Reviewed by: Mark Geraghty Review date: September 13, 2016
Screen Fantastique rating: 3 stars
Pete’s Dragon, the latest Disney animated classic to undergo a live-action transformation, fails to make the impact that might be expected from a film whose central character is a 60 foot dragon. At some point Disney was going to have an off-day with its ongoing series of live-action adaptations of their back catalogue of hand-drawn treasures and, unfortunately, Director David Lowery has been the person to deliver the studio its first sub-par adaptation effort. What brings the problems of Pete’s Dragon into such sharp focus is the comparison that audiences are in a position to make with this year’s other Disney adaptation, the worldwide blockbuster The Jungle Book. At the centre of the film’s problems are the film’s adult characters; all of whom appear badly miscast in their respective roles.
The one character who feels right is young Pete, played by Oakes Fegley. Director Lowery, who also co-wrote the screenplay with writing partner Toby Halbrooks, wastes little time in getting his young star into the action, as the necessary exposition required to establish the relationship between Pete and his dragon, Elliot, is done and dusted in the film’s opening sequence. The story jumps forward six years, with Pete and Elliot entrenched in their friendship where the big green dragon also acts as the boy’s guardian and protector against the forest’s more ominous predators. It’s not too long before Pete and Elliot’s life is disrupted in more than one way. Lowery and Halbrooks don't miss the opportunity to make an on-the-nose comment about deforestation and its impact on ecology. Their effort to service this concept is where much of the film’s confusion arises about the motivation key adult characters and the feeling that many of them have been miscast.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays Grace, a local Ranger, whose job it is to protect the forest. She’s in a long-term relationship with Wes Bentley’s Jack, who also happens to own the local logging company. Karl Urban plays Jack’s brother Gavin, who is more than happy to throw himself wholeheartedly into the family business of lopping down as many trees as he can. Loitering in the background is Grace’s father, Meacham, played by Robert Redford; the only other person to have seen Elliot but is written off by most as a crazy old man. Each one of these actors is fundamentally miscast in their role. Howard is meant to be a surrogate mother to Fegley’s Pete but seems limp and disconnected from him in their scenes together. Wes Bentley, as he is in most of his roles, plays his role with minimal emotional range. He struggles to break even a frown when his young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) comes under physical threat toward the end of the film. Robert Redford is basically playing a slightly crazier version of himself and feels the least miscast, but simply isn't convincing as the town crank. It hurts to say it, but the worst of this bunch is Karl Urban. For the past decade, the Kiwi actor has built his resume and he’s now a name actor with significant credits, including his excellent turn as ‘Bones’ McCoy in the last three Star Trek movies. He's a really good actor; a funny guy in real life, but in Pete’s Dragon he’s just plain bad. He’s a one-note prat whose stupidity isn't convincing enough to be the catalyst for the jeopardy in which everyone finds themselves during the film's climax!
There is some redemption in the spectacle of Elliot; the film’s CGI star, but it's little consolation. The technical execution is flawless, but even Elliot feels a little soulless. Much of his interaction with Pete mimics that of a loyal pooch and it doesn't give the audience a sense for the majority of the film that he's actually a dragon. Only near the very end of the film does he reveal the full extent of what he can do, but it’s a case of too little too late. By this stage, the chance to weave an emotional tale, with touches of magic, has been missed as the overly contrived and utterly predictable story has sputtered to its conclusion with the obligatory happy ending tacked on in the hope of another outing at some stage in the future. There be a dragon here, but not else…
Pete’s Dragon is out in cinemas around the country in September 16, 2016