The film is gorgeous. Often jaw-droppingly.
The first indicator that Pete’s Dragon had the potential to be something special was the hiring of David Lowery, whose previous film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a moody, slow, and Malickian drama that was critically acclaimed and underseen. I saw it just prior to seeing this, and the contrast reminded me of Spike Jonze and his masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are. I don’t know if Pete’s Dragon is as sophisticated and singular as that film, but it’s definitely just as powerful and perhaps more so for its accessibility. Though it never talks down to kids and deals with some very difficult subject matter, Pete’s Dragon maintains a safer overall approach. But I was reminded of the way Where the Wild Things Are, which to me is the gold standard for sophisticated movies about and for kids, weaves wonder and drama together into a relatively daring emotional core.
I dare you to feel nothing in the opening minutes of Pete’s Dragon. This is a movie, like the kids movies I grew up with (Land Before Time and The Neverending Story come to mind), that is unafraid to be as sad as it is happy. Whenever the movie could veer into a bouncy, safe, and condescendingly “kiddie” version of a sequence, it refrains. Lowery keeps the movie grounded even when you’re watching a giant CG dragon splashing in a stream. These scenes definitely owe a debt to How to Train Your Dragon but the association is a positive one, helping the audience to completely buy Elliot and his puppy-like behavior. This is key because where many films of this kind would under-utilize the “fantastic” elements, like big green dragons, and focus instead of human drama and safer, more familiar scenes and characterizations, Pete’s Dragon spends only the amount of time on that stuff as is needed to serve the story and its emotional, thematic beats. If anything, some characters could have used more time, but overall it’s a good thing that the film keeps its focus centered on the dragon and his boy.
SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. PLEASE SEE THIS MOVIE, THOUGH.
Elliot only looks scary. Sometimes.
In the opening sequence of Pete’s Dragon, the movie declares both its ethos and its emotional core in a simple interaction between a four year old and his parents. As they drive through the forest road, the father says they’re “on an adventure” and the mother tells the little boy that he “may be the bravest boy she’s ever met”. Little Pete (played here by Levi Alexander, who will own your heart in seconds) smiles happily and through him we are instantly transported to the magic and wonder of a children’s untarnished perspective of the world. If it’s about anything, Pete’s Dragon is about maintaining that perspective even into adulthood and even when faced with overwhelming loss. Imagination and the courage to be you are also key themes.
Ultimately, a car accident robs Pete of his parents but not his courage. He goes deeper into the forest and encounters a creature straight out of fairy tale. The dragon is actually a local legend, but only an old man named Meacham (Robert Redford, who also sort of narrates the movie) really believes in it. Years later, Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) has grown up playing with Elliot, the warm-hearted and intelligent creature that usually acts pretty much like a gigantic dog with wings. He even looks like a dog. Pete can still talk and even read a bit, having retained only the book Elliot is Lost which is about a little lost dog that represents both Pete and Elliot in ways that connect them inextricably to each other. Are they aware of this? There are hints that Elliot understands very well what the book means.
There’s something engaging and uplifting about the way they play together.
Because Elliot is so well designed and so well thought through in terms of scenes and sequences in the film, it’s easy to believe he’s really there even when the plot brings him further and further into familiar environments. Though Disney wowed us back in spring with its fully realized CG animals in The Jungle Book, this feels like a much bigger achievement. With the technology becoming so good for the visual fidelity, losing a lot of that “plastic” look that CG creatures had ten years ago, it’s now the little things that inch a character forward into believability. The challenge of lighting a creature like Elliot in a forest with its broken light, dappling, and variant shadows, is one that not everyone who sees this movie will appreciate. But it all helps to make Elliot feel like a real thing, which is integral for obvious reasons.
While Pete grows up in the woods with Elliot, the nearby town has begun to encroach closer to their territory, putting them on a collision course with the locals in the form of a forestry company. Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a no-nonsense conservation officer who loves the woods and tries to protect them from the overzealousness of Gavin (Karl Urban) who is a bit of a jerk but ultimately not a bad guy. His brother Jack (Wes Bentley) is more measured, stoic, and seemingly sensible. This is partly because he’s dating Grace, which influences him to temper Gavin’s ambitions to push deeper into the woods, and partly because he’s a parent. Natalie (Oona Laurence) is curious and intelligent and naturally drawn to Pete when she encounters him. Tying it together is Meacham, who is Grace’s dad and who’s made-up stories about the dragon are a smokescreen for the brief moment of fleeting “magic” that he discovered when he actually did meet Elliot once upon a time.
Elliot would startle most people.
Pete likely grew up never seeing other people, so it’s natural (if a bit contrived) that he takes an interest in Grace and the loggers when he and Elliot’s path crosses theirs. Because this movie is nuanced and intelligent, no one comes out and says “she reminds him of his mother” but you can see it written all over Pete’s face. Pete’s curiosity about the other humans naturally pulls him toward them, and away from Elliot, who Pete knows needs to be kept hidden. Elliot himself turns invisible when people are nearby, a natural or magical camouflage that explains both his ability to remain unseen (even though he spends a lot of time out in the open too) and his inherent shyness. Humans who he can trust are probably hard to come by. But Pete is different, he senses something and the film communicates his yearning, which is not loneliness, purely through cinematic language and performance.
