Film Review: Pete’s Dragon (PG) (USA, 2016) brings the feels

Do you remember the 1977 Disney film Pete’s Dragon? No? Good, neither do most. But Disney’s new string of live action remakes is now having a crack at the original – which has become something of a cult favourite in the Disney archives – in an attempt to replicate their success with The Jungle Book earlier this year.

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, a park ranger, stumbles upon a young boy named Pete living in the depths of the woods. She learns that Pete lost his family at a young age but survived in the wilderness by befriending an enormous green dragon, named Elliot that lurks between the trees. From there, a story of heart and family ensues that overlaps well with the dogmas of Disney family entertainment.

First thing’s first, the CGI of dragons has come a long way since the original animation of Pete’s Dragon, which had a similar approach to what Disney achieved years earlier with Mary Poppins. It’s exemplified here with gorgeous animation reflecting the sheer size and power of the creature and giving clear and purposeful movement to a fantastical character. While by no means as beautiful as the near-realistic CGI in The Jungle Book, the movement of the camera at some points following the dragon as it flew or beneath the dragon to emphasize its enormity complimented the work of those in animation who brought this creature to life.

Elliot is animated in as realistic a way as possible, while also infused with a sense of wonder and likability to what should otherwise be a terrifying beast, beckoning audiences to climb on his back and go for a ride. Along the same line, the vibrant colours and tones are refreshing and identifiably Disney.

What the film struggles with is deciding exactly what direction it wanted to go in. There are multiple characters the film flip-flops between while hesitating to pinpoint who exactly the protagonist is, with Oakes Fegley’s innocent Pete, Howard’s endearing turn as Grace the ranger, Robert Redford as the typical “I once saw the creature” Meacham, and Karl Urban as the dragon hunter Gavin. There’s nothing wrong with having no lead protagonist, and indeed each character is adequately fleshed out, but one can’t help feeling like each is not quite strong enough to induce the audience’s heart in their moments of need.

And in that way, the title is somewhat misleading; Pete is barely the protagonist, and Fegley is fine in the role but there is no gravitas to warrant clenched fists or tears in audiences eyes. But what is disappointing is the surprising lack of dragon. A creature doesn’t need to be onscreen for it to be compelling – just look at E.T. – but they must have a presence both on and off screen that rewards the audience for their patience, and there isn’t enough of a pay off with Elliot the dragon.

The effect of this lack of presence means that it’s difficult to care about the relationship between Pete and his dragon when most of the movie forgets that the dragon even exists. So what could have been an exciting movie about the relationship between a boy and his dragon turned into a well-acted, warm story of family but with characters that weren’t overly compelling and a dragon that popped up sporadically.

It brings the feels, certainly, but not necessarily where it needed to most. The music and the visuals are wonderful and heightens a sense of childlike marvel, and is a fun ride to take the kids on but when you wanted it to soar into the sun, instead you watch it land gently before it could really spread its wings.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Pete’s Dragon is in cinemas September 15