Largely dismissed as an artistic and commercial disappointment – despite landing a Best Song Oscar nod for Helen Reddy tearjerker ‘Candle on the Water’ – 1977’s Pete’s Dragon might seem an odd choice to receive a CGI makeover. But not half as odd as the Mouse House handing the directorial reins to David Lowery, the indie darling best known for Malick-esque crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
Yet on closer inspection, connecting tissue can be seen between that 2013 noir and this wholesome tale of an orphaned boy who finds a protector in the form of a giant fur-covered dragon called Elliott. Both radiate a quiet air of homespun Americana, root their storytelling in a pared-down simplicity and make use of dialogue sparingly. Both films take their time, too: an aesthetic decision that, while crucial to Saints, ensures Pete is rather more plodding than a story involving an invisible fire-breathing wyvern really should be, all things considered.
Having lost both his parents in a car crash that simultaneously stranded him in the forest, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has evolved into a feral, loin-clothed tyke not a million miles from The Jungle Book’s Mowgli. (An early sequence in which Pete climbs trees, leaps across branches and takes a ride on his guardian’s back inevitably recalls Jon Favreau’s recent Kipling re-do.)
It’s only a matter of time, of course, before our hero’s existence becomes known to the world – or at least Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kindly park ranger whose rash decision to offer Pete a home soon brings a curious Elliott into her backyard.
For all its faults, Don Chaffey’s original at least had Jim Dale, Shelley Winters and some toe-tapping musical numbers to embellish its slender narrative. Lowery’s version, in contrast, has only Star Trek’s Karl Urban as a logger determined to make Elliott a trophy, the prompt for a Free Willy-style second half in which Howard, Fegley and Robert Redford’s grizzled old-timer seek to spring him from captivity.
A fiery finale on a disintegrating bridge quickens the blood, as does a coda that makes fine use of the flick’s New Zealand locations. The fact that one key player spends much of the last third in a tranquillised slumber, though, is indicative of a yarn whose eagerness to sidestep generic fantasy clichés is likely to inspire a similar listlessness in its target audience. And that’s despite the glee they’ll feel elsewhere seeing Fegley cavort on the roof of a moving school bus.
Those with fond memories of a gentler era of boy-and-his-insert-critter-here heartwarmers are bound to welcome Dragon’s old-fashioned vibe. But it still feels almost perverse to place all of Weta’s hi-tech wizardry at the disposal of a film so stubbornly, studiously lo-fi.