Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley
Released 12th August 2016
Back in 1977, we were introduced to a dragon called Elliott. He had pink fur, came from Disney’s animation studios and starred alongside real singing and dancing people. Now he’s back in the latest Disney live action re-make, but this time he’s covered in green fur and created by CGI. The film, then and now, is ‘Pete’s Dragon’.
By their own standards, Disney have been low key in promoting this one, to the extent that it’s come close to slipping under the radar. It doesn’t have the 21st century feel of its other summer offerings, ‘Finding Dory’ in cinemas and ‘Zootropolis’ on DVD. If anything, its style is closer to the more traditionally minded ‘The BFG’ from Spielberg and it’s being released half way through the summer holidays: it’s a time when most children will have already seen the mandatory blockbusters and will be looking for something else. But will this grab them? And is Disney less than confident of its appeal?
Six years ago Pete (Oakes Fegley) found himself alone in the forest after a car accident and was adopted by a jolly green dragon, who he called Elliott. Since then they’ve had the forest to themselves, but now Pete’s been spotted by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and she tries to bring him back to live with people. But Pete loves his life in the forest with Elliott and when loggers capture the dragon, he has to save his friend. Yet he’s torn in two, because he knows he needs the company of people as well …..
This new version has very little in common with the original. Quite apart from the fact that it’s live action, the only constant is the friendship between the boy and the dragon. The 1977 story was a musical set in the early 20th century and Pete was on the run from some horrible adoptive parents. This time round, the location and timing are much less defined, but logging country in the North West in the late 1970s are safe enough assumptions. So “re-boot” or “re-make” don’t really fit. Its director David Lowery prefers to describe it as a “re-invention” and that’s a lot closer.
Lowery himself is an intriguing choice to direct such an out-and-out family fable. He was behind the indie outlaw ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ (2013) and has already been earmarked by Disney for the live action version of ‘Peter Pan’ – a vote of confidence, if ever there was one. Yet, while he’s done almost a volte face in making this film, the darker, edgy style we saw a few years ago is a definite asset. There are plenty of lump in the throat/smarting eye moments in ‘Pete’s Dragon’ but it never descends into mush.
He’s also given us a different dragon to the ones we’ve become used to in ‘The Hobbit’ or ‘Game Of Thrones’. Elliott is a puppy, so his landing skills aren’t quite what they should be and he doesn’t breathe fire – not yet, at least. For now, the best he can manage is a big sneeze, which means that anybody stood down wind is drenched in dragon snot. Logger Gavin (Karl Urban), who tries to capture him, knows the feeling only too well. But that, along with his green fur and dog-like face, all make Elliott even more appealing.
All the family values you expect from Disney are there and the film is also set in regulation Disneyville. Pete and Elliott have become family for each other: until the little boy arrived, Elliott was the only one of his kind in the forest and was deeply lonely. So when he sees him in the company of humans again, the dragon feels he’s lost his only friend. Cue one of those lump in the throat moments.
So ‘Pete’s Dragon’ has all the warmth and generosity that you’d expect of a Disney family film but, apart from Elliott himself, there’s little else of what today’s children have come to expect on the big screen. A big hug of a film about a boy and his dragon is going to struggle to get their attention, especially when the original version isn’t an icon on the scale of ‘Snow White’ or ‘Cinderella’. There’s plenty to like about it, but it’s more than possible it could just quietly fade away.