Pete's Dragon is a good movie, but you should probably know what you're getting. If I'd had a better grasp of what I was in for, I think I'd have waited for this to show up on Netflix. That's not to say this is something everyone should avoid at the theater, but its target audience is much narrower than most of Disney's recent releases.
To me, the trailers implied something mythic, something primal. And while the movie delivered a solid kid's adventure/drama, it didn't pull off more than that. A few years ago, that might have been enough to earn a more enthusiastic recommendation, but the past few years have given us Paddington, Inside Out, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and most significantly, The Jungle Book: my expectation is that "family entertainment" should be better than films aimed at adults, not worse, and if Disney has a problem with that, they mostly have themselves to blame.
I don't want to imply this will come off as offensive or obnoxious to adults: on the contrary, it's enjoyable enough. But coming out the same year as The Jungle Book makes it virtually impossible to ignore the similarities. Hell, there's a sense in which the story is a spiritual sequel to The Jungle Book. The premise is largely built around a boy, raised in the wilderness, returning to civilization - it's more or less pulled from one of the stories in The Jungle Book Disney hasn't gotten around to yet. On top of that, it's hard not to compare the CG Elliott to the animals in The Jungle Book. And while Elliott is all sorts of cute, he falls far short, as does his movie. While the Jungle Book felt like an evolution in film making, this felt regressive. Set aside the effects, and this could have been made in the 80's or 90's.
To be fair, some of that was intentional. This was definitely a throw-back to the 80's adventure flicks - think ET and Neverending Story. It even seemed ambiguously set in the 80's, judging by the lack of technology. The themes fit that template as well: the importance of family and a vague environmental message.
The movie's tone struck a good balance, and avoided most of the major pitfalls. It deserves credit for taking its premise seriously. Likewise, they refrained from making any of the characters evil - the film's antagonist doesn't come off as irrational or cruel: he's a man who sees an opportunity and pursues it in a manner that's perfectly reasonable, from his perspective. Karl Urban does an impressive job juggling his role in the plot with his character's much less sinister motives.
All the actors do solid work, in fact. Unfortunately, they're held back by the script, which is frustratingly mediocre. Note I didn't say bad: the movie makes no cardinal sins, but it rarely exceeds expectations. The trailers implied something powerful: a complex adventure bogged down with the complexities of an impossible situation. But everything comes off feeling a little too simplistic in the movie.
On top of that, this has the distinct feeling of a movie developed by committee. A better committee than usually gets assigned to this sort of project, but a committee nonetheless. The movie reveals Elliott to the audience in the first few minutes and makes him a major character, even when he and Pete are separated almost immediately. To then play up the mystery around the dragon feels forced.
I think there could have been a better movie in this, perhaps one using Bryce Howard's character as the POV instead of Pete. As it is, she's pretty much wasted in this role: her character is present, but she rarely feels like anything more than an object. This time, she's playing a motherly lamp instead of a sexy one, but it's the same problem she had in Jurassic World - she's a better actress than the script demands.
Despite the script, the movie's enjoyable enough. If you're the parent of a six year-old boy, you'll likely be much happier with this than 90% of what your kid makes you sit through. For the rest of us, it's a good enough movie for a Tuesday night on Netflix, but I'm not sure you need to rush out to the theater to see it. It's good, but there are far better options available.