better Mowgli impression than Mowgli himself from Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” remake. Decent child actors are hard to come by, but “Pete’s Dragon” features solid performances from both Fegley and Laurence. Sadly, the rest of the cast is fairly bland with the exception of Robert Redford in the Mickey Rooney role. None of the characters are given a whole lot of depth, particularly Urban’s thinly-sketched villain, who’s tasked with being the bad guy simply because everyone else in the quaint northwestern town is so damn nice.
And that’s part of the problem with “Pete’s Dragon”: there’s very little at stake in the story. Clocking in at just over 100 minutes, nothing really happens plot-wise until the 30-minute mark, taking its sweet old time with the leisureliness of a Sunday drive. But the movie gets too comfortable in its casual pacing and fails to build towards something greater. Sure, there’s a huge set piece in the final act, but it’s not as emotional as it wants to be, or as exciting as it needs be. There’s no real sense of fun or adventure, which isn’t what you’d expect from a film about a boy and his dragon. Instead, Lowery’s movie is a folksy, old-fashioned drama that is almost too sincere at times, and while it functions as a perfectly fine slice of wholesome family entertainment, “Pete’s Dragon” doesn’t grab your attention (and to a certain degree, your imagination) in quite the way that it should.