Disney is on a roll this year – following the billion dollar box office success of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, their second dip into their back catalogue this year is another belter. Loosely based on the 1977 film of the same name, Pete’s Dragon is more independent from its inspiration than any remake for many a year.
There are those who look back fondly on the original, a live action/cel animation hybrid in which Mickey Rooney and Jim Dale gurned at a delightful cartoon dragon, but it’s hard to say that it stands up to the likes of similarly designed films like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs & Broomsticks. Nearly four decades on, the most unlikely of directors, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has taken a trifle and stirred up a moving and majestic remake, transplanting the action from the 1900s to the early 1980s and from the seaside village of Passamaquoddy to the Pacific North-Western logging community of Millhaven.
The film sets out its stall from the opening sequence, an emotional tour de force that puts a devastating spin on the traditional Disney unfortunate event, and tips Pete (Oakes Fegley) into the forest outside of Millhaven, all alone. As wolves encircle him, he’s rescued by a giant furry green dragon, who he promptly befriends and names Elliott, after the lost puppy in his favourite book.
Six years later, Pete stumbles into the path of loggers who are cutting into their forest home and is taken back to civilisation by kindly park ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard). Grace is a born sceptic and once she finds out who Pete is from an old missing persons report, she can’t fathom how he has survived all alone. Meanwhile, Elliot risks discovery as he desperately tries to reunite with his pal, as Grace’s brother-in-law Gavin (Karl Urban) tries to convince the community of the dragon’s existence.
Some reviews have noted the ‘Spielbergian’ quality of Lowery’s film, which has come to be shorthand for nostalgia-fests like Super 8 or Netflix’s Stranger Things, but here refers to the film’s spectacular emotional scope. It’s nostalgic not for the 1980s setting or pop culture, although certain technical aspects do recall the best of Spielberg – cinematographer Bojan Bazelli convincingly evokes Anytown, USA with the way he shoots the gorgeous New Zealand locations and Daniel Hart’s skin-prickling score could as easily be laid over anything from E.T. to Jurassic Park.
Instead, it recalls the childhood awe that we all lose as we get older. Despite a historical setting that most any other film would lean on heavily, the result feels timeless. In fact, it’s so surprisingly personal that it feels a little unfair to the director to compare it to anything else.
While some filmmakers have gone straight from Sundance darlings to studio tentpoles and faltered, this firmly establishes David Lowery as a force to be reckoned with in the future. Lowery goes even further than Favreau did with The Jungle Book in making a film that stands apart from the original. The story of his script (co-written with fellow Sundance alum Toby Halbrooks) is all new and it’s tonally a world apart from the 1977 film.
For starters, counter to the pantomime villainy of Dale’s Dr. Terminus in the original, this is another of those recent films that manages to rise above a straight-up antagonist, although Urban’s blinkered logger is as close as we get. He’s more over-zealous than malicious and isn’t really fleshed out any more than that, but Urban more than makes up for any of his character’s shortcomings in his ability to gamely take a gunging when the dragon sneezes on him.
What the protagonists have to contend with instead is an underlying sadness that mostly goes unspoken, but is keenly felt nonetheless and is given a full cathartic workout by the time the credits roll. Fegley makes a headstrong lead, but it’s clear that Pete’s return from the wilderness comes with no small amount of emotional turmoil, especially without his pet.
There to comfort him is Howard, who brings enormous warmth to Grace, a character who lost her mother at an early age and steps up without even thinking about it when she encounters the orphaned Pete. Her arc isn’t anything like as simple as her early cynicism would suggest, and along with her husband Jack (Wes Bentley) and step-daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence, who was so good in last year’s Southpaw), she gently coaxes Pete back to reality.
But even if magic is of the least concern in Millhaven, it still exists and its crossover into the community that Lowery establishes is wondrous. This film’s Elliott is at once more cuddly and more characterful than his cartoon counterpart, seemingly designed for Disney Store plushies but also as expressive as any CG character that isn’t played by an actor with dots all over them.
Even if it weren’t as successful in every other regard, it’s Robert Redford, who has never been more twinkly than he is as Grace’s storytelling father, who really sells the modern conceit. Undoubtedly Lowery’s Sundance connection was a factor in casting him, but Redford is the highlight here, enjoying himself immensely as a woodworker who has regaled kids with stories of dragons for decades and seems genuinely delighted by the emergence of Elliott.
We’ve covered the Steven Spielberg of it all, but like his version of The BFG, you find yourself wondering why Disney have thrown Pete’s Dragon into the bloodbath of this packed blockbuster season. It isn’t quite as gentle and laidback as The BFG, but we feel like this would have been a massive hit if they’d only held it back until October half-term, out of the way of the crush of event movies that have been piled into cinemas in the last few months.
It certainly deserves to be – Pete’s Dragon is far and away the best of Disney’s recent remakes. Counter to over-designed revisionist takes of films like Maleficent and Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, Lowery offers an imaginatively low-key spin on a more minor property, bolstered by a strong script and an exceptionally talented cast and crew. It might not find its audience in cinemas in a summer as crammed as this one, but once it does, it ought to stand out as one of the very best and most emotionally rewarding family films of the year.
Pete’s Dragon is in UK cinemas now.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.