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 (opens in new tab).
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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab)’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.