Film review - Pete's Dragon: Disney breathes new life into children's classic
This retelling of the relationship between an orphan and his pet dragon will tug on your nostalgia strings, says our film critic
We critics spend more than enough time berating the current craze for remakes, but credit where credit's due - Pete's Dragon is a rare example of a rehash that outdoes the original. Not that it was too hard in this instance, the original being a harmless but disconcertingly cheesy Disney musical comedy that was released in 1977 but was so old-fashioned it might as well have been made in the 1940s - it starred Mickey Rooney for God's sake. The songs and the cheese have been wisely dispensed with in this leaner, meaner and much more imaginative rethink, which retains only the bare bones of the original story.
The tone here deliberately evokes classic Spielberg: what gave his early children's films more depth and resonance than anyone else's is the fact that they invariably took place against a backdrop of darkness, and adult uncertainties. After all, Elliott from 'E.T.' met the alien shortly after losing his father, and the band of friends in 'The Goonies' were about to lose their homes.
In Pete's Dragon the darkness happens straight away, as a five-year-old boy is travelling with his parents through the forests of America's Pacific Northwest when their car hits a deer and crashes.
Both his parents die instantly, and poor Pete is left alone in the woods, where a pack of wolves quickly surround him. His sixth birthday seems an increasingly remote possibility until a 70-foot-tall dragon emerges from the forest and takes the boy under its wing.
Five years later, Pete has turned into a well-mannered but otherwise feral urchin who shins up trees in a jiffy, wears a loincloth and is a ringer for Mowgli out of 'The Jungle Book'.
His life with Elliott, as he calls the dragon, seems to be one long rural idyll, and in a couple of magnificently choreographed CGI sequences he clings to the creature's back while it soars over mountains and plunges through canyons. But all good things must come to an end, and when loggers begin encroaching on their territory, Pete is spotted by one of the workers' children.
Taken away by a kindly forest ranger called Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), Pete is frantic about the welfare of his 'friend' Elliott, but when he explains what Elliott is no one believes him. No one, that is, except Grace's father, a wise old woodcutter (Robert Redford) who once saw a dragon in the forest himself and recognises it from the boy's description.
He and Grace try to convince everyone that the boy is telling the truth, but shortly they won't need to because Elliott is about to descend on their sleepy town in high dudgeon looking for his captured friend.
Pete's Dragon is a children's film but an extremely good one and, in a summer of relative disappointments at the cinema, stands out as a near classic.
David Lowery's winning drama succeeds by keeping things simple, never being distracted from its core story, and getting the balance between action and sentiment pretty much exactly right.
Good casting helps, too: the excellent and underrated Bryce Dallas Howard gives the film solidity and heart; Oakes Fegley's Pete feels like a real kid rather than a simpering cipher; Robert Redford is a reassuring presence, and provides occasional soulful voice-overs, while a snarling Karl Urban is the nearest this sweet and sensitive film gets to an actual villain, a logger who gets the wrong end of the stick.
The dragon itself is very cleverly designed, unthreatening but never cartoonish, and given a thick coat of inviting green fur rather than scales (slime is never endearing). The CGI is very good indeed, but the economy with which it's used is refreshing, and admirable, and means that effects are never allowed to dominate at the expense of the story.
This tale is very well told, nicely paced and perfectly pitched in a movie that doesn't make the mistake of outstaying its welcome.
And like all the best children's films, it reminds world-weary parents what being a kid actually feels like.
Films coming soon...
David Brent: Life on the Road (Ricky Gervais, Tom Bennett); Lights Out (Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Burke, Maria Bello); Swallows and Amazons (Kelly Macdonald, Rafe Spall, Harry Enfield, Andrew Scott); Viva (Hector Medina, Mark O'Halloran).