It doesn’t take long for “Pete’s Dragon” to reveal itself as a Disney movie. The formula is right up front in the opening minutes. Four-year-old Pete, picture book in hand, is learning to read in the back seat of his parents’ car as they set off on a vacation in the woods of the Pacific Northwest (with New Zealand sitting in for Oregon). Suddenly there’s a deer on the road, then an accident, then — remember, it’s a Disney film — the requisite death of the parents, and soon terrified Pete is alone, running through the darkening woods, chased by hungry wolves.

He’s saved, of course, by Elliot, the dragon of the title who, after the rescue, turns out to act more like a big, goofy dog than a fierce, but friendly fire-breathing reptile. The creature’s appearance signals that not only will there be very little resemblance between this “Pete’s Dragon” and Disney’s 1977 animated feature with the same title. But neither is this going to be one of those family films that’s as easy for adults to enjoy as it will be for their very young kids.

Movie magic has given Elliot an expressive face and a couple of great eyes, but his simple and at the same time exaggerated physical presentation makes him look more like something out of “H.R. Pufnstuf” than anything that technology has made available in today’s movies. Again, that’s not a problem for young viewers, most of whom will have fun and will be fine with the film’s accompanying Disney-style trauma. It’s just that the level of sophistication, for those older viewers, is below what many will expect.

The story, too, is simple. Six years go by, and now 10-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliot live a happy, feral life as best pals, in the deepest woods. No one knows they’re there. But somewhere in that area is a logging camp run by Jack (Wes Bentley), whose fiancee is forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has an 11-year-old daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence). There’s also Grace’s dad, the former logger and now wood carver Meacham (Robert Redford), who likes to tell crowds of adoring kids about his own long-ago adventure of seeing a dragon in the woods, though no one has ever believed him. And there’s the film’s resident greedy villain, Gavin (Karl Urban), who heads up the logging team in his brother’s company, and considers cutting down old growth forests just part of the job.

The film jumps back and forth between two worlds: The idyllic one of Pete and Elliot, who spend their days romping around, and their nights snuggling together in a cave, and the civilized one of rangers, loggers, and storytellers. When those worlds collide, the “normal” people want to know who this kid is, and what he’s been doing out there (they can’t see Elliot because … well, because Elliot can turn invisible at will). When Pete is forcibly separated from Elliot (more trauma), all they want to do is be back together again.

Many questions arise: Did Meacham really see a dragon all those years ago? Who will get to Elliot first, the good guys or the bad guys? How can the plight of poor Pete be resolved? Don’t worry; even through some forced peril near the end, all works out OK. But other than the fine performance by Redford, who is a wonderful onscreen storyteller, and by the two lead kids, the film is populated by cardboard characters and filled up with too many bland montage songs.

Worse, it’s all kind of humdrum; there’s no real feeling of magic.

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“Pete’s Dragon”
Written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks; directed by David Lowery
With Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence
Rated PG