By Thomas Simpson
Walt Disney Pictures returns to live action with a remake of their 1977 children’s film, Pete’s Dragon. Rather than produce a faithful remake, David Lowery’s film is loosely based on the original. The setting is updated from the early 1900s to the 1980s with the musical element dropped entirely in favor of a straightforward dramatic story.
While embarking on a road trip, Pete and his family are involved in a tragic car accident which proves fatal for his parents. Alone in the wilderness, Pete soon finds himself on the menu of a wolf pack, however his savior comes in the form of a large green dragon. Six years have passed and Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the wild with his new friend who he has christened Elliot (vocal effects by John Kassir). His blissful existence is soon thrown into disarray when he is discovered by the local townsfolk including forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard).
The original version of Pete’s Dragon failed to be the commercial and critical hit that Disney hoped it would be. The film endured over the years thanks to its animated character and musical score. The remake doesn’t have the latter, but it does have an instantly memorable dragon who is adorable while magnificently animated. Elliot is stunning to look at with great detail given to producing a realistic looking creature that’s still cute enough for kids to be drawn towards.
The live action cast boasts Howard, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley and Robert Redford. All give decent performances with Urban portraying Gavin, a hunter and the closest the film has to a bad guy. Gavin is selfish to a degree but not a villain by any means. He’s a byproduct of the overly schmaltzy tone that the film suffers. Not that Pete’s Dragon should be a gritty reboot, it’s just that Disney is known for child-friendly villains and Gavin is too pleasant. The absence of a dislikable antagonist makes it more difficult to root for our heroes.
Despite the wonderful production, there is an unmistakable TV movie feel about it. There is a blandness to the second act as the film reaches a plateau of amiability. The absence of threat, no matter how mild, prevents any real sense of adventure building.
Thankfully the third act ups the stakes and our heroes find themselves in enough peril to get behind them. Fegley is great in the role and creates a great chemistry against his animated counterpart. The final set piece showcases some stunning work from the effects team with Lowery ramping up the excitement in the last ten minutes, not forgetting to pluck some heartstrings before the credits role.
Pete’s Dragon is an average entry to Disney’s pantheon of work although it isn’t without its moments. The lull around the mid-part takes some shaking but the exhilarating chase scene towards the end makes for a congenial tale, even if it is missing that spark.
Thomas Simpson is a writer and filmmaker based in Glasgow, U.K. Find him on Twitter: @Simmy41.