For what’s been a disappointing season of summer blockbusters, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is the perfect remedy against the trolls, the sexism and general negativity that has tinged the last few months worth of films. So refreshing is it to see a picture that’s devoid of any cynicism or controversy, it’s a glowing beam of warm sunlight that’s somehow managed to break through the mass of grey clouds that have hung over the cinema for what feels like quite some time. That in itself is worth the price of admission, but the fact that Pete’s Dragon is also really quite good makes it all the more easier to recommend.
Of all the reboots and remakes that we’ve seen grace our screens of late, a reworking of Pete’s Dragon makes perfect sense. One of Disney’s most obscure past-features, the pressure to deliver something familiar to a devoted audience must have been considerably less than this year’s live-action telling of The Jungle Book. The result is a studio film which has a sense of freedom about it; a freedom which affords writer and director, David Lowery, the opportunity to move away from the broad strokes of the 1977 original, in favour of something much more poignant and refined.
The two films, in truth, share very little in common in ways of tone and plot. Colourful musical numbers are replaced here with the strings of acoustic guitar and folk music; a hand-drawn dragon replaced with the state-of-the-art, computer-generated dragon, complete with fully realised fur and canine features; the camp, overacting of the original’s cast is replaced with what feel like real people, and there isn’t even a hillbilly in sight during the course of the film. However, whilst all of the above may leave fans of the source material up in arms, if you manage to look through this much-needed modernisation of Pete’s Dragon, you’ll see that the two essentially share the same messages about friendship, family and love – it’s just this version does a better job of putting those messages across.
In this version, Pete remains an orphan, but one who has spent the last six-years living in the woods, Tarzan-style, with a giant green dragon named Elliott. As logging brings people to previously untouched parts of the expansive forest, Pete ends up separated from his best friend and in the family home of the local forest ranger, Grace Meacham. Somewhat torn between his familial bond with Elliott and a human bond with the Meacham family, Pete has to rush to save his dragon after a group go on the hunt of the legendary dragon.
The plot really is that simple and does tread on the same ground that has been touched upon time and time again. But, when the storytelling is handled quite so brilliantly as it is here, the lack of originality never even enters your mind for being so enthralled in the characters and emotion of the piece. Lowery deserves a lot of credit for this, having lovingly crafted a magical family film with a hint of melancholy.
Whether it’s the film’s opening moments in which the camera focuses on Pete during a car crash, in which he spins through the air completely oblivious to the oncoming consequences, or a sequence midway through where Pete escapes hospital and experiences the “real world” for the first time – a sequence which reminded me, bizarrely, of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room – Lowery brings with him a style that feels altogether grounded and fantastical; a combination which is perfect for this story.
Helping things in front of the camera are a talented bunch of actors that range from the oldies (a brilliantly cast Robert Redford) to the not-so-oldies (Bryce Dallas Howard, this time wearing sensible shoes, and Karl Urban play their respective roles well) and the fresh-faced newcomers (Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence put in two very charming, scene-stealing performances).
Like with most Disney, there’s something incredibly comforting and familiar about Pete’s Dragon. Nice may be a lazy word, but that’s exactly what the film is. A nice, safe, cinematic treat that’s perfect for the entire family. It’s wonderfully wholesome, old-fashioned storytelling that will leave you with a tear in your eye and a grin on your face. And that’s something we could all probably do with right about now.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com