A monstrous surprise
Clever, heartwarming and effortlessly cool, Disney’s latest remake is comfortably a classic of the studio, writes Donald Clarke
PETE’S DRAGON Directed by David Lowery. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford. PG cert, gen release, 102 min Walt Disney’s unstoppable campaign to remake all its hits as live-action entertainments has – unaccountably early – reached the largely unloved 1977 hybrid Pete’s Dragon. Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks before it, this blend of fleshy actors and bold animation was a shameless attempt to reignite some Mary Poppins magic. It did not succeed.
The film’s relative obscurity permits David Lowery, director of Texan noir Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, to chip and chop to his heart’s content. Working with screenwriter Toby Halbrooks, he has fashioned a film closer in shape to ET than to the Disney film (something highlighted by the retention of the name Elliott for the dragon), but the new Pete’s Dragon has a character very much its own. It is pumped full of comforting weirdness. Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography casts arboreal light across every scene. Most importantly, the picture surges with sincerity. It is clever, but it’s never cleverclever.
We begin with a prologue that immediately risks alienating audiences with its Grimm-level brutality. Like the heroine of Spirited Away, young Pete is being driven to a new home by apparently caring parents. A deer leaps into the road and the car crashes in a graceful slow-motion tumble that leaves the adults dead and Pete abandoned in the forest. Almost immediately, he meets up with the unexpectedly furry dragon of the title.
Six years later, Pete (now played by a confident Oakes Fegley) and Elliot have come to live in harmonic sylvan bliss. This will not stand. Eventually, a lovely forest ranger named Grace Meacham (the lovely Bryce Dallas Howard) finds him and brings him back to meet her equally lovely dad (the equally lovely Robert Redford). Mr Meacham, who narrates in the manner of a 1970s Disney nature film, saw the dragon as a child and is the only person minded to believe Pete’s story.
Among the lesser achievements of this wonderful film – the most welcome surprise of the cinematic year so far – is its accommodation of entry-level hipster aesthetic within a Disney entertainment. Hearing that the director of a grim Sundance hit was about to score a family flick with music by Leonard Cohen, St Vincent and Bonnie Prince Billy, the reasonable punter might shudder at uninvited memories of Spike Jonze’s smug, arrogant Where the Wild Things Are.
There is no such showing-off here. The wistful songs perfectly echo the sharp emotional tug at the film’s centre. The relationship that Pete develops with Elliott – rendered in CGI as a giant, hairy tower of warmth – plays on an under-discussed childhood fantasy: the notion that a non-judgmental pet could also be a responsible guardian.
Generating at least three irresistible big-hanky sobs in the closing half-hour, Pete’s Dragon delivers the emotional punch that The BFG so sorely missed. It’s exciting. It plays fair with its audience. It is a new Disney classic.
Here be magic Oona Laurence and Oakes Fegley in Pete’s Dragon