Remakes are only worth attempting when the original can be improved on, and in the case of the 1977 Pete’s Dragon there was plenty to improve. Some remember it fondly, but I have always considered it one of Disney’s less successful attempts to mix live action and animation, by way of a musical. This remake is not a musical, the animation is state of the art CGI and yes, it is a significant improvement, though only enough to edge it into “good” rather than “great”.
Certainly family audiences could do a lot worse than this tale of Pete (Oakes Fegley), who loses his parents in a car crash only to be adopted by a large green dragon in a forest that acts like a dog (and a bit like the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story). Fast forward a few years, and this feral boy is discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). But Pete is reluctant to be brought back to the civilised world, especially if it means ending up in the care of social services, and would much rather return to his dragon (whom he has named Elliot). Meanwhile, lumberjack Gavin (Karl Urban) is aware of the dragon’s existence and leads a group of hunters to try and track it down.
Director David Lowery handles key scenes well, including the strong opening (which is traumatic in that family friendly way), smaller moments with Pete’s adjustment to life with other humans, and the obligatory chase finale. Tonally this feels very much like The Iron Giant or E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (by way of How to Train your Dragon), but fails to scale the impossible heights of Bird’s or Spielberg’s masterpieces. Performances are fairly good, and the supporting cast also includes Robert Redford in a fun role as Grace’s father Meacham, who once saw the same dragon in his youth.
In short, Pete’s Dragon is moderately diverting, shamelessly sentimental family fun – and it’s better than the original.