Directed by David Lowery
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley
Released on 12th August 2016
This summer’s family films have been very much 21st century offerings, especially where Disney is concerned. Finding Dory in cinemas, Zootropolis on DVD, as well as the high-tecchery of Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond. Only Spielberg’s The BFG harks back to something approaching traditional entertainment and the new arrivals over the next couple of weeks are, surprisingly, more in tune with its approach. Swallows And Amazons arrives on the 19th of the month but, before that, there’s another Disney movie, one that seems to have almost slipped in under the radar. Pete’s Dragon.
The Mouse House have been comparatively low key about this one, by their standards anyway. Yet it’s being released half way through the summer holidays, by which time a lot of children will have already seen Dory at the very least and will be looking for something else. Will this one grab them? Or is it more likely to grab their parents instead?
Five year old Pete (Oakes Fegley) finds himself alone in the forest after a car accident. He’s adopted by jolly green dragon, who he christens Elliott, and they live together in the forest as the boy grows up. Six years later, the boy is spotted by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who tries to bring him back to the world of people. But he hankers after life in the forest with Elliott and when loggers, who are slowly cutting down the forest, capture the dragon, the boy needs to save his friend but also finds he needs the company of humans as well.
The friendship between boy and dragon and the title are about all that remains to link this re-working to the original Pete’s Dragon from 1977. In that, the dragon was animated, the film was a musical set in the early 20th century and Pete was on the run from abusive adoptive parents on the Eastern coast of the USA. This time round, we’re not quite sure about the location, but it’s probably the logging country of the Pacific North West of America. Judging from the lack of computers and mobile phones, and the music coming from the good old fashioned record player, the timing is roughly the late 70s, but it’s up to us to decide. In truth, this isn’t really a re-make or a re-boot. Re-invention is more accurate, and it’s the term that director David Lowery chooses to use about his approach.
Lowery, of course, was the director behind the brooding indie outlaw tale Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). So he’s an intriguing choice by Disney to direct an out-and-out family film and Lowery has made a near-360 degree turn in agreeing to helm it. But the darker, edgier style we saw a few years ago is used to the film’s benefit. It doesn’t get mushy on you: there are plenty of those lump in the throat/smarting eyes moments, but it never descends into goo.
He’s also given us a different dragon to the ones we’ve become used to in the likes of Game Of Thrones or The Hobbit series. For one thing, Elliott is a dragon puppy, so he’s not terribly good at landing and often reminds you of a giant duck landing on ice and skidding to a halt (remember all those Disney wildlife films?). He doesn’t breathe fire either: the best he can manage is a big sneeze, which means that the less than sympathetic logger Gavin (Karl Urban, back on earth after Star Trek Beyond) gets drenched in dragon snot. But all that makes Elliott more endearing and his green fur and labrador-like face all add to it.
The film, of course, is very much geared towards families and it’s set in a regulation Disneyville town, which would probably look a lot different nowadays. The usual Disney family values are there as well. For each other, Pete and Elliott have become family. The only dragon in the forest, Elliott is lonely so Pete is everything to him. But Pete discovers that he needs the company of people, a family of his own, and when Elliott sees the boy with other humans, he feels he’s lost his only friend. Cue lump-in-throat moment. But don’t worry – there’s a happy ending, of course.
So who’s going to want to see the film? By the time it comes out, Dory will still be riding high at the box office but there won’t be much else in the way of competition. That might help its cause. Because it’s the likes of Dory and Star Trek that today’s children will be interested in and this, sadly, is less likely to fire their imagination enough to go and see it. Is it down to their parents to drag them along? The original isn’t a Disney icon, so the chances of them having fond memories of it are low. Unusually for Disney, it’s a film with a very vague audience and its box office takings may well reflect that. Which is a shame, because it’s an eminently loveable film, just like the dragon of the title.
Have Disney they got another Tomorrowland on their hands? In terms of box office takings, it’s more than possible. It doesn’t fit the mould when it comes to 21st century family films, although it isn’t an instance of the studio trying to do something different. But it does run the risk of quietly fading away – rather like the original.
Pete’s Dragon is released in cinemas on Friday, 12 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 11 August.