Pete's Dragon (2016): The Good Disney Remake
Somewhere in Disney HQ, there is probably a huge whiteboard on which is written ORIGINAL PROJECT → SOULLESS REMAKE → PROFIT, or something in that vein. It’s proven a very successful model so far, with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book (which I’ve been informed is actually decent), and the recently released The Lion King all proving hugely successful at the box office. More importantly though, these remakes have made clear the overwhelming power of nostalgia on audiences, with each one being a guaranteed success regardless of their quality.
Through this release model, Disney has also developed a worrying penchant for hiring directors with a track record of great original projects (eg. Tim Burton, Guy Ritchie, James Bobin, and Craig Gillespie, the latter directing the upcoming Cruella), and proceeding to dilute any impact they attempt to have on the film, resulting in projects that possess seemingly no artistic vision whatsoever. But there is one anomaly, one remake that actually displayed a huge amount of originality, ingenuity and creativity, a passion project that somehow squirmed free of studio interference.
2016’s Pete Dragon was helmed by David Lowery, a director with an outstanding track record through films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, and The Old Man & the Gun. When the project was announced in 2013, many were rightly concerned that Lowery would be swallowed up into the creative bubble of the big studios, or just downright confused as to what Pete’s Dragon even was (the original was a barely remembered and horribly cheesy musical flop). I was particularly worried as Lowery has become by far one of my favourite contemporary directors, one who has proven himself adept at tackling hugely diverse material (A Ghost Story will mess you up on every level, The Old Man & the Gun will make you grin from ear to ear), each of his projects containing a delicately explored emotional centre.
Count me thoroughly surprised then when I discovered that Pete’s Dragon (2016) is an absolute treat of a film, one that feels personally crafted, lovingly made, and which truly understands the wondrous power of classic Disney. Utilising a mixture of CGI (to bring Elliot the dragon to life) and live action, Lowery’s fingerprints are all over this film and it really does soar as a result.
Following a shockingly heart-wrenching tragedy that leaves Pete (Oakes Fegley) alone and scared in the middle of a vast forest, he comes face to face with an enormous green dragon, which he later names Elliot. The design of this CGI creature could have been an easy pitfall to fall into, with the combination of Elliot’s human-esque face and dragon body risking becoming a computer-crafted creation of nightmarish proportions.
But through the work of Peter Jackson’s VFX company Weta Digital (who seem to have worked on basically every big film of the past 20 years), the result is a vast and uniquely beautiful winged creature that perfectly branches the gap between the bland and expressionless photo-realistic animals of the new Lion King and the bright, popping colours and stylised designs of Disney’s traditional 2D animations.
And this combination of styles is where Lowery’s film really excels; rather than trying to strip the fun out of Disney’s original style (which many of the new remakes are guilty of), Pete’s Dragon embraces the magic and charm of traditional animation while nudging it into a new computer-powered and higher budget era. It is an annoying cliche to hear, but Pete’s Dragon really does transport you back to being a child discovering Disney films for the first time.
This warmth that the film evokes is also thanks to a terrific cast, which includes the always wonderful Robert Redford (who went on to light up Lowery’s later project The Old Man and the Gun in his supposed final role) as the wise old Mr. Meacham, who spends his days telling stories to the local children about his encounter with the dragon many years ago. Has Redford ever given a performance where he wasn’t just simply enchanting?
We also have Bryce Dallas Howard (great in that Black Mirror season 3 episode Nosedive and the best part of the abhorent Jurassic World films) delivering a delicately poised performance as Meacham’s daughter, the forest ranger Grace, while Karl Urban pops up in a surprising supporting role as the menacing lumberjack Gavin, who brings the very real threat of deforestation to Elliot’s forest abode.
There are still obviously some issues surrounding the film, the main one being the syrupy sweet and painfully generic soundtrack that persists on pervading through most scenes. But this is something that can be easily looked past when the sentimental magic of the film is so effectively delivered.
Pete’s Dragon is one of those wonderful experiences where you are so wrapped up in the emotion and honest sweetness of the proceedings that you forget the mammoth studio behind it all and the considerable amount of money that has been sunk into the film. It’s refreshingly uncynical filmmaking, a breath of fresh air in this increasingly money-driven and unrelenting cycle of remakes. David Lowery fought the beast that is Disney, and he won where many others have failed.