I am always on the look-out for a holiday film that draws out deeper reactions in my kids than a couple of cheap laughs. A few years ago, I took them to see Spike Jonze's superb Where the Wild Things Are. Fair to say I was impressed by how complex themes were drawn out of Maurice Sendak's seemingly innocuous 1973 book of the same name. It appeared to me that Pete's Dragon might just have the same opportunity.
Penned by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field, Pete's Dragon was originally an unpublished short-story that eventually found its way onto the producer's desk of Disney's 1977 animated/live-action film of the same name. I don't want to make any comparisons with this earlier film due to its completely different treatment of the source material. Also, despite being beloved by many, it really wasn't very good.
The titular Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a ten year old orphan who lives in the woods and claims to have a friend named Elliott ... who happens to be a friendly dragon. Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), the local forest ranger (and burgeoning mother figure), is curious about Pete's stories of a large green dragon, in part because they remind her of her dad's (played by the abiding Robert Redford) tales of a fierce dragon that resides within the woods. So, with the help of her 11-year-old step daughter (Oona Laurence), Grace sets about discovering Pete's origins.
At its core Pete's Dragon appears to draw direct inspiration from authors such as the Leprince de Beaumont, Kipling, or Burroughs. Key similarities to protagonists such as The Beast, Mowgli, or Tarzan suggest that the story has at the very least unknowingly dipped its toes into such works of the fantastic. It treads lightly on the notions of marginalised groups being perceived as a threat by society, but thankfully stops short of any darker subtexts.
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David Lowery, who directed and also adapted the screenplay along with Toby Halbrooks, has crafted a film that clearly markets itself as a feel-good film. With moments of unabashed cheesiness there is no mistaking Disney's genes here, but these are outweighed by the film's honest form of story telling and a remarkable performance by the young Oakes Fegley. As such Pete's Dragon is a noble effort at a feel-good humanist film ... with a dragon.
Star rating: 3.5/5