Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

When I included this in my list of monthly picks for August, I said that if there were a Disney film that was due for a reboot, it was this one and I stick by that, although the 1977 original will be beloved by fans for ages to come, its style was one that could do with an update. Said update featuring a much changed Elliot, from the brightly coloured and overly excitable version to something more akin to what we are led to believe a dragon would look like, except furrier. Newcomer Oakes Fegely (Fort Bliss, This is Where I Leave You) takes on the role of Pete, with Bryce Dallas Howard as our friendly neighbourhood park ranger and Oona Laurence (Southpaw, Bad Moms) as her step-daughter Natalie. Also starring: Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Wes Bentley and Robert Redford. When a car accident causes Pete to orphaned in the middle of the forest, he’s left to fend for himself but befriends a dragon whom he names Elliot and the two live for years by themselves until a chance encounter brings Pete back to the wider world.

Child actors are of course judged by a different standard than adults but nevertheless the two in focus, Fegely and Laurence do a fantastic job, at no point does the emotion feel wooden or fake, it makes you want to protect Pete and let him live out his life happily with his best friend/dragon; and though Laurence doesn’t have to do as much, she’s plenty believable. Howard is the character that adult audiences will connect with, she’s charming as always, nice as you could possibly imagine and an almost impossibly good person but in a non-irritating fashion. Redford doesn’t have an overbearing presence here, he’s a heavy hitter but this feels like more of a vacation compared to some of his recent work, nonetheless he’s pleasing as the grandfather figure with a romantic mind and an ability to believe in the unbelievable that usually escapes a person by adolescence. The let downs are Bentley and Urban, the former just simply doesn’t have a place here, he’s easily remove-able and only adds for the outdated position of a male partner attempting to protect his female other half, whereas Urban is simply doing his best tough American man impression, pushing even harder on the accent than with Star Trek. As Urban’s character progresses, he reveals himself as the bad guy in a rather uneventful manner that will leave audiences apathetic to him, it’s not convincing enough to incite hatred toward the character which would be incredibly useful, and generally creates little reaction.

The film is a real departure from the ’77 original, stepping away from the more light-hearted and musically inclined for something more meaningful and heartfelt. As a story it is overly simple, Pete is left in the forest, finds Elliot and then when people find out, they want to save Pete and capture the dragon, it only goes so far but the film doesn’t suffer because of it, it simply injects more emotion and connection in place of a more complicated plot. Admittedly, even I was unsure about the creation of Elliot with modern technology and making something not one iota similar visually to the original, but if anything he’s more likeable, despite appearing much more capable of causing damage, the animation of him has still captured a great deal of emotion and if anything instills an even stronger bond between our young lead and his best friend. The heavily featured forest is a wonderful choice, visually adding a huge amount to the film and being a fantastic moral of respecting nature and taking things back to a simpler time, that will have audiences eager to get out into the fresh air.

There’s certainly a huge basis in sentimentality for this film, but it manages to refrain from coming across as heavy-handed and instead gives real emotion to audiences. It will tug at your heartstrings and even draw out a tear or two, and it’s received far too little buzz for the wonderful film that it is, with a sincere heart of gold. When director David Lowery came onboard he seemed like an unusual choice, with his previous film being Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (reviewed here: https://filmcarnage.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/review-aint-them-bodies/) but he has proved himself to be a perfect fit and poised for his next project, a live-action adaptation of Peter Pan. As far as Disney reboots go, this should be at the top of the list, it has taken a film that is treasured by many and transformed it into something modern, while taking nothing away from the original, simply creating another Pete and Elliot for audiences of all ages to enjoy.

Verdict: 8/10

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