VOD film review: Pete’s Dragon
Nathanael Smith | On 11, Dec 2016
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley
Watch Pete’s Dragon online in the UK: Disney+ / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Moustachioed indie director David Lowery’s last film was the largely forgotten but actually terrific Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Malick-homaging drama about a murderer on the run from the law. It was melancholic, brooding and beautiful, making it somewhat surprising that the director’s next film was Pete’s Dragon, an update of a naff, little-loved animation hybrid from 1977. In Bodies, Lowery displayed a moody sensibility that suggested he would be quite content churning out intense, low-budget character dramas. The move to a big studio picture was almost worrying – would he be able to keep his personality when working with bigger budgets and interventionist producers?
Happily, refreshingly and excitingly, the answer is a resounding yes. Pete’s Dragon may be part of Disney’s ongoing mission to update their entire back catalogue, but Lowery’s filmmaking stamp is evident throughout. Pete’s Dragon is one of the finest family films of the year, a piece of warm-spirited and traditional storytelling. A lot of the credit for its success must go to the director’s committed, thoughtful film making. This version tells the story of orphaned Pete (played by the wonderfully-named Oakes Fegley), who grows up in the forest protected by a magical, flying dragon, dubbed Elliot. Pete meets park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, superb), discovering a life outside of the woods and away from his green, furry friend.
One of the main features carried over from Bodies is the natural understanding of small-town American communities. Pete’s Dragon isn’t explicitly set in any era, making the community in the middle of the mountains feel timeless. There’s no real villain here, just tense families and people with misguided aims – storyteller Robert Redford twinkles as a sage and slightly eccentric old man, while Wes Bentley and Karl Urban play brothers at odds. The screenplay by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks treats each character with generosity, making even the bit-parts feel credible; the town feels lived-in and authentic, populated by real people with lives that exist outside of the frame. Young viewers watching it may not be impressed with this authenticity, but it gives the storytelling a lasting power and fosters audience investment in the story.
Also carried over from his previous films is Lowery’s ability to quickly and convincingly portray loving relationships. In Bodies, that meant making the audience believe that a man would become a criminal for the sake of his wife. In Pete’s Dragon, that means convincing us that a boy would go anywhere for the sake of a green and occasionally invisible dragon, which is no small feat. The CG work on Elliot is immaculate, yet unusual; giving him fur and making him dog-like skilfully dodges flashbacks to Dragonheart. He’s imbued with real character in a way that recalls Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon and Pete’s attachment to him is never in question. It’s a testament to Lowery and Halbrooks’ screenplay, as well as the excellent performance from Fegley, that as Pete’s loyalties start to be pulled in two directions, both feel equally desirable.
Then, there are the moments when Pete’s Dragon really takes off. Although it is ostensibly set in the Pacific Northwest, the film was shot in New Zealand and the audience gets the chance to explore this spectacular scenery in stunning flying sequences. This is, after all, a film about a dragon; as Elliot glides over twilight cloudscapes, it finds its true purpose. Flight is inherently cinematic and watching Pete’s Dragon will make you dream, once more, of soaring through the sky.
At the end of the day, all of this measured pacing and creative effort makes Pete’s Dragon feel wonderfully old-fashioned and, for many, it will bring back memories of watching old family films as a kid. But younger audiences today should still enjoy it, and, in future, many may look back at it with similar fondness. Lowery has proved that he can make heartfelt films that are rich with character and depth, even when working within a studio system that is often more preoccupied with making money. That makes his future as a director even more exciting than it was before.
Pete’s Dragon is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.