Disney, having pretty much run the animation aspect of cinema for years on end, have now found another niche in offering live-action remakes of those same films. We’ve enjoyed Cinderella and The Jungle Book, and to the excitement of many, next year will bring us Beauty and the Beast. I doubt that Pete’s Dragon was particularly high on the list of demands, but a live-action remake has now hit the big screen. You may not know the original, but this film is charming – it is full of heart and visually spectacular, with the CGI dragon a particular standout.
Mr Meacham (Robert Redford) is a woodcarver who delights local children with stories of a mysterious dragon he once encountered that lives deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. His forest ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) believes that these are just tall tales, until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley), a 10-year-old orphan who claims that he lives in the woods with a giant, friendly dragon called Elliot. With help from her fiancée’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), Grace sets out to investigate if this fantastic claim can be true. However, they are not the only ones with an interest in the beast, and they must work together to help protect him from a hunter (Karl Urban).
I’m almost sick of typing this now, but I haven’t seen the original film (somewhat shockingly for me – I think it must be about the Disney movie I’m missing). A quick perusal of Wikipedia suggests that this is remake in name only – reading the plot synopsis, however, makes me glad of that fact. This is, in many ways, the quintessential boy and his dog tale (there is also some eco-subtext, but the movie is wise not to dwell too much on it). It just so happens that the dog in this case is a massive green dragon.
There has scarcely been a cuter creature committed to screen than Elliot – the special effects team behind him deserve credit, as the characterisation of the dragon lead to the film’s most impressive performance. He is doglike in manner, caring and loving, able to channel heart (and there is definite heart here – certain moments are almost guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes, and are aided in that by a folk-inspired score by Daniel Hart) but at certain points, also be a physical and scary presence. We’ve all seen films with incredibly ropey-CGI – this is an example of it done well.
Fegley plays well opposite the CGI-beast, with an innocent and feral wonder that really sells the presence of Elliot, and the spirit of his performance is matched by Laurence. The adult characters are a bit under-developed by comparison, but the performances remain strong. Howard spends most of the film being maternal, Urban sells the man eager for a big score (although the direction his character takes at the end is a nice one), and Robert Redford brings grizzled wonder to the table (it goes without saying that he is good because, well, he’s Robert Redford).
The original Pete’s Dragon was hardly an essential Disney classic (as evidenced by the fact that barely anybody seems to have heard of it), and in the run of Disney’s live-action updates, I don’t think this new version is either. However, it is a nice picture, playing it slow and dramatic, with the heart and visual splendour typical of the studio – a true highlight of this summer’s offerings, and one that every member of the family will enjoy.
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard (Grace), Robert Redford (Meacham), Oakes Fegley (Pete), Oona Laurence (Natalie), Wes Bentley (Jack), Karl Urban (Gavin)
Running Time: 102 Mins