Pete’s Dragon, 2016.
Directed by David Lowery.
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley and Robert Redford.
The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.
When the original Pete’s Dragon was released in 1977 it was one of two big-screen adventures that combined live-action characters with those of an animated persuasion to great effect even if box office numbers didn’t follow suit. Both that and the other, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, didn’t quite bring in the kind of financial success that the great studio had previously but both films have enjoyed huge leases of life across the years since its original release that have charmed and delighted audiences of all ages. Time for a remake, then.
The new version, as with many of the new Disney “universe”, is different in story but not in scope: at a young age, Pete is involved in a car accident which takes the lives of his parents as they are driving through a dense forest. Scared, Pete flees only to be rescued by the titular dragon (soon to be renamed Elliot), now fetched all in green minus the pink hair. The pair form an unlikely friendship, but rumours have circulated for many years about the forest dragon, particularly from veteran resident Meecham (Robert Redford), who regaled the cynical town with his encounter many years ago but now that much of the forest is being torn down, will the legend be a secret for much longer?
Pete’s Dragon is one of the first films to be remade by Disney that this intrepid writer had quite a bit of trepidation about when it was announced as the next big refresh: the original is such a joyous experience, magical and whimsical throughout its strangely long running time, that to retread those steps but change much of its everlasting appeal was a tall order for director David Lowery. Indeed his previous work, adult drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, isn’t exactly the calling card one would think of when Disney chose him as their new visionary. We needn’t had worried.
Lowery has spoken of the same affection for the original as this writer has already and it’s clear from the opening few moments that not only are those aforementioned elements still intact but many more have been added. Those first minutes of the film are some of the most heart-wrenching and moving of the year and it will take the most hardened of hearts not to be enchanted by them. Sure this is a Disney film and such moments are expected but Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks never shoot for saccharine and in doing so create as real and as real an environment as they can.
Then of course there is the challenge of bringing Elliot into the 21st century, recreating him without losing any of the warmth and friendship between he and Pete. Taking some guidance from Dreamworks’ stunning How To Train Your Dragon series, this Elliot is more soaring beast than apple-cooking pet: Lowery and Halbrooks (and Disney’s) intent on adding as much realism to proceedings while still maintaining the magic and the bond between the two is a tricky juggling act but they pull it off brilliantly and he CGI that brings our green beasty to life is so brilliantly realised that it may be the best thing the new Disney has produced thus far.
In the acting stakes, Bryce Dallas Howard, is on brilliant form as the new mother-incarnate Grace, while Karl Urban follows up his brilliant performance in Star Trek Beyond with another solid turn as the film’s token villain. Oona Laurence, superb in Southpaw last year, adds some much needed same-age vitality friendship for Pete that was sorely lacking in the original and we get a welcome appearance from the legendary Robert Redford who radiates class at every turn. Heck, if The Sundance Kid can believe in dragons, so can you.
The star here though us young Oakes Fegley who is a revelation: having made quite an impression in under-seen 2014 film Fort Bliss, the young actor performs wonderfully throughout the film, a ball of energy, strength and poignancy, all the even impressive given the lack of dragon next to him for most of the film.
From the very first moments it’s hard not to be fully and utterly entranced by the wonderful Pete’s Dragon, a film that could well be this summer’s most captivating family film. Made with both appreciation of the original and a willingness to reinvent it, director David Lowery has created weaved a spellbinding that is as big and formidable as it’s titular character while still weaving threads of family and friendship through every moment. Wonderful.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Scott J. Davis is a Senior Staff Writer and UK Reporter for Flickering Myth – Follow him on Twitter