The feels. Warm, magical feels. That’s what the audience is left with when the credits roll after Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. The film is a remake of Disney’s 1977 live action/animation musical I’d never heard of. The 70s version is set in the early 20th century. The 2016 one is set in the 1980s, when a small boy of around four or five, Pete, is orphaned. He’s sitting on the backseat of the car his parents are driving in, reading his favorite book, Elliot Gets Lost, about a dog who has to try find his way home. The car flips over when Pete’s father tries to avoid a deer. Both Pete’s parents are killed, and the teary little boy bravely packs his backpack, and his book, and makes off into the woods [what is up with Disney killing off parents? Bambi, Jungle Book, Frozen, Snow White, The Lion King… you get my point].
Just as a pack of wolves closes in on him, he’s rescued by a big, green, winged, furry creature. “Are you going to eat me?” Pete asks. The dragon’s eyes widen and he protectively takes the boy into his paw. Fast forward six years and a bigger Pete (Oakes Fegley) and the dragon, who Pete has named Elliot, run through the forest, playing, having fun. Elliot has become Pete’s best friend and protector. It’s a mirror of the “boy and his dog” story, except in this one, the dog is a dragon who acts quite dog-like: sniffing, pulling back his ears, wagging his tail and curling up into a ball when he sleeps, with Pete right next him. Unlike a dog, Elliot is magical. He becomes invisible while playing hide-and-seek, and catches Pete when the latter jumps off a cliff like mini-skydiver.
But Pete and Elliot’s harmonious friendship is challenged when forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) stumbles upon the dirty, loinclothed Pete. Grace takes the boy to a hospital and then to her home, where she tries to establish his identity. When Pete claims that he’s been taken care of by a dragon, Grace asks her father, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), to help. Daddy Meacham has for years entertained children by telling a tale of how he came across a dragon in the forest decades ago. Grace no longer dismisses this as fanciful. The Meachams, along with Grace’s fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), and Jack’s young daughter, Natalie (Oona Lawrence), must help Pete find Elliot, before other nefarious characters, like Jack’s hunter brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), can.
There is a temptation to use the term “cute” to describe this film, and while it certainly is that, it’s also so much more. Pete’s Dragon is the kind of film that I would have wanted to watch as a child, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of nostalgia. The film is very family-oriented, and perhaps a bit more targeted at children than adults as many recent Disney films have been. And yet, despite my tendency to eschew this kind of family film, I was enchanted by the story’s candid innocence which manages to avoid naiveté. The furry Elliot is so huggable and to borrow from another children’s film, “It’s so fluffy I wanna die!”
Pete’s Dragon doesn’t try to reinvent the friendly dragon story (like Pixar’s How to Train Your Dragon). Instead, this film reinvigorates the narrative by simply going back to classic storytelling. And it works. Like Neel Sethi, who played Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book hit earlier this year, Oakes Fegley emerges as a fresh, young voice. Director David Lowery has created a film full of wide-eyed wonder and magic. Take the bambinos.
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Lawrence
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 12 August 2016