1977’s Pete’s Dragon may not be regarded as one of Disney’s classics but it remains fondly remembered by adults of a certain age for whom hazy summer days involved religiously watching Why Don’t You, a rousing evening of Knock Down Ginger and Disney flicks on TV like The Barefoot Executive. Ripe for a remake then the most surprising thing about Pete’s Dragon is that Disney chose indie director David Lowery to helm the sweet but slight tale.
Opening with an upsetting car crash which sees young Pete (Levi Alexander) orphaned and lost in the forest with just his book about a lost puppy named Elliott, we fast forward six years to Robert Redford’s kindly woodcarver Mr Meacham, entertaining some wide-eyed poppets with tales of his encounter with a dragon in the forest surrounding their logging town of Millhaven. Pete, now played with breathless enthusiasm by Oakes Fegley, has been living it up in the forest like an American Mowgli with his best friend Elliott who just happens to be a giant, furry green dragon with the power of invisibility. Living in feral bliss, Pete’s curiosity about other humans is peaked when he spies forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her soon to be step-daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), resulting in an accident which sees Pete taken to town and reintegrated into family life as Grace and Natalie offer him a loving home together with Grace’s lumber company owning fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley). A concerned Elliott risks exposure by looking for his best friend, finding himself hunted by Jack’s unscrupulous brother Gavin (Karl Urban) and his band of goons out to make a buck from capturing the magical beastie.
Lowery manages to create a largely intimate tale amongst the action and wonderful special effects, even having to time to deliver a green message about the environment. The success of the tale lies in its old-fashioned, wholesome slice of Americana with a truly adorable special effect at the heart of the story. The CGI Elliott, like a giant puppy dog, is convincing enough to feel desperately real, the audience rooting for his survival as much (if not more) than Pete’s desire to belong to a family again. The film conjures up memories of E.T. with its otherworldly best friend tale and Fegley helps add to the believability of the situation as the adventure loving Pete. With sweetly committed performances by all it’s easy to become enraptured by the charming cast of characters and only the hardest of hearts will be dry-eyed by movie’s end.
Pete’s Dragon, whilst hardly claiming to be anything new is so resolutely familiar and comforting that it feels automatically classical in its simplicity. Utterly magical family fare from the House of Mouse, Elliot the dragon will enchant children for generations to come.