The old adage may be that dog is a man’s best friend, but for a boy left lost, alone and frightened in a northern wilderness a kindly, protective dragon makes for an effective substitute. Full of the mythical adventure and magical spirit that allows for kids of all ages to dream, Pete’s Dragon is a welcome reminder of an increasingly antiquated sentiment ebbing away in the real world. Director David Lowery – making a considerable departure from his 2013 crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – revamps the beloved 1977 original, crafting the kind of summer blockbuster which permits audiences young and old to believe the unbelievable.
Wearing its heart and intentions well and truly on its sleeve, Pete’s Dragon is not possessed of the kind of multi-layered, high-minded ideas of the more ambitious recent Disney (and particularly Pixar) endeavours. In the vein of this year’s Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Jungle Book, it instead opts for visual splendour and big, obvious emotional arcs to tell a story that is reassuring but nonetheless engaging in its afternoon matinee familiarity. That’s not to say there are no lessons to be learned and hardships to overcome here. None more so than a car crash in the opening moments: filmed in a spinning slow-mo as his parents’ station wagon flips on its head after narrowly avoiding a deer, a young Pete is wide-eyed in confusion and soon entirely vulnerable in a darkened wood as he escapes the wreckage. The death of his parents is implicit but handled delicately for younger viewers.
An enormous green-winged beast is a good pal to have when menaced by a pack of wolves, and Elliot, whose fur-covered body and big expressive eyes give him a canine-like affability, comes to Pete’s rescue. His ability to vanish into thin air is a pretty handy trick as well, especially later when he must elude greedy hunters. Skip forward six years, and living in the woods has become second nature to a character that could be a not-too-distant cousin of Mowgli, inhabiting North-Western America rather than the jungle. Covered in dirt, hair matted into knots, and dressed in rags, Pete (Oakes Fegley) spends his days running, jumping and flying about the mountainous wilds with his one and only friend. It’s not all fun and games, though, as the pair are tied together by the knowledge of having lost their families. Their remote idyll and contented existence is threatened when a logging company, run by brothers Jack and Gavin (Wes Bentley and Karl Urban), who are good and bad respectively, encroaches ever further into the forest.
Park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the film’s environmental touchpoint, while her father (Robert Redford) is the local nut who claims to have seen the dragon in the flesh — Elliot being the subject of local folklore that some believe and others choose to ignore as hocus. How such a whopping great big, and frequently quite clumsy, dragon remains so elusive is besides the point. Suspension of belief is part of the intrigue and mystery and as events reach a climax you’ll hold your breath and hope for a happy ending. Pete’s Dragon isn’t a classic, and some of the acting is questionable, but being swept up in ninety minutes of mystery, wonderment and easy entertainment is never a bad thing. Especially now.
Words by Matthew Anderson