Disney Doesn’t Need Another Wild Child

By  · Published on February 23rd, 2016

As a longtime fan of the 1977 film Pete’s Dragon, I can’t say I’ve had any desire for a remake. But given that Disney went ahead and greenlit one and hired indie darling David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to direct the thing, I’ve accepted that the new version could be good on its own terms.

The first trailer for Lowery’s take arrived this week, and it does look different enough that it should do no harm to the legacy of the original. It has no songs, no lighthouse and, as far as I can tell, no Gogans. All things I love about the first incarnation. At this time, with this brief and early glimpse, Lowery’s movie looks more like Where the Wild Things Are than Pete’s Dragon.

There is a new element to this Pete’s Dragon, however, that also aligns it with plenty of movies in the stable of Disney classics. Here, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild child, a boy living on his own in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. That makes this the second live-action Disney offering this year with such a protagonist. The studio’s remake of their animated adaptation of The Jungle Book is the first, of course.

In the past, there’s been that 1967 animated original of the Kipling story, as well as its 2003 direct-to-video sequel, plus Disney’s 1994 live-action The Jungle Book, their animated feature version of “Tarzan,” a 1946 short starring Goofy as a Tarzan type titled Frank Duck Brings ’em Back Alive, the “Pecos Bill” section of the 1948 anthology feature Melody Time, the “Jungle Duck” episode of DuckTales, the direct-to-video feature Atlantis: Milo’s Return (a sequel to Atlantis: The Lost Empire) and the two 1990s family comedies Jungle 2 Jungle and Little Indian, Big City. I’d also include the Lost Boys from Peter Pan in the mix. I guess Kristoff in Frozen counts, too. And the little boy from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, even if he’s not similarly lost from society.

While not a significant trend on quite the same level, Disney’s wild children could probably become another branding idea alongside their Princesses and Fairies labels. Our daughters will have their gowns and wings, our sons their tattered rags and loincloths – this division being of the gender-normative aim of the products only, of course (personally I’m all for the boys dressed as Elsa and any girls who want to pretend they’re Mowgli). Disney doesn’t really do female wild children, although its distribution, through Miramax, of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke comes close.

It shouldn’t be an issue any more than is Disney’s infamous trend towards orphaning their main characters – a category Pete fits into in the original and the remake. Still, the overabundance of wild child characters sort of dilutes the distinction of the main premises of the “Jungle Book” and “Tarzan” stories. Kind of like if the studio keeps introducing new Princesses, it disempowers the lot of them.

None of this consideration of the Pete character, at least so far, has any real bearings on my interest in the movie. But on first impression, I don’t like the feral child angle. It doesn’t seem a necessary nor logical change (unless they simply realized they can’t do a new mama Gogan who could follow Shelley Winters). Hopefully I’ll get over my issue with that element when I see the whole thing.

Of course, then there’s the matter of having to get over and embrace Bryce Dallas Howard in a role opposite a child and a giant lizard creature so soon after Jurassic World.

Watch the teaser trailer for Pete’s Dragon, which opens on August 12th, below.

And here’s an animated version of the poster:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.