Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Isiah Whitlock jr, Marcus Henderson.
Disney seem intent on remaking live action versions of their back catalogue of animated classics, and we’ve had the likes of The Jungle Book, Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella and even Beauty And The Beast undergo this treatment. For the most part they have been very successful and put a new spin on familiar stories. And now we get this live action treatment of the forgettable and lacklustre 1977 film Pete’s Dragon, which offered up a combination of live action and animation and told the story of a boy and his imaginary dragon that came to life. It was substandard fare from Disney, and featured Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney amongst others in the cast, and some saccharine and anachronistic songs.
For a while I have been railing against the plethora of unnecessary remakes that tarnish the original and clutter up our multiplexes, but the 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon is a remake that actually gets it right and improves on the largely forgotten original. This is an endearing and at times moving drama that will appeal to audiences in much the same way as the recent BFG and the classic ET did. It explores universal themes of death, family, friendship, magic and mystery, innocence and innocence lost. This remake not only updates the story and sets it in a contemporary setting, but it also works in some strong environmental messages and even explores the destructive nature of man.
The film begins with five year old Pete (an unaffected and natural performance from relative newcomer Oakes Fegley) on a holiday with his parents. But an accident leaves him stranded in the wilderness outside the picturesque logging town of Millhaven. The orphaned Pete finds himself surrounded by a pack of ravenous wolves. But he is rescued by a big green furry dragon, whom he eventually christens Elliot after the main character in the picture book he was reading. Unlike the cold and scaly fire breathing monsters familiar to audiences through Game Of Thrones or films like Reign Of Fire, this dragon is a lovable creature that looks a lot like Falkor from The Neverending Story. And more like the friendly creatures encountered in the animated family friendly How To Train Your Dragon.
For five years Pete and Elliot survive in the wilderness and a strong bond of friendship develops between the pair. But then the real world intrudes when a logging company begins to tear down the trees and encroaches on their solitude. Pete is found by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, from Jurassic World, etc), a local park ranger who is working to try and protect the forest and its creatures from the loggers. Grace takes Pete home with her and he seems to find a new family with her and her fiance Jack, (Wes Bentley), the head of the logging company, and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Pete tries to adjust to this unfamiliar world with the help of the sympathetic Grace and Natalie. He experiences the best and worst of human behaviour in Millhaven, and his attempts to return to the forest unwittingly draw attention to Elliot.
When the loggers learn of the presence of the dragon they take up arms and try to hunt the creature down, despite Pete’s pleas. Pete and his new friends have to try and find a way to save Elliot from the hunters who are both curious and afraid of the mythical beast. This sets in motion some well orchestrated action sequences and a chase that adds some suspense to the material.
Pete’s Dragon is a change of pace for director David Lowery, whose previous film was the gritty and atmospheric neo noir piece Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Much of the film was shot in New Zealand and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Lone Ranger, etc) captures some stunning scenery and vistas that enrich the material. The computer generated special effects work that creates the mythical dragon here serves the story rather than overwhelms it, and is superbly integrated into the action. And the animators have given Elliot a wonderful personality of his own, and ensured that he is a three dimensional character.
Pete’s Dragon is at least the third film we’ve seen this year featuring a feral child raised in the wilderness, but it is easily one of the best. Fegley (who we saw briefly in the ensemble comedy/drama This Is Where I Leave You, etc) delivers a confident performance here and he brings sensitivity to his role, and he interacts with the CGI effects superbly. There is a genuine rapport and warmth to the relationship that develops between the boy and the dragon, who is both protector and de facto parent.
Lowery draws nice performances from his ensemble supporting cast. Laurence is charismatic, while Howard is also strong and sympathetic. Star Trek‘s Karl Urban is the villain of the piece as Gavin, the frightened logger who leads the hunt for the dragon. Veteran Robert Redford brings a gentle quality and authority to his role as Grace’s kindly and understanding father Mr Meachum, who for years has been entertaining the kids of Millhaven with stories about his early encounter with a green dragon.
Rather than a lifeless imitation of the original, Lowery has made this version of Pete’s Dragon an original and engaging tale about an orphan and his best friend who just happens to be a charismatic and friendly dragon. The only drawback was the unnecessary 3D process which added little to the film itself.