I'm old enough to have seen the original Pete's Dragon in the cinema. I don't remember much about it, it was one of those second string Disney movies, more of a Bedknobs And Broomsticks than a Mary Poppins, an unholy mix of live-action period musical and cheap-looking animation but an adequate time-waster on a dark and rainy Scottish Summer afternoon.
It had songs. But none you'd remember. It had vicious hillbillies (but not the kind that'd make you squeal like a pig). It had ageing movie stars (Mickey Rooney and Shelley Winters) whose best days were behind them. It had a feisty orphan called Pete and a bumbling cartoon dragon called Elliot. A couple of musical numbers, a bit of slapstick, some mild peril (courtesy of Jim Dale's fortune-hunting snake oil salesman and would-be dragonslayer) and a bucket load of sentimental schmaltz.
The original Pete’s Dragon was the kinda film you'd watch in an art deco flea pit in Arbroath or Carnoustie on a caravanning holiday rainy day, hopped up on Kia-Ora and Toffets, through a blue haze of cigarette smoke as part of a double bill with the likes of The Cat From Outer Space or Escape To Witch Mountain, all the while comparing it, judging it, against that space movie you’d seen a couple of weeks before where the farm boy saves the galaxy.
In the 30 or so years (probably 35, I’m not getting any younger) since I saw it, I never again thought of Pete’s Dragon. Not once. Not until a couple of weeks ago when I had my own Gamergate moment. Now, I care little about the concerns of my geek brethren. I thought the original Ghostbusters was boring and hated the sequel so zero is the number of shits I give for the lady Ghostbusters. I couldn’t care less about how Batfleck’s fighting style compares to Nolan’s Dark Knight (despite once forcing myself to listen to a podcast that veered onto the subject and giving up after 10 minutes!). I couldn’t care less what colour Hermione or James Bond are. And my childhood survived the recasting of Freddie Kruger even if the reboot of A Nightmare On Elm Street didn’t. In short, I thought I was on fairly safe ground when I’d agreed to review the new 2016 reimagining of Pete’s Dragon.
Until the night before the screening that is.
I went to a friend’s birthday dinner party. At the party, another guest, a spoiled manchild, turned up late. He’d been at a Star Wars convention or celebration, or some such jamboree. Either way he had paid cash money for autographs of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and her dog, the bloke who plays the camp robot or the guy inside the Boba Fett costume. These were for himself, not the birthday girl. Last year, he’d been late for our mutual friend’s birthday because he’d been at some convention devoted to Back To The Future, paying for the autographs of Michael J Fox and Lea Thompson and the dude that had played the headmaster. I remember making what I hoped was vaguely enthusiastic noises as he showed me photos of him and Christopher Lloyd. I’m fairly sure I failed. But I didn’t offend him, I’m sure. At least not deliberately.
Talk turned to movies and he proceeded to tell me why lady Ghostbusters wouldn’t work or why Hermione or Bond should only ever be white all the while showing me the selfies he’d taken that day with Darth Vader, with stormtroopers, with the incredibly tall Peter Mayhew somewhere in the background, and, more as a relief from the cavalcade of minor Star Wars luminaries he’d met that day, I mentioned I was seeing the new Pete’s Dragon in the morning.
“Oh my God! I can’t believe Disney! Have you seen the trailer? Oh my God! They are just raping my childhood! The original is such a classic…” He then started singing I Saw A Dragon. In the middle of the restaurant. This is a man in his fourth decade. Raping his childhood? That sounded a little strong to me. But then I hadn’t seen the trailer.
Steeling myself the next day, I braved the hordes of painted-faced, middle-class children clutching balloon animal dragons and settled back in my seat, ready to have my childhood violated…
The manchild had nothing to fear. Pete’s Dragon 2016 bears little resemblance to Pete’s Dragon 1977. Sure there’s an orphan called Pete who befriends a dragon called Elliot. But that’s pretty much it. Precision-tooled to sell cuddly dragon toys and mop up the summer audience who couldn’t get into Finding Dory, Pete’s Magpie may have been a better title, borrowing liberally as it does from ET, Tarzan and, inevitably, How To Train Your Dragon, to form a perfect stew of thrills and sentimentality to appeal to younger audiences that just works. Gone are the period setting, the musical numbers and the vicious hillbillies, replaced by a wistful family adventure that in true Disney fashion dares to address loss, environmentalism, deforestation and modern blended families, celebrating difference and diversity.
Orphaned by a car crash and alone in the deep, dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, young Pete is saved from certain death by the sudden appearance of a green, furry (?) dragon he names Elliot. Fast forward six years and Pete has grown into feral pre-teen Oakes Fegly who lives an idyllic life in the forest with his big pal. But the modern world is creeping ever closer as lumberjacks chop down the trees that are local town Millhaven’s lifeblood industry. Eventually Pete is found by nice forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who does what childless women in Disney movies always do and decides to just keep him, adding him to the family unit of her, sawmill-owning fiance Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) while Elliot mopes in the forest.
Jack’s lumberjack brother Gavin (Karl Urban) however has discovered Elliot’s den and sets out to capture himself a dragon and make his fortune. With Elliot in danger, Pete must save his friend with the aid of Natalie and Grace’s tall-tale telling father (Robert Redford)...
Written and directed by indie darling David Lowery, there’s a bittersweet warmth to Pete’s Dragon that feels both familiar and new. Lowery isn’t just rebooting Pete’s Dragon, he’s rebooting Disney, delivering a sincere, old-fashioned, fantasy fable for the whole family, one without a trace of cynicism, that isn’t afraid to wear it’s sizable heart on it’s sleeve. Pete’s Dragon is the kind of kids film they just don’t make anymore. While the cast are uniformly good, the true star of Pete’s Dragon is of course Pete’s Dragon, and Lowery and his team breathe life into the playful, puppyish Elliot, making you want to believe in the big, lumbering critter and instilling in the audience, both young and old alike a sense of wonder, the film at its best when boy and dragon are scampering through the woods or soaring through the sky.
Sweet, sad and wholesome, Pete’s Dragon is a low-key, grounded spectacle that will make you believe there’s still magic in the woods.