After his parents die in a car accident, toddler Pete is raised in the woods by a big friendly dragon. Six years later, their happy existence is upended when people from the local town discover Pete (Oakes Fegley) and try to take him back to civilisation.
Perhaps remembered more with a hazy affection than any kind of passion, 1977’s Pete’s Dragon was second-tier Disney — a mix of live action, animation, horrible acting and humdrum songs. It was a fun idea — a lonely boy makes friends with a dragon — but one that wasn’t properly fleshed out. As such, it’s an ideal target — and a notable point of difference — in Disney’s current sweep of remakes, which has so far given us satisfying live-action updates of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, with Beauty And The Beast still to come. If Disney dares to revisit the classics, then why not also make something good from the mediocre?
Pete’s Dragon is a very loose reworking. There are no songs and the setting is entirely different from the original’s coastal town, as is the young boy’s origin story. The only real similarity is the retention of a dragon and a Pete. In this version, Pete is a young boy whose parents are killed in a car crash while driving through an unnamed woody area in the north-west United States. Pete scuttles weeping into the woods and is almost eaten by wolves, but is instead rescued by a huge, fuzzy green dragon, whom he christens Elliott.
Thanks to Elliott’s ability to turn invisible and an awful lot of trees, the pair live undetected for six years — building an impressive tree house in the meantime — until loggers come a-chopping in their part of the forest and Pete is ‘rescued’ by a kindly ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her family. Separation anxiety and musings on the meaning of family ensue.
David Lowery might seem an odd choice of director for this CGI-heavy children’s movie, his last film being the dusty romantic crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which was far more inclined to visual poetry than swift plot movement. Yet he’s an inspired pick. He gives a lived-in, left-behind weight to the setting. The town doesn’t seem fantastical, but it does feel isolated from society, a place that’s as unseen and out of time as the creature living in its miles of surrounding forest.
Lowery’s handed a slight story that follows obvious beats, but he works hard to make the characters within it sturdy. Take that opening crash scene. Lowery doesn’t shy from its horror, showing the crash fully, in graceful slow-motion, then staying with Pete as he crawls from the site of his parents’ death and into predator-filled woods. It is dark. And it tells you immediately what this child is made of. He also coaxes exemplary work out of Oakes Fegley as the older Pete, who turns in a mature performance beyond his years. As for the dragon, Elliott is not an especially convincing effect on its own, the weird fuzziness of the design making him ideal for plush merchandising but making him appear demonstrably fake on screen. However, when Fegley is playing alongside him he is believably there.
Despite all this good work, Pete’s Dragon is nonetheless still not quite rich enough to sit alongside the Disney classics it’s being remade alongside — it’s still lumbered with no more than a short story’s-worth of plot, which has been stretched to feature length. Still, this version has a lot more fire in its belly than the original.
A cute but not cutesy boy-and-his-dog story, with the dog played by a very big green dragon. Strong performances and direction make the most of a lightweight tale.