Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban
Considering the monumental success that Disney has had in the last few years with their current trend of updating their back catalogue, Pete’s Dragon seemed like an odd choice. The original from 1977, and directed by Don Chaffey, was a somewhat meandering, overblown affair, and not one of the mouse house’s finest efforts. However, growing up and watching it as a child, there was always something endearing about an orphaned young boy who befriends a magical green dragon.
Perhaps this is what drew director David Lowery to the project in the first place. Most notable for his astonishing Sundance crime drama, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery – along with the majority of his Bodies team including composer Daniel Hart and co-writer Toby Halbrooks – has brought a more grounded sensibility to the story of Pete and his friendly green dragon. Despite adhering closely to the Disney formula, Lowery and his crew have crafted a superior family film, keeping things grounded and infusing it with his own stylistic sensibilities, placing the film in a romantic, timeless period setting and giving it real heart and warmth. The story begins as the young Pete is left stranded and orphaned in the forest following a tragic accident. He is quickly befriended by a dragon whom he affectionately names Elliot, a name he acquired from his favourite childhood book. Together they live a relatively peaceful and secluded life in the forest for six years until one day, young Pete is discovered by Bryce Dallas Howard’s park ranger and her young soon-to-be-stepdaughter played by Oona Laurence. After being brought back to civilisation, Pete must hurry to save Elliot from Karl Urban’s logger and other townsfolk who are intent of making Elliot the discovery of the century.
The real joy of Pete’s Dragon is the central relationship between Pete and Elliot itself. Without it, the film would be floundering, but from the first moment Elliot enters the screen during an extended prologue, any and all concerns dissipate in an instant. Even though he is essentially working on a larger budget and with a CGI creation, Lowery and his team never once forget that they are dealing with a story about friendship. Yes, the CGI is great, but Lowery is far more interested in bringing up the emotion rather than the spectacle. The magic here is a look, a touch of a child’s hand as it gently graces Elliot’s luscious green fur. It is Elliot and Pete soaring through the sky then bounding about playfully in a watery ravine. It is Pete snuggling up to Elliot in a cave following a trying day. The spectacle on show is human emotion and the power of friendship and family, and the film is all the better for it. How wonderful it is to see a summer blockbuster that doesn’t rely on boundless CGI destruction. And while there is said destruction during the third act, it feels completely earned and never overshadows what went before. It helps that Elliot himself is a masterful creation, emitting more emotion through a single glance than some actors in their whole careers. The camaraderie and warmth that Lowery manage’s to capture through the central relationship is utterly believable and at times overwhelming with emotional heft. All would not be possible without the young Oakes Fegley who, in a cast that features the likes of such capable thespians as Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, is the star that shines brightest. Much like Ruby Barnhill in this year’s The BFG, Fegley’s power is in making us believe.
While the narrative itself is somewhat conventional, falling back on formula with its denouement practically signposted from the get go, Pete’s Dragon is a film difficult to dislike. For, in spite of its faults, the sheer warmth and heart of the film manages to lift it above its conventional formula. It’s a truly wonderful film for the whole family to enjoy.