PETE’S DRAGON (USA/PG/102mins) Directed by David Lowery. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Karl Urban, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley. THE PLOT: After his parents tragically die in a car crash, young Pete (Oakes Fegley) grows up in the woods with his only friend: a big, furry green dragon he names Elliott. Having discovered each other in the woods and become best friends, they live an adventurous but low-key life. Elliott keeps under the radar, as he has the ability to become invisible to humans when he wants to. Old-timer Meacham (Robert Redford) once saw Elliott, but nobody in the logging town of Millhaven really believes that he saw a dragon. His ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) almost comes across Pete in the woods one day, but it is her daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) who finds Pete and befriends him. Pete’s secret cannot stay hidden for much longer though, as logger Gavin (Karl Urban) comes across Elliott and decides to catch himself a dragon… THE VERDICT: ‘Pete’s Dragon’ is one of Disney’s lesser-known films, at least on this side of the pond anyway. The 1977 film now looks quite dated and clunky, so when Disney started digging deep into their back catalogue and remaking them for a 21st Century audience, it was not the most obvious choice. That is, until you have seen this new take, which is still true to the original while keeping it fresh.
‘Pete’s Dragon’ is a curious change of direction for David Lowery, whose previous film was the Terrence Malick-like drama ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’. He describes his new take on the story as a re-imagining rather than a remake, in order to distance his film from the original. It is indeed a re-imagining, which jettisons the songs and slapstick humour for something more modern, measured and relevant. The core of the story is essentially the same: it is a boy and his dog friendship story, except the dog is much bigger, has wings and can breathe fire.
The superb re-design of Elliott as a furry dark green dragon gives him a cuddly aspect, but he can be threatening when attacked. He is a gentle soul though, much like Pete. That makes the audience care, to the point where the two characters seem one and the same. This is beautifully illustrated in a scene of Elliott gazing into an upstairs window, as Grace tells Pete and Natalie a bedtime story. Does Pete really belong with a dragon, or does he belong with his own kind? Or maybe he could have both? The film makes a subtle point about the importance of belonging and being part of a family.
The lack of a central villain / antagonist is a weak point in the story. Gavin is ostensibly set up as the villain, but he is more of an opportunist. Despite good work from the reliable Urban, the character is never really fleshed out – much like Wes Bentley’s father figure, who is also underdeveloped. The two children are excellent though and Redford adds a touch of old-school Hollywood class, raising the acting bar. Shot in stunning, scenic New Zealand locations, the environment is also a character in itself.
While it does have some minor flaws, Pete’s Dragon is undoubtedly a better film than the original. It is a simple story of an unlikely friendship, but one that works well in this shiny new makeover. Disney are certainly on to something with their live action remakes. Maybe they will get around to finally remaking ‘The Black Hole’. As much as this reviewer loves ‘The Black Hole’, the possibilities are now infinite with modern visual effects. Until then, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ should entertain adults and children alike with its tale of boyhood wonder. RATING: 3.5/5 Review by Gareth O’Connor