Pete's Dragon is the cinematic equivalent of a great big hug. A disarmingly homespun blockbuster, this loose remake of Disney's 1977 live-action-animated hybrid is perhaps best defined by all the things it's not: It's not a soaring action flick, an indulgence in smarmy comedy, a wish-fulfillment fantasy, nor even really an adventure story. 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 in keeping with the original, which was distinguished by its cute, klutzy, hand-drawn title creature. This time, director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) sets the action in the Pacific Northwest, where ten-year-old Pete (the very good Oakes Fegley) is a feral child living with his dragon, Elliot, in the darkest part of the woods. When he's taken in by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and young Natalie (Oona Laurence), the boy struggles to adapt to his new human surroundings. Meanwhile, the somewhat dim Gavin (Karl Urban) leads a posse to hunt the creature, which he's beginning to suspect is real.
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. Its refusal to indulge in overt villainy or elaborate set pieces is admirable, 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.