Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley
Directed by: David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Body Saints”)
Written by: David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Body Saints”) and Toby Halbrooks (debut)
It might not be as magical as a couple of Disney’s other animated-turned-live-action films that have recently hit theaters (last year’s “Cinderella” was delightful as was this year’s “The Jungle Book”), but a revisit to 1977 for a remake of “Pete’s Dragon” is a charming enough way to prove to audiences that the studio’s decision to update its fairy tales is going in the right direction.
Although it’s evident “Pete’s Dragon” desperately wants to be the next generation’s “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” it feels more like an restructured version of the cheesy 1987 family film “Harry and the Hendersons” where a sasquatch is removed from his home only to be tracked down by a hunter who doesn’t recognize the creature is gentle by nature. It all leads up to a race back to the forest to release him before he is harmed. Replace the Bigfoot monster with a dog-like dragon and that’s basically what you get from director/writer David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Body Saints”), who does a fair job building the relationship between the fire-breathing dragon named Elliott (the same name as the kid in “E.T.”) and Pete (Oakes Fegley), the young boy he has protected ever since the child wandered into the woods after a car accident years prior (by the way, did that search party even try?).
It’s a tough assignment to write a believable relationship between a child and a “make-believe” character. “The Jungle Book” did a satisfying job of it with the character Mowgli and his best friend Baloo, a CGI bear. Other more emotionally complex films like “Where the Wild Things Are” made a phenomenal case that their two main characters Max and Carol inhabited the same world without any doubt. With “Pete’s Dragon,” Lowery is able to explain that Elliott cares for Pete, but there’s not a complete sense of devotion one might hope to feel during the film’s build-up.
Aside from the boy and his dragon, not much of anything comes from the rest of the narrative, which wastes a perfectly good opportunity to flesh out a tangible father daughter relationship between actors Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard. Without it, much of the story falls to Elliott and Pete to keep it afloat. For the most part, the effort feels genuine albeit slightly generic. What we’re left with is a story about a boy and his dragon, which might be enough for some, but not for audiences looking for something a little deeper.