Pete follows the loggers one day when Elliot is asleep. He sees Natalie, another kid and probably the only one he’d be able to ever remember seeing, and his guard kind of drops. She chases him into the woods and they begin the kind of organic play that two kids, strangers but ultimately akin, might do in a field or a park. This is ultimately what gets Pete caught and dragged into the world he accidentally left behind six years prior.
This is the best sequence in the movie, I think.
Though it’s fun to watch Elliot do stuff and though the emotional beats in the movie are earnest, well-earned, and moving… it’s the bit where Pete escapes the hospital and runs through town bewildered and wild that strikes the deepest chord for me. Part of it is the way Lowery refrained again from going cheap and obvious with a fun soundtrack. The music here is deeply sad and lonely, underscoring the way Pete is both uprooted from what he knows and cast astray in a world he only recognizes enough to scare him. Though this is sad, there are also these moments of triumph when Pete moves through town ignoring the usual rules and obstacles, his courage and physicality highlighting those moments in a way that is also moving. It’s that heady mix of happy and sad that this movie does so well, all tied up thematically and stylistically in this one sequence. Though I was choking back tears many times through Pete’s Dragon, this was the one bit where the movie fully defeated my manly refusal to cry.
Even though the story of Pete and Elliot going their separate ways for a bit is tinged with sadness and yearning, it’s also a story of Pete rediscovering family. There’s this quiet, profound moment where Grace echoes the exact words his mother said to him earlier in his life: “you may be the bravest boy I’ve ever met”. These words validate Pete and his experiences in a way that probably no other words could, not only because to Grace he isn’t some escaped patient or beast-boy, but also because Pete needs a mom. It’s as simple as that, and the movie often has this way of reminding us of these very simple emotional needs and feelings which we usually overlook in stories as being trite. Because Pete’s Dragon is never saccharine, moments like these elevate the movie rather than making it cheesy or cloying.
Gavin ultimately means well.
I was worried about the film’s inevitable conflict between Gavin and Team Elliot, which begins to include more people as Pete convinces them that Elliot really exists. Gavin is kind of dumb, but he’s not a bad guy. He doesn’t know what he wants to do once he catches the dragon, he just knows that’s what a man does with beasts in the woods: demystify, control, conquer. He’s obeying his programming and the film briefly underscores that this is in direct contravention of the sense of wonder, magic, and reverence that humans can (and maybe should) have for nature and the other creatures who live in it. Meacham represents that point of view, while Gavin represents a point on the other end of the spectrum, but not so far that it’s actually a polarity thing. In fact, it’s interesting that this movie has no corporate goon or something to represent the willing exploitation and corruption of nature. Instead, it just has people who are doing things for grounded, relatable reasons. Even Gavin. This is what keeps the latter stages of the film from being consumed by its Free Willy-ish chase scene and rescue.
It also helps that the whole affair has an unexpectedly reasonable, measured pace and feel. There’s no hysterics, not even from Pete. The whole thing is calm, really, until the moment presents itself for a rescue to be attempted. Even when there’s a chase, no one is trying to hurt anyone else. However, Elliot is after all a fucking dragon and though the legend says they can breathe fire, he is never seen to until this moment. It’s interesting because this is when Elliot’s unknown nature is fully revealed. He breathes fire down onto the bridge where the humans have gathered to try and capture him, and he doesn’t seem to care much who gets hurt or why. He’s caught up in a reflexive and angry response to humanity’s ignorance. It’s a wonderful moment, because there’s real danger to characters we care about and because it reinforces the fundamental personhood of this magical beast by having him respond to Pete. He is exactly like Pete, an orphan who needs a family, and it’s amazing to think that it’s a scene when he’s literally melting stone with his dragon breath where this idea is completed. It’s a bit like The Iron Giant, and I’m sure this movie owes that one a debt just as it owes Free Willy, E.T., and How to Train Your Dragon.
How can you say no to that? Dog people are gonna go crazy over this movie.
Pete’s Dragon is one of the saviors of the summer of 2016, which has been a shit show. While The Jungle Book was excellent, somehow Pete’s Dragon feels like the bigger surprise. It’s not just a film that is laudable for not talking down to kids, it’s also one that shows the beauty of simplicity in storytelling and the grace notes that come from trusting the audience, even if they are children. All the simple set ups are satisfyingly paid off, making the movie feel full and complete even when you can see those pay offs coming. It’s a strong example of the notion that good stories have endings that are obvious and inevitable given everything that comes before.
But I think my favorite thing about it is how powerfully it presents the benefits of imaginative play to children. Though it presents this idea with no judgment, with affection for the characters who have forgotten, it really wants us to remember what being a kid is like and how healthy it is to not kill that inside ourselves. Films like Pete’s Dragon can help adults remember, and reinforce positive and celebratory representations of children and children’s experiences and perspectives. It validates that stuff just as the mothers in the film validate Pete (and Elliot) for being who he is, lost and found and lonely and loved.