Nobody was asking for a remake of Pete’s Dragon. The singularly peculiar live-action/animation musical from 1977 has aged with a ‘you had to be there’ quality and hasn’t gained many new fans since.
Perhaps that’s why the 2016 version didn’t make as much of a box-office dent as many of its stablemates, from Alice In Wonderland to Aladdin to The Lion King. But for my money, it’s far and away the best of the crop of Disney’s redos.
It helps that co-writer/director David Lowery departs almost entirely from the source; he crafts something much more timeless. Set in a non-specific period (the 1980s, or thereabouts) in a nameless logging town in the Pacific Northwest, the movie feels almost as fantastical as the furry fire-breather itself.
Lowery calls the film “surprisingly personal”, and it doesn’t feel out of place in a filmography that includes Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) and The Old Man & The Gun (2018). That he was able to make something this intimate and folksy within the studio system is remarkable.
It’s as low-key as possible for a film that features a 21-foot-tall, emerald-green, mythical beast. The nostalgia buttons hit are very different to those normally targeted: rather than striking predetermined beats with glossier visuals, Pete’s Dragon harks back to a type of family-friendly storytelling that favours emotion over set-pieces.
Dealing with big themes through a child’s eyes, the film moves at an unhurried pace while giving ample screentime to its main attraction. The decision to make Elliot fluffy was not uncontroversial, but it gives him a warmth and naturalism that’s totally in step with this story. While his wide eyes and expressive nostrils don’t lack for feeling, Elliot retains a believably organic quality.
Also, Oakes Fegley is great as the Tarzan-like kid readapting to civilised life, while Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley and Karl Urban all nail the required tone. Plus, Robert Redford turns on the late-career charm, as winningly craggy as the woodcarvings his character whips up.
No doubt about it, Pete’s Dragon escapes the subgenre to stand alone on its own four feet as a cracking film in its own right, besting its higher-grossing counterparts. Or is it just me?
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