Disney has a long history of terrifying children--especially when it comes to moms: Bambi's is killed by hunters, Dumbo's is captured and can comfort him only through the bars of a circus cart. Youthful reactions to these scenes range from stoic to sobbing, and adults who grew up with these movies know just which kind of kid they were.
Pete's Dragon, a retooling of Disney's 1977 movie of the same name, has been made with care by director David Lowery yet traffics in similar emotional extremes. Set in a dreamy Pacific Northwest, it has a distinct hippie-folktale aesthetic, riffing on the idea that the natural world holds breathtaking secrets if we just know where to look. By itself that idea is wonderful, and the CGI dragon Elliot--an expressive, furry green beauty--lives up to its promise. To watch him soar above a misty ocean of trees--with or without young Pete (Oakes Fegley)--is to feel lilting, airborne freedom.
With Elliot's help, newly orphaned Pete lives in a forest for six years. But when Pete rejoins the human world, Elliot suffers, especially when men discover his whereabouts. This is where Lowery stumbles, working too hard to squeeze a response from us. A protracted dragon-capture sequence is grim and swollen with syrupy music to cue us when to feel. It all turns out O.K., but to see Elliot in peril is unsettling. Or at least it was for me--which tells you which kind of kid I was.