I have never seen the 1977 Disney original, but from what I hear it wasn't the most memorable or exciting of the live-action/animated Disney outings. So going into this I only knew the basics - Pete, a boy, has a dragon. Pete's dragon. That's it. What more did I need.
Well I was treated to a very slow paced story, but one that, despite the drag after the first half-hour or so, was none the less filled with heart and a quiet respect for the audience. No bombastic soundtrack, no dizzying action or fantasy sequences, and no ego-driven stars. It was very sweet, and very well shot in and around the New Zealand woodland (doubling as North America in the early 80s).
Young Oakes Fegley does a wonderful job as Pete, a near feral child who struggles to mix with modern society after living in the woods with a cute bumbling CGI dragon. CGI Elliott may be, but the chemistry he and Pete have is so tender and real, it's grown from the opening sequence and given time for us to accept, admire and respect. All of which pays dividends in the finale. Kudos also to the even younger Levi Alexander who plays 5yr old Pete who faces some real trauma early on - helping us see why Pete is the way he is.
Bryce Dallas Howard, Karl Urban, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley and Oona Laurence flesh out the supporting cast and are all perfect in their roles. They are down to earth people doing what they are personally driven by, and while Urban is our "villain" of the piece, even he has a hidden sparkle that emerges towards the end.
While it lacks the magic or imagination of 2016s 'The Jungle Book', another reason the original is forgetful as it had no real sparkle to it, this version is very different thankfully. The story itself is one that explores friendship and we spend lots of time with Pete and Elliott as they forge theirs, but also with Pete and Natalie as they begin theirs, and then Grace and Pete as they test theirs. It all comes down to what makes us human - no amount of well shot dragon flying or sunlight breaking through trees takes us away from the core of the story. And there isn't a sing-song in sight.
As said, the meat of the film does drag a little as things seem to slow down as characters explore their own relationships after a hopeful beginning, but towards the end things pick up for a rather fun and exciting climactic confrontation with all involved. But, fear not, it's never scary or too threatening for little kids being sucked in with Elliott's lovable naivety and cat-like playfulness.
One thing I have to note here, which really shocked me, was in the closing 5mins or so, I found myself with tears rolling down my face and I had to really focus to not let myself blub. I didn't expect it. At all. And for a film to move me subconsciously so much means I connected with the characters, and I invested in their believable relationships. I haven't cried in the cinema for...well...I think 15 years or so since 'Saving Private Ryan'.
I know. I'm shocked. But this proves 'Pete's Dragon' works in the message it delivers and the way it delivers it. A perfect cast make this a very charming, quiet and heart-felt story that is a subtle joy to watch in a season of crass, loud and over-exposed blockbusters.