Pete's Dragon

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Pete's Dragon
"The candy-coloured elements of the 1977 original have gone but, perhaps inevitably for Disney, traces of sticky sentiment remain in this otherwise enjoyably earthy re-imagining."

The candy-coloured elements of the 1977 original have gone but, perhaps inevitably for Disney, traces of sticky sentiment remain in this otherwise enjoyably earthy re-imagining of Pete's Dragon. Director David Lowery is best known for his critically well-received outlaw drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints, but this film has more in common with his imaginative feature debut St Nick, about two resourceful children living 'wild'. Pete (Oakes Fegley) would have liked those two, because he knows what it's like to be alone in the woods. Well, perhaps not quite alone...

Pete, you see, was unlucky and lucky at the same time. Unlucky, in that the car he was going on an 'adventure' with his parents in hit a deer and left him an orphan, but lucky in that he acquired a larger than life friend that day - a dragon he names Elliot. His new friend looks as though he might have evolved from the moss and ferns on the forest floor, sporting a thick green coat of fur rather than shiny scales, a cute snaggletooth and a leathery set of wings. Lowery doesn't explain how the pair of them cope when Pete first arrives, age five, he just shows us how they play together and have a mutual understanding - Pete talking and Elliot responding in a low, comforting rumble - like so much in the film, we don't need to see the magic to know that it is there.

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Which is not to say Elliot doesn't have a trick or two up his nostrils, including a good line in flying, if not landing, and the ability to 'disappear' into thin air, unless you're looking very carefully for him. Six years later, and the town of Millhaven is encroaching on the big woods where the pair of them live, courtesy of a logging firm run by Gavin (Keith Urban) and his widower brother Jack (Wes Bentley). Jack's girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a forest ranger whose dad (Robert Redford, who also looks these days as though he evolved from a forest oak) swore he once saw a dragon.

When Grace's path crosses that of Pete, she takes him back to town, where he embarks on a tentative friendship with Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) but Elliot's almost simultaneous encounter with Gavin is not so happy, setting in motion conflict that will lead to an inevitable showdown. As fans of Lowery's other films might expect, Pete's Dragon is better in its quieter, more observational moments. It is there that the lush greens of the forest evoke a sense of adventure in the young and a warm nostalgic thrum in adults, with even those who don't remember childhood woodland walks likely to find themselves wistful for them. These are also the moments where more complex emotions, such as being torn between two sets of friends and possibilities, lie - far removed from the heavier tear-jerking scenes that the Disney arc ultimately demands.

Less is more, but we get more anyway, complete with fire and mayhem. The special effects lack special underpinning because Gavin is not a bad guy in the old style, just a morally weak - hardly anything to get riled up about or frightened of. This, coupled with the fact that Elliot is far too soft and not nearly moody enough for this sort of showdown makes these 'fight' scenes feel as though they just barged in from another film.

Still, once Lowery and his co-writer (and long-time collaborator) Toby Holbrooks' contractual obligation to action scenes is complete, they manage to craftily return to the magic in miniature, a place where imagination can soar as high as a dragon in flight.

Reviewed on: 31 Jul 2016
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An orphan boy befriends a dragon.
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Read more Pete's Dragon reviews:

Susanna Krawczyk ****

Director: David Lowery

Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks, Malcolm Marmorstein, Seton I Miller, SS Field

Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs

Year: 2016

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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