Screenplay written by: David Lowery and Tony Halbrooks
Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard. Oakes Fegley. Wes Bentley. Karl Urban. Oona Laurence. Robert Redford.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
When you find out that the original Pete’s Dragon was made in 1977 you realise at the same time just how old you are and just how durable the long life version of magic that Disney use really is. This generation are in the cinematic valley of the dreaded remakes feared by original fans of source material. However with regards to children’s classics the results lately have been as joyous and eye catching as a sickeningly happy unicorn, being ridden by the money-counting Mickey Mouse across a sparkling rainbow road. A live action Cinderella was well received and the recent BFG attempt was a sterling effort worthy of existing in it’s own right. Not praise i hand out lightly. This is hallowed ground again though, fan’s of the original Pete’s Dragon becoming as fierce and protective as dragon’s themselves. Crazed maternal dragons attending parent teacher evening. You know, worryingly defensive. And understandably so, Malcolm Marmorstein’s original piece is heart warming, vibrant with musical numbers that stick in your head like glittery brain-glue.
Comparing this new release to the source material is like comparing lovable Elliot to the slightly grouchy and freshly awoken Smaug, it’s an altogether different kind of beast. Gone are the musical numbers and squabbling over recently purchased children…some changes are for the best. I am happy to say though that this movie has heart in abundance, a huge steam powered titan of a heart that could power entire cities with every beat. It is also not the diluted cash-in it could have been. Does it though soar to the heights of the original or does it drag-on too long…dragon too long…i’m sorry.
The premise of this remake finds a five year old Pete in a car accident where both of his parent’s are killed. So you’re typical Disney start, ever since UP Disney and their branches have had it in for parents with ruthless force. And after all the money mum’s and dad’s worldwide fork out into the Disney machine? Ungrateful. Lost in the forest Pete is found by a dragon separated from his family and the two form a bond as they survive together. Years later Pete is discovered by Grace who attempts to bring him back into society. Elliot the dragon tries to save Pete but is hunted by locals led by Karl Urban’s Gavin and Pete tries to save him right back. Hi-jinks and tomfoolery ensue as they so often do.
The story is mostly very sound, it’s not scared to get dark but is carefully to never be scary or overwhelming just moving. The death of Pete’s parent’s is dealt with quickly and off camera with Elliot swooping in swiftly to save Pete and the rapidly breaking hearts of cinema going children. The movie has all the ingredients, multiple heartbreaks throughout with lovable resolve and strength of character to prevail. The first half of the film is the strongest with a couple of genuinely funny moments and sturdy set pieces. The second half begins to weave around like a sleepy motorist and the end is sadly ridiculous. The writer seem to doubt the feel good factor of their own movie and cram all the happiness candy available into our confused mouths. It lacks any subtlety or craft in an otherwise carefully carved out film. It’s also a bit disappointing how Pete’s story is essentially just the Jungle Book crammed into there but Baloo has leveled up and evolved into a Dragon. Pete’s dragon and Jungle Book meshed together…Jumble Book? I’ll keep working on that.
The film isn’t scared to have too many characters, each simple enough that you know them quickly but not so simple as to be boring. The strength of this is also in the cast, Urban is brilliant as the most amiable ‘villain’ in existence and surprisingly complex Gavin. It hints at his brash approach to life and his fear of living in his brother’s shadow but he never aims to kill Elliot or harm Pete. He asks how Pete is when his is injured, tries to protect those around him and is far from the mustache twirling, spell casting villainous morality voids we usually get from Disney. Sadly Gavin has little to no real resolution which is a shame as one of the most interesting characters included. Also it helps that i love Urban and would fight a Dragon with a piece of wet cake if it meant Karl would only smile at me… Robert Redford is another hit as Grace’s dad, the much mocked old man who spins stories of his meeting a dragon years ago. The staple Disney issued elderly adult who reinforces the children’s beliefs, but is amusing, lovable and well played by Redford. Oakes fegley is great as Pete never annoying and mostly convincing in his animalistic movements, he remains endearing throughout as our anchor to this sprawling narrative. Even Grace’s daughter Natalie and husband Wes are well cast and relatable, important to the story in their own right.
The only disappointment is Grace played by Bryce Dallas Howard but through no fault of hers, she is meant to be the maternal connection from the world to Pete as Nora was in the original. Sadly this thread connection is about as strong as a melting cheesestring, it’s done with no foundation or actual character given to Grace. She is meant to be warm and reassuring but lacks any actual warmth, it’s like hugging a smiley lamp post. they could have just put two googly eyes on a mug of cocoa and it could have played the same part. Her one line that mirror’s Pete’s mum seems to win him over which is frustrating, she may as well be called Martha and have a young Bruce Wayne bunk up with them too.
Elliot himself is the key to the locks of people’s stony hearts, if you’ve seen the latest BFG you will surely know how much a well made children’s hero can elevate a film. Elliot would always be a problem to update without unraveling his appeal completely. Gone are his tiny wings but he still flies clumsily, lurching in mid air and using his own face as strategic landing gear often. His voice is not the collection of sing song noises and clicks as before but there is still melody and emotion in his rumblings and reactions. He is not as human and lacks his pink tuft of hair but he has the same affection for Pete and the same awkward charm. His broken tooth and hefty frame, pure desire to help and eyes the size of small planets. He is updated to be more primal though and this is done well, he scene on the bridge showing his fierce power but only defending what he loves when cornered. Fair warning though when Elliot visits Pete at the house or conveys his message to Pete through a children’s book, your tear ducts may get a good flexing.
The ingredients are mostly ranging from fine to good, the music is sweeping and charming like the country setting itself. the Lumineer’s piece is remarkably effective in a complex scene as Pete escapes through the town, it conveys the wonder of what new sights he see’s with the fear and heartbreak of being far from home and not belonging. The lore is surprisingly well thought through with a song to carry on the myth. The script won’t light your mind ablaze with inspiration sparks, but it’s solid with well played characters to make the most of it. More importantly the film is not afraid of magic, it feels like the Disney films of old with Redford using the word multiple times and Elliot not being too hidden but actually effecting and altering the world and people around him. After steaming garbage like the Pacifier or The Tooth Fairy passed off as putrid family entertainment, this feels like the films we used to know. A dip into the pool of a child’s unencumbered imagination. An apologetically wonder-filled festival of charm and feeling. This film would actually be better if the Dragon was something else and it was a new product completely, instead of leaning on the creaking crutch of a much loved story title from the past.
The Verdict: This film is far from perfect but full of feeling and that sounds like the most human, relatable story possible to me. Burdened under the weight of a past title and a need to be loved, this is still a well constructed family treat. It doesn’t manage to be everything it could have, but it does have everything a children’s story should have.