Director: David Lowery
Screenplay: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford
Runtime: 102 Minutes
Disney’s efforts in recent years have focused on remaking or reimagining their back catalogue of classics for a new generation. For the most part, these have been moderately respectable efforts, mainly resting on the goodwill left over from the successes of the original productions. But where the real challenge has lied has been in re-examining some of their past failures or lesser labours, for instance, 1985's divisive The Black Cauldron, which may hopefully be making a return in the future.
To wit, their latest picture is a ground-up rebuild of their 1977 musical dud Pete’s Dragon. While remembered somewhat fondly by those who may have grown up with it, the film itself has aged terribly and is a pretty forgettable experience that the studio has maligned right alongside Song of the South. How genuinely uplifting and surprising then that this remake is anything but that; a return to the most humble roots of family and children’s filmmaking that feels as timeless as it's non-nostalgic 80's period setting.
Much of the success of this Pete's reimagining derives from the incredible efforts of Film Festival darling David Lowery. Initially an unusual choice for a rather dramatic and lower key director to be thrown into the barracks of a wide appeal blockbuster, it’s nonetheless his lightness of touch in the character department that really brings the property into a new light. The amount of reserve that he allows the film gives it the breathing room to grow at its own pace into the voyage that it eventually becomes. Much of the first act is spent introducing the various characters and their relationships before their worlds collide at the meeting of the young Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his remarkable dragon.
Not shying away from darkness, the film opens with the tragic demise of the young Pete’s parents, and his journey into the deep dark woods where he stumbles upon something unimaginable and unbelievable to anyone but a child as young as he is. The relationship that’s found in the two is as real as that of anyone who’s ever loved a pet or animal so intensely, a bond so unshakable and human in its presentation that immense kudos has to be given to the effects department for rendering Elliot the dragon so beautifully. His clumsy, dog-like qualities are believable as he stumbles his way through the densely packed woods, even flying a little too lopsided for his weight to handle.
Young Oakes Fegley performing as Pete is a wonderful discovery who gets across the anguish of their separation – as well as his lashing out in confusion at the outside world – with staggering command. The performances from the entire cast are just as commendable and involving, even when at times they come across less like ‘characters’ and more like players of specific roles. Bryce Dallas Howard is a great foil to Pete as the forest ranger who longs for a life like he has lived, and the young Oona Laurence as her and Wes Bentley’s daughter continues to show incredible skill after she stole last year’s Southpaw from underneath its leads noses. Robert Redford’s grandfatherly role is well pitched if a little underused until the third act, while Karl Urban makes the most of a slightly malnourished antagonistic hunter who is determined to capture the creature.
There isn’t an awful lot to make of its content beyond what already exists in its stringing sense of emotion and storybook method of storytelling. There are plenty of allusions to wider themes involving deforestation and natural preservation, but this film isn’t really about these things and would rather move along happily and unhindered by their presence too much. What is on show is some impressive technical filmmaking and natural visuals that evoke more than words even need to – not to speak ill of its decent and charismatic screenplay. The subtlest of touches - such as Pete preferring to sleep in a ball on the floor than on a bed - are just examples of the lengths to which Lowery has gone to afford this piece such an effortless sense of charm and temperament.
Pete's Dragon may not be the biggest nor loudest of films, but it is a modest one that wants to tell a story in as efficient a way as it can. It’s filled with authentic heart and sentiment without feeling strained – and in fact serves as a better Spielberg film than the actual Spielberg film released this year, something that its Amblin style and tone appear to follow. It’s a surprising and rather excellent climax for a summer season of otherwise faltering blockbusters and critical duds.