I didn’t see that that many movies at the cinema as a wee nipper (I know, boo-ruddy-hoo), but one I did was Pete’s Dragon. Aside from clips, I haven’t revisited it since, and I can fully believe it ain’t all that, reflected through the unflattering rear-view mirror of adulthood. But I was, and am, a fan of the mashup of animation and live action found in the likes of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (but not Space Jam). It seemed to me this remake was going for the least-imaginative route available in fashioning a CGI beastie. One who didn’t even talk, for heaven’s sake; it wouldn’t even be up to the standard of Dragonheart (ahem). Happily, I was wrong, as Pete’s Dragon ’16 is really good.
I hadn’t even taken much notice of the positive reviews. The trailers put me (and possibly the general public too, since Pete very much didn’t make a mint) off, with their feral child and furry dragon. I mean to say, divesting a dragon of his dragonhood via an anodyne redesign and his ability to converse, and so making him little more than an overgrown, devoted hound, seemed like something I’d happily miss. But this is way, way superior to that other kid-makes-friends-with-an-oversized-fellow movie from last summer (Spielberg’s disastrous The BFG). David Lowery’s picture engages in expert button pushing, aided by a thoroughly, upliftingly manipulative Daniel Hart score, but for the most part he succeeds admirably in delivering a movie that feels heartfelt rather than cynical.
Sure, there are elements on the side-lines that don’t fully succeed. Wes Bentley as the eventually adoptive father can’t appear in anything without the air of someone who has something sinister stashed in his wood shed. Bryce Dallas Howard tries to give off mumsy but is trying to give it off too hard (young Pete is too quick to hug her, to validate her desire for uber-mumsiness). And their daughter, Oona Laurence, is one of those kids who looks about eleven going on eighty (I realise now I previously saw her in Southpaw, where she was similarly jarring). As for poor Karl Urban, given the thankless role of logger turned crazed dragon hunter (and brother to Wes), the best I can say is that he serves his cartoonish antagonist purpose.
And he certainly is antagonistic, in a compelling scene where he and his cohorts capture Elliot. It made me realise there aren’t enough of these traditionally structured stories – there seemed to be a lot more around in the ’70s, at any rate – pivoting on the dire straits of the good guys before paying off with ultimate release and triumph.
Or maybe it’s just that Lowery executes it all so well. He isn’t a consciously obtrusive director, but he is stylistically accomplished. Occasionally you become aware of how effective his approach is, such as when the sound drops out to emphasise a moment, but the most “look at me” sequence is actually the opening death of Pete’s parents, sensitively shot so you see nothing of what has befallen them, only the fallout on Pete. At other times a shot – Elliot bound on the back of a trailer, from overhead – is noteworthy, but for the pathos it instils, rather than demanding to be looked at. So too, the effectively-staged climax on the bridge is full of drama and energy.
I was grumbling away to myself for maybe half an hour that not having Elliot talk missed the entire appeal of the original, but Lowery has fashioned a justifiably distinct beast of a movie, where Oakes Fegley, despite that feral look, turns in a tremendously affecting performance as Pete, carrying the picture in a manner that translates entirely naturally (unlike, say, a Haley Joel Osment, of whom you were always very aware of his studied actorly choices and responses).
Robert Redford (he’s effectively playing Mickey Rooney – has it come to this, Bob?) has a lovely role as the grandpa – or should that be grandma? – who saw a dragon years before but wouldn’t relinquish his story, no matter how much he was mocked. And the dragon himself, for all that I don’t think the design is something to shout about (even Elliot’s drawing looks more like a dragon), has genuine soulfulness. Lowery even inserts the occasional bit of knowing humour – the picture is fairly straight shooting, not goofy like the original and certainly devoid of songs – as Elliot sniffs out Pete, arriving at a hospital where a girl announces to her oblivious mum she has seen a monster at the window, and some stunned medics drop their patient off a stretcher.
Pete’s Dragon is simply a supremely satisfying, assured family movie. Yes, it doffs its hat to E.T. a little obviously at times (the symbiotic link, the inevitable rite of passage of saying goodbye – although Lowery opts to soften that particular blow in slightly sugary fashion, and the separation is admittedly part and parcel of the original), but this is exactly the sort of family fare that deserves respect. There’s a strong conservation theme running through it, but never once does Lowery feel the need to grandstand on the subject, respecting (young) viewers enough to allow them to discern what they may for themselves. And, best of all, since it wasn’t a hit, we don’t have to endure the inevitable diminishing returns of an unnecessary cash-in sequel. Who knows, maybe Lowery can even make that elusive, decent live-action Peter Pan. On this evidence, I do believe in Lowery. I do, I do.