Film Review: Pete’s Dragon

by Lachlan Anderson

Rated PG. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley. Directed by David Lowery.

Another week and another reboot finds its way into cinemas. Following in the footsteps of Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland and The Jungle Book, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is the latest live action reboot from the Mouse House. Originally released in 1977, it was a musical with the eponymous dragon being the only traditionally animated element. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it though, it didn’t get the best reception on release and has become largely forgotten in comparison to Disney’s other classics.

Pete’s Dragon is the story of Pete (Fegley), whose parents die in a car accident during a family road trip, leaving him alone in the forest where he meets a gentle dragon that he names Elliot. Six years later park ranger Grace (Dallas Howard) and her fiancée Jack (Bentley) find Pete, now 11 and incredibly wild, and take him back to the town of Millhaven. Pete struggles to adapt to life with people and yearns to go back to the forest to his friend Elliot. Grace quickly figures out that Elliot is actually a dragon. Meanwhile Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) has also seen Elliot and sets out to hunt him, believing the dragon to be a monster.

Unlike Disney’s other recent remakes, Pete’s Dragon is very different from its namesake and much better. The seaside setting is replaced for the Pacific northwest of America and the songs are completely scrapped. Again, Elliot is the only animated aspect of the film but this time he has a much sleeker look. Rather than scales he has a moss green coloured fur, reminiscent of the forest around him, that makes him appear less like a lizard and more like a cuddly bear…with wings and a tail.

The story is pretty stock standard and, unlike The Jungle Book, the filmmakers aren’t taking huge steps to redefine the cinema experience. That isn’t surprising given the fact that the original is not as well-known. Instead, they play it safe and stick to a formula that has worked so well in movies like E.T. It’s predictable but still heart-warming and fun.

It’s a formula that works well for the most part, although many of the characters are quite two dimensional, particularly Karl Urban’s Gavin who fills the traditional bad guy role. The direction and acting, particularly from Fegley, make up for some of the scripts faults, but in many places it still feels stretched out and shallow.

There are lots of movies that feature this kind of boy-and-his-dog story. Usually the dog is something or someone that only the child can connect with, and the inevitable contact with the adult world is catastrophic. The parallels to Jesus are pretty strong here. We can learn from the Gospels the way in which Jesus was received by the people of his time. Most saw him as a threat and a heretic. One account though highlights a different way to approach him. In Matthew 19:13-14, some children are brought to Jesus:

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

In movies like Pete’s Dragon it’s always the children who manage to embrace the creature that scares or angers others. They are more open to the fantastic and unexplainable. The message of these films is to be more like kids, to believe. So it is with Jesus, he calls us to come to Him with the innocence and wonder of children.

The Verdict: Pete’s Dragon is a by-the-book family film that greatly improves upon the original but a paper thin story and characters draw away from what is otherwise a very endearing tale of boy and his dragon. 3/5

Pete’s Dragon releases in Australian cinemas on Thursday, 15th September. It is currently screening in the USA.

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