It’s easy to get frustrated with the plethora of reboots, remakes, and rehashes at the local cineplex these days. But as Disney proved with April’s re-do of The Jungle Book, it’s possible to instead completely (and successfully) re-imagine a film entirely. The Mouse House’s take on Pete’s Dragon follows the same vein, and though it’s not as successful as The Jungle Book, it still goes to show you can tell the same (kinda) story one more time.
Instead of following the path of the goofy 1977 musical starring Mickey Rooney, this Pete’s Dragon ditches the silly sing-song and the mean foster family and offers a much less fairy-tale/fantasy-world story (minus for the whole dragon thing, of course).
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is on a drive with his doting parents when a deer jumps in front of their car. Mom and dad die (off screen), leaving young Pete all alone in the woods, and it’s then that he meets the giant green fuzzy fella that will become his best friend.
Fast forward six years, and Pete has been living a pretty nice Tarzan-like existence, swinging through trees, building a fort, and settling down each night with his pal, now named Elliott. When loggers arrive in his backyard, Pete gets discovered by kindly forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who takes him in. Pete, though, doesn’t do well in civilization and wants nothing more than to get back to his colossal green buddy.
Meanwhile the loggers have made a discovery of their own, coming face-to-face with Elliott. Their leader Gavin (Karl Urban) sees the dragon not only as a threat but a potential money-maker, so he sets a plan in motion to capture him. Disney-fied drama ensues.
The screenplay by director David Lowery and first-timer Toby Halbrooks does a surprisingly effective job of balancing kid-centric fun with more hefty adult-oriented themes. First and foremost Pete’s Dragon is a movie for children (pre-teens will enjoy it most, I reckon), as the suspense is kept at a nice, tolerable level. But there’s plenty for adults to enjoy, too, particularly among those who remember the rather schlocky original version. Sure the bad-guy loggers here are as rote as bad guys can be, but in true Disney fashion everything washes out in the end.
Howard and Redford both turn in solid, amiable performances (particularly Redford, who is no doubt trying to atone for last year’s disastrous A Walk in the Woods), but it’s Fegley who steals the show as young Pete. It’s perhaps the best performance by a young actor since… well, The Jungle Book lad Neel Sethi anchored his film so brilliantly.
Pete’s Dragon won’t win any awards certainly, but that’s not its aim. It’s a nice, friendly, summertime bit of fun, giving kids a break from stressing about back-to-school time. And it’s proof that you actually can revisit an old story and not only improve on it but create a little magic at the same time.
Worth the 3D glasses?
Despite a few swoopy flying sequences, there’s (surprisingly) little going on to justify the added expense. Not worth the extra couple of bucks.