Director David Lowery garnered critical acclaim for his preceding film, the indie mood-piece Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, depicting the relationship between two lost souls in a resourceful, mournful way. He’s now tasked with again casting his eye over an affinity between two beings, except in rather contrasting circumstances, teaming up with Disney for the remake of Pete’s Dragon.
Following the tragic car accident that killed both of his parents, Pete stumbled into the forest, only to find himself the target of a pack of hungry wolves. But before he too had his life taken away from him, the mythical dragon that is said to roam this land came to his rescue, and from thereon takes on the role as his protector and guardian. A few years down the line and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is still living in the wilderness with his dragon (affectionately named Elliot), before their close relationship is threatened by those who learn of the young boy’s existence. Forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) wants to protect the young boy, but her brother-in-law Gavin (Karl Urban) has other ideas, and sets off to hunt the legendary beast.
Lowery’s preceding endeavour maintained an indelible atmosphere and certain melancholy, and the filmmaker has struggled to quite let that go, crafting a feature that could well prove to be a little inaccessible to a younger crowd. Not that you should ever talk down to an audience of children – Steven Spielberg taught us that to connect emotionally with a family audience you have to avoid patronisation – but Lowery is too concerned with being moody that he compromises on the enchantment that the narrative deserves. That’s not to say the film doesn’t tug on the heartstrings in parts, with the emotional core deriving from the relationship between an animal and a child relatable in that sense, as we project our own affinity with our pets onto this feature and connect in that way. To further enhance that notion, the design of Elliot is comparable to that of a dog – though to its detriment, for giving the beast fur simply doesn’t quite work.
In that regard, however, the film does bear shades of E.T. in how we study this partnership between a young boy and an unknown creature that adults find threatening, not quite comprehending the safety of the situation. However Spielberg is so accomplished at films of this nature (just see The BFG), for he always maintains a certain magical feeling without cheapening the narrative; Pete’s Dragon sadly struggles to find that winning balance.