Disney’s re-imagining of its lightweight 1977 kids’ film “Pete’s Dragon” high-mindedly aims high — for a movie about an orphan boy raised in the woods of the Pacific Northwest by a dragon.
Co-writer/director David Lowery is no Steven Spielberg (Who is?), but the director of the somber, meditative thriller “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” takes his shot at making this an “E.T.” for a new generation.
He stages the most touching Disney death scene since “Bambi,” cast Robert Redford and makes him the narrator, too. He dwells on the trees, a great forest under threat from rapacious loggers.
He lets his camera linger on the dragon himself — a big, winged, furry beast about 30 feet long. Furry? Yes, like a great green Great Dane, to make him more cuddly.
Lowery brought in his “Bodies Saints” composer Daniel Hart to fill the screen with soaring, stirring strings to tug at our emotions.
It’s a lovely film, stately, sylvan and slow. It would take an insensate child and a very cynical adult to not fall for at least some of its charms.
Pete was just learning to read when, on his way to his first big “adventure” in the woods with his family, their station wagon wrecks. Weeping, with only his favorite new-reader book about a boy and his puppy, Elliot, he flees into the forest, the sole survivor of the crash. And just as the wolves are about to get him, he is saved by this dragon, who can make himself invisible at will.
Six years pass with the boy making his life with the friendly dragon, years of soaring over the Douglas firs, fending off bears and nightly storytelling, with Pete reading and embellishing his book to Elliot, which is what he’s named his furry best friend. Elliot, for his part, is a little ungainly. He flies, but never “sticks the landing” and he is given to sneezing fits that snot all over whoever is in range.
But then the loggers invade their corner of paradise, led by Gavin (Karl Urban of “Star Trek”). He and his more sensitive brother Jack (Wes Bentley) own the company. Jack is sensitive because his second wife (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a Forest Service ranger. And she’s sensitive because her dad (Redford) taught her about the woods and still spins his wild tale about the mythic “Millhaven Dragon.”
“Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he preaches. If you only see what’s right in front of you, “you miss out on a whole lot.”
Her stepdaughter (Oona Laurence) believes. And when she spies the forest boy Pete, she believes even more.
Lowery was an odd choice to tackle this last blockbuster of the summer, but he handles most of the waypoints of the story, freely adapted from the 1977 film, with skill. Pete’s quizzical first glimpse of a girl, his feral-boy totally flummoxed by cars, record players and other people, all pay dividends.
Pete doesn’t know what to call clear-cutting, but he is sad about the place “where all the trees ran away.”
The mop-topped kid, Oakes Fegley (a bit player in “This Is Where I Leave You”) is good. Not Henry “E.T.” Thomas heart-tugging “Elliot” good, but good enough.
Howard’s character is the warmest she’s ever played, although she still has icy traces of “Jurassic World” in her inability to interact easily with kids.
Urban digs his teeth into his villainous role, Redford manages a twinkle or two and Bentley handsomely takes up space.
The new “Jungle Book” put Disney in the business of competing with itself again as the gold standard for children’s entertainment. “Pete’s Dragon” falls short of that. But the mature emotions, something the studio abandoned in the decades after “Old Yeller,” have made a welcome return.
And in aiming for the top — “E.T.” — knowing their reach would exceed their grasp, they’ve glossed a sweet, sentimental and middling story into something almost, but not quite magical, a charming kids’ film that could be the biggest box office hit of Robert Redford’s long and storied career.
MPAA Rating:PG for action, peril and brief language
Running time: 1:42