With Disney hellbent on reviving older IP in search of new live action films, they may have stumbled onto a winning way forward this year. Following the surreal beauty of Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book, Disney is reviving Pete’s Dragon under the direction of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery. Lowery was a surprising choice, to say the least, to handle one of Disney’s live action adaptations, but he turns out to be an inspired choice for the material, which takes the core concept of the 70s film and otherwise makes its own beautiful story.
For six years, orphan Pete (Oakes Fegley) has lived in the woods with no interactions with other humans. Instead, his companion has been a giant, furry, green dragon that he’s named Elliot. When a lumber crew begins to tear down nearby woods, though, Pete is discovered and pulled away into the local town, where he’s taken in by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley), and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). The family is happy to take him in, but Pete’s stories about Elliot ring a bell for Grace: they remind her of a legend about a dragon in the woods that she’s heard for years from her father (Robert Redford).
There’s a little bit more to the story, mainly involving Jack’s foolish brother (Karl Urban), who believes he can trap Elliot and make a quick buck. But even this isn’t particularly malevolent or involving. Pete’s Dragon has a minimal story, and it unspools at a leisurely pace. Under Lowery’s direction, the film is satisfied to spend its time watching Pete and Elliot play throughout the forest, or listen to Redford’s dragon stories. It’s a welcome break from most live action films aimed at children, especially these days. There’s a maturity to the material that’s simply not produced by most children’s films.
That admittedly could be a problem for younger children with short attention spans. There’s some dramatic tension towards the end of the film that creates a spark, but unlike most of the film, this part doesn’t really linger. But for older children, or their parents, Pete’s Dragon is a family-friendly offering that should prove appealing for different generations. It’s a welcome replacement for the earlier film, and provides an idea for what Disney should do in the future: update films that haven’t stood the test of time, and pair the concepts with promising and bold creative talent.