Disney continues their assault on our wallets, tilling their back catalogue of animated films and characters for live action fodder. So far, their efforts have been successful with Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella scoring big. But how will they do with a remake of 1977’s Pete’s Dragon? Trailer and review after the break.
You know you’re in for a different kind of Disney film when the opening of the film is one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful you’ll see for a while. Pete loses his parents in the opening five minutes in a slowmo shot that has to be seen in on a cinema screen to get the power on display. You know that something bad is about to happen to Pete but you’re held in childlike wonder at the moment. After that, we hear the crying that only an inconsolable child can make and after a brief run into the forest we see the object of Pete’s future affection. It’s quiet, unspoken, full of potential and at the same time tells you just enough to keep you wrapped up in the illusion that there really is a 20 metre long, furry, green dragon in front of you. In a way, this is how the film plays out in a much bigger sense and that is a good thing.
After Pete (Levi Alexander) is orphaned and seeks refuge in the forest with his new green friend, six years pass. Park Ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) is marking trees for saving from her fiance’s logging crew when her prized compass is taken by Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) who, after spotting Grace the same morning, decides to follow her. She doesn’t notice but the next day, Grace’s soon to be husband Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) are visiting the logging site and Natalie spots Pete observing the crew led by Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack’s brother, as they enthusiastically cut into the highlands where they not supposed to cut. After a chase, Grace, Jack, Gavin and Natalie all try and convince Pete that they’re not a threat when Gavin accidently knocks Pete out. When he awakes, he’s in the local town hospital and Grace is arranging to have him live with her, Jack and Natalie until they find out who he is and Elliot, Pete’s green dragon, wakes up to find Pete gone and tries to find out what happened. In the meantime, Grace, with the help of her father (Robert Redford), slowly learns that Pete wasn’t alone in the forest all those years.
The main thing you should know from the film from the get-go is that this is not a film with BIG IDEAS like the earlier Disney remake roster. It has little ideas that grow into bigger plotlines. The film sets two ideas in opposition to each other: that you can live in harmony with Nature, that there are things we have to believe in first before we get to see them or that you can take what you want from nature and the unseen world around you, that you don’t have to believe in bigger things in order to get what you want. It’s a matter of faith that such things as dragons can exist in nature and that the natural world isn’t some faraway place that you should be afraid of. Magic in another form can look like science and vice versa so, in the context of this film, Elliott is a dragon that nature intended to evolve. The other side of the argument comes increasingly from Gavin and his need to find this creature that evades him. The film resolves this fight squarely with Grace and Pete as nature’s defenders and Gavin and his crew as nature’s exploiters.
Bryce Dallas Howard just makes it look easy as she plays Grace, a woman who thinks she’s doing okay in life with her love Jack and their joy Natalie. But as her father reminds her in the film, she’s always found something and then believed in it but can’t do it the other way round. That’s precisely what Eliot is to her: something she has to believe in before she can understand it. Pete is the method which the film uses to prepare the way for Grace. He doesn’t see the world that way other people do. He sees the world the way it is, not the way people make it be. As Grace struggles to get into his mind, he simply smiles and stares back at her, twitching at every sound, tilting his head lopsided at her and hopping from seat to seat as a means to get places in a room. His silences are her speaking moments and they trade this trait over and over in the film. Oakes Fegley takes the other prize for runaway performance as Pete. His performance is so natural that you forget he’s been taught to be that way. If this were Neverland, he’d be Peter Pan. The time he spends with Eliot, it’s literally the recipe book for things to do with your own personal dragon. With the forest (so beautifully lensed by director of photography Bojan Bazelli) as their backdrop, they swoop, dive, careen and happily stroll through the greenery as only two best friends can. The effects work showcasing Eliot (provided by Lord of the Rings maestros, WETA Digital) works perfectly by using the background as a reason for Eliot to be there. I mean, seriously, where else but a dense forest could you hide a five-tonne furry dragon in plain sight? Eliot isn’t just a special effect, he’s a real character within the story and one whose very existence means the world for both those who would love him and those who would exploit him.
The conflict of the film comes from Gavin and his crew, who are not evil people, as they try and solve a riddle (Eliot) that nobody needed an answer to. Like all self-proclaimed experts, they know there’s a problem in the forest but typically, once they find it, they only know that they didn’t make it so that’s reason enough to assume the worst and try and subdue it. (You can’t tell I’m waiting for my copy of The Iron Giant to be released in September, can you?) Once the two children realise that Eliot’s about to be in danger of being brought to “civilisation” for its amusement, they hatch their plan to free Eliot, even if it means that Pete must leave with Eliot to keep him safe from prying eyes. While he and Natalie have bonded as a family while he stayed with her, Grace and Jack, Pete won’t sacrifice his happiness for Eliot’s freedom. In that, Pete lives up to society’s highest ideals in dealing with its worst urges while Gavin pursues a mirror image of the same.
Director David Lowery brings out the very best in his cast, precisely because he’s playing them low key. Bryce Dallas Howard is the mother every child wishes they had. As well as protecting and loving Natalie as her own, she is drawn to the boy who knows nothing but love. She shields him from the town and consoles him in his confusion at the loss of his friend after waking up in town, she keeps him away from social services because she knows he needs to solve whatever mystery lies in the forest, she helps him escape Gavin’s plans and finally, at the cost of her safety and Jack’s, she protects him as the chase to recapture Elliot is on. Wes Bentley barely registers in terms of screen time compared to the two leads but his skill shines through as he and Howard share their time with Natalie and later, Pete, their home for Pete and their concern as Gavin’s plans to find and capture Eliot put everyone in danger. They move with one heart, one thought and only Robert Redford comes close in terms of complete synchronicity with his character with their performance. Redford is the wise old grandfather who himself was changed by something he saw in the forest many years before Grace was born. His advice is always taken with the proviso that what worked for him may not work for others but what is the harm in trying to not make a mess? His scenes with Bryce Dallas Howard both before and after Eliot appears in front of them are real and authentic, their relationship cemented in their concern for each other when events threaten to overwhelm them.
The cinematography by Bazelli and music by Daniel Hart are the other hidden feature to this seemingly bottomless little tale and the landscape while standing in for the US Rockie Mountain forest region (in the fictional town of Milhaven), showcases New Zealand at its finest. There’s a timelessness to soaring over mountains and treelines and then diving into the thick of them during the quiet moments as Pete and Elliot stroll through the stillness. The music comes up at the right moment and goes away at the right moments too for these scenes and the oh-so-important family scenes. The setting of the film in the early 1980’s (yeah, I was happily surprised too) means that you can enjoy the film without trying to explain why the film might not work. Disney probably won’t make any money on this but then, I don’t think that was their plan. If Jungle Book is all about adventure and heart then Pete’s Dragon is all about family and spirit.
Spirited and kind, Pete’s Dragon is the perfect family film that never talks down to its audience
Cinema review. We will update this section with links to Amazon as soon as possible.