PETE’S DRAGON – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), Oakes Fegley (This Is Where I Leave You), Wes Bentley (American Beauty), Karl Urban (Dredd), Oona Lawrence (Southpaw), Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Director: David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints)

Writers: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 12 August (US, UK)

Of all the remakes Disney has been doing lately, tackling Pete’s Dragon seems like an odd choice. It’s a movie most of us remember but very few of us do so with much fondness; to most of us, it’s “that silly movie with the cartoon dragon”. Handing the helming duties to indie director David Lowery is an even stranger move, but on further thought it begins to make sense. Some have criticized the Disney remakes, including myself, for needlessly changing and expanding upon a movie that was already perfect. Maybe by remaking one of their less fondly remembered films, they can update it and, dare I say it, improve on the original?

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In terms of plot, the similarities between the original Pete’s Dragon and this new version end with the basic set-up: a boy and his invisible dragon friend in a small American town. From there, the film takes on an identity that could be best described as a mix of Tarzan, How to Train Your Dragon and King Kong. The story isn’t anything too special, featuring typical elements like Pete misunderstanding society or the angry hunters thinking the dragon is a dangerous monster, but it manages to remain fresh thanks to the surprising blend of Lowery’s independent style, the tone and pacing of an 80s Spielberg movie, and the irresistible heart of a traditional Disney movie. It definitely feels like a much smaller movie than its brethren, but its size perfectly suits the nature of the story. It doesn’t exactly offer anything you can’t find anywhere else, but it’s a heart-warming tale nonetheless and it’s that emotional drive that keeps the movie consistently engaging.

The cast of Pete’s Dragon contains a strong mix of talent but the material they’re given is far more variable. Oakes Fegley definitely gives a strong performance as Pete himself, portraying the wild boy with the right amount of subtlety. He’s less of a feral monster and more like someone whose understanding of modern life stopped at the age of five; he’s confused, but he’s not stupid. Bryce Dallas Howard delivers a suitably sweet performance as park ranger Grace, and Robert Redford brings a lot of gravitas to the film as Grace’s father; the scene where he recounts his original encounter with Elliot years ago is simple but beautiful. Wes Bentley feels a little useless as Grace’s fiancé, adding little to the story that couldn’t be accomplished by anyone else, but the real sore spot is Karl Urban as antagonist and Bentley’s brother Gavin. His performance isn’t bad and he at least has redeeming qualities, but his motivations seem to change at a moment’s notice. At first he simply wants to protect the town from what he assumes is a dangerous creature, but then he suddenly wants to capture it for exhibition purposes and to get out of his brother’s shadow; this desire had never been brought up before, nor does it play into the story ever again. At some points, even he seems confused about what he actually wants, and as a threat that quickly becomes lame and uncompelling. But the real star of the movie is Elliot himself, who’s depicted her as more of a giant winged canine than a reptilian beast. He doesn’t talk, instead communicating through his eyes and grunts, creating a creature that is believable and very quickly endearing.

Just as impressive as the character of Elliot himself is the CGI used to create him which, whilst never fully photorealistic in the same way The Jungle Book is, is more than convincing enough that you forget it’s an effect promptly. The design of the dragon is fun too, with his furry coat adding to his cuteness and his invisibility rendered more as a natural ability rather than anything magical. Though set in rural America, the film was shot in New Zealand and at times obviously so, but it certainly adds to the picturesque beauty of the production and the sweeping cinematography captures it all excellently. The film’s music definitely gives the movie more of an indie feel in both Daniel Hart’s score and the use of a lot of country music, but it’s a stylistic choice that suits the movie’s more grounded ambience.

Pete’s Dragon definitely sets itself apart from the original by going adapting the premise into something more grounded, but at the same time it doesn’t do much to stand apart from other family films with similar plots. It’s a well executed version of a classic story that combines indie sensibilities with blockbuster value that at the very least gives the film some unique flavouring, but it’s the traditional elements of the film that too often hold it back from greatness. It’s definitely better than some of Disney’s other reimaginings, but The Jungle Book told a very similar story to this much better and I’m sure by the end of this slate of reboots Pete’s Dragon will end up somewhere in the middle of the pack. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be fondly remembered as “that remake of the silly movie with the cartoon dragon”.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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