There’s a good reason Disney’s semi-animated 1977 musical Pete’s Dragon was never high on the list of potential remakes. Well, several. The first and foremost being it is less a minor hit on the Big Mouse’s slate than an execrable, make-it-stop misfire: something to wash off the company’s CV with the proverbial high-power hose.
Stilted performances, a storyline padded out with forgettable songs and the overarching aura of a two-bit stage show makes the film borderline unwatchable these days. Assuming – and that’s a big assumption – it played any better at the time of release.
Remaking great productions is an arduous, perhaps thankless task: just ask Gus van Sant about his shot-by-shot rehash of Psycho. In that sense Pete’s Dragon was ripe a rebrand. Fans of the original who care about a side-by-side comparison are surely in short supply, but the news is nevertheless positive. An infinitely better (and largely in-name-only) reboot has been sculpted from Pete’s ashes.
Screenwriters David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks borrow from The Jungle Book, Godzilla, The Iron Giant and a chest of other old-timey tales for a yarn about the titular young boy and his best and only friend, a green dragon. In the opening reel five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is in a car accident that wipes out his parents. After he stumbles into the woods he is taken under the wing – literally and otherwise – of a dragon he names Elliott, in reference to a children’s book in his possession.
In the 1977 version the dragon’s ability to turn invisible felt like a ploy to skimp on special effects, which weren’t good anyway (even for the period). Here, digital wizardry lends some textile realism to a story about something magical hiding out on the peripheries of society. Elliott evades being seen using a chameleon-like ability to camouflage himself; essentially able to disappear into his surroundings.
After a few years hanging out with wildlife, Pete is discovered by a kind ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). By this point he is Mowgli-ified and bears some resemblance to The Feral Kid from The Road Warrior. The question is naturally asked about who this fellow he keeps mentioning named Elliott is. If you factor in local loggers with guns and bad attitudes, it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see where this might be headed.
Director David Lowery and his animators avoid in Elliott-the-Happy-Meal bathtub toy/ How to Train Your Dragon aesthetic, giving him an appearance that doesn’t instantly suggest focus group-driven merchandise sales. He looks like he could be threatening, meaning the behaviour of the people out to get him becomes more than cut-rate cartoon villainy. Also, and importantly, Elliott’s temperament is defined by his actions. Thus a scene front-loaded in the narrative, casting him in a benevolent light: the moment he takes pity on the poor suddenly orphan boy.
With a mission to create pure and classical sense of wonder, Lowery directs in completely unselfconscious style. He’s not interested in considering the film as something that belongs to a wider canon. This is reflected in Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography, which is often low-lit with a mist-rising-through-trees feel about it.
The director approaches the material pretending this kind of movie has never been made before. The reality of course is different: it’s something we’ve seen again and again, sometimes with only minor permutations.
You could interpret that as a criticism of Pete’s Dragon, or recognition there’s something special about its narrative ingredients that continue to resonate. This time around it comes with an added benefit: there are no crummy special effects and no cat-strangling songs.