Pete's Dragon review

GamesRadar+ Verdict

For all its charm and anti-blockbuster mentality, there is no getting away from the fact that this Pete’s draggin’.

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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.

More info

DirectorDavid Lowery
StarringBryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Karl Urban, Oakes Fegley
Theatrical releaseAugust 12, 2016
Available platformsMovie
Freelance Writer

Neil Smith is a freelance film critic who has written for several publications, including Total Film. His bylines can be found at the BBC, Film 4 Independent, Uncut Magazine, SFX Magazine, Heat Magazine, Popcorn, and more.