This is the first time I have reviewed a film that I saw at the cinema with my six year old son. Watching a film with him is very different – there’s a lot more popcorn and relentless questions involved. However, it does mean I have the benefit of seeing the film through both the eyes of an adult and a child. I don’t have a strong memory of the original film from my childhood – although it seems to have been a favourite for some. So, I was going into this without powerful nostalgic associations, unlike when I saw ‘The Jungle Book’ remake or ‘The BFG’ adaptation.
I almost became an emotional mess within the first five minutes of the film, when Pete is in a car accident with his parents. His parents die, leaving Pete alone in the woods. However, I did chuckle at the sight of a three or four year old standing silently, with a straight face, as a single tear rolled stoically down his cheek. He quickly encounters a dragon whom he names Elliot, after his book about a dog of the same name. Elliot is a delightfully rendered CGI creation – fluffy, expressive, huge and with the ability to camouflage himself into invisibility. He may even rival Toothless (How To Train Your Dragon) in my affections for favourite dragon (although Elliot is more dog-like, while Toothless is more feline). We then cut to six years later, when Pete has evolved into a fully-fledged “wild boy of the woods”, surviving with the help of his best friend.
The human side of the story comes with an impressive cast – Robert Redford playing a man who claims to have seen a dragon in the woods many years before, his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard as a park ranger who works in the woods that she loves, her boyfriend Wes Bentley (the only casting bum-note) as a logger, his daughter Oona Laurence (Jake Gyllenhaal’s daughter in Southpaw) and his brother Karl Urban as the “baddy”. The loggers discover little Pete in the woods and he is taken to hospital, causing Elliot to set off for the town in pursuit of him. Karl Urban then finds Elliot in the woods and gathers a hunting party to capture him. This leads to much mild peril for Elliot (giving the film a PG rating) and leading me to have to hold it to together in front of the kid.
Oakes Fegley joins Neel Sethi and Ruby Barnhill in giving an impressive central performance for one so young, playing off CGI companions. Indeed, it seems to be children who are holding together this summer’s blockbuster season. Pete is torn between the opportunity to be part of a human family again, and his love and loyalty for his best friend. The climax of the film comes when the children attempt to help Elliot escape and Elliot shows just how dragon-like he can be, in a certain dramatic scene on a bridge.
I, for one, found ‘Pete’s Dragon’ to be a magical film, with endearing central characters. It was the first time I had taken my son to a non-animated film at the cinema, but it held his attention throughout and he was really positive about it. And of course, I was more of an emotional wreck than he was by the end. I would recommend this film to adults and children alike; if you want to leave the cinema with a warm glow, rather than the red-hot rage that some films seem to be engendering in audiences this year.