The 1977 original definitely wasn’t Disney on top form, but this 2016 ‘reimagining’ of the orphan boy-meets-dragon tale certainly doesn’t set the screen alight. Gone is the pink mop-topped clumsy cartoon character that a lot of people remember fondly, and in its place a furry CGI dog-beast that’s neither as cool as Falkor nor as fun as a Jim Henson creation.
Also absent are the corny songs. But it does seem that as Disney continues its mission to monetise their back-catalogue by updating old classics, they’re losing the innocence and magic from the original stories – two things that we surely need more of in these testing times?
For a family film, this starts off with one heck of a gut-punch as we witness how young Pete (Oakes Fegley) becomes an orphan: we’re talking Bambi-scale trauma here, you have been warned! When he meets the dragon they become firm friends and live a charmed solitary existence until the lumber industry encroaches on their patch of forest, and Pete is yanked back into a sceptical human world where he’s forced to eat jam sandwiches.
In a film where 90 per cent of the acting consists of being awed by something off-camera, Fegley manages to hold our attention by being both endearing and slightly feral. However, aside from comedy and charm, what’s lacking is a convincing villain. The creepy hillbilly family and travelling medicine man from the original movie have been replaced by Karl Urban’s ‘nemesis-lite’.
What it does have is plenty of well-worn, though well-meaning, parables for all generations of cinema-goers to consider – but if you’re looking for a man vs nature tale, go to Studio Ghibli, or for a logic vs magic story check out The Flight Of Dragons. With this new Pete’s Dragon, Disney has sadly forgone fantasy and frivolity for realism. There’s magic in the woods if you know where to look for it; you just won’t find it in this film.