Of all its extensive archive of animated properties, Pete’s Dragon represents something of a leftfield choice for Disney to reimagine after the fairy-tale big guns of the past few years. Though not without a cult following, Don Chaffey’s 1977 original is hardly viewed as a classic, and so this big budget retelling is a bold move, a strong vote of confidence in both material and a director, David Lowery (2013 Sundance hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), with no proven track record in effects-driven spectacle. The risk has paid off in droves, for the 2016 Pete’s Dragon is a soulful and enchanting film, a rare studio beast whose beautiful visuals and fiercely independent heart will capture the imagination of adults and children alike.
After a tragic accident claims the life of his parents, five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) seeks refuge in a forest. He finds solace and protection with a gentle dragon, whom he names Elliot after a character in his favourite story book. Six years later, an encounter with forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her step-daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) brings him back to the real world, putting Elliot in danger with locals who find it hard to accept what they don’t understand.
From the opening shots, vast expanses of pine forests submerged in icy mist (New Zealand doubling for Pacific North West USA), Pete’s Dragon feels like uncharted territory for Disney. Ostensibly a simple children’s story, Lowery’s sparse script and Bojan Bazelli’s gorgeous cinematography pierce through the mawkishness and over-familiar characters to offer a surprisingly melancholy meditation on loss, grief and friendship. At the core is the titular dragon itself, a great big furry green comfort blanket of a creature (impressively rendered by Weta Digital) that gives the film its soul. Like the mountain forest he inhabits, Elliot is wild and beautiful, and Lowery plays on man’s irrepressible need to tame the natural world as the greatest tragedy of all.
With its gentle folk soundtrack and reflective picture of a small town frozen in time, Pete’s Dragon is steeped in wistful Americana, but Lowery never forgets his target audience. Children will find much to cherish here, from the dragon-led 3D set pieces to Oakes Fegley’s endearingly resourceful Pete. For the adults, Robert Redford, a wily old fox with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, is the understated highlight. For once, a remake that improves upon the original.
Pete’s Dragon is released nationwide on 12th August 2016.
Watch the trailer for Pete’s Dragon here: