In every possible way, Pete’s Dragon is a throwback to a simpler time. The family fairy tale, a remake of an unremarkable 1977 Disney movie, takes place in a world where small towns have no chain stores and no one carries a cell phone. It could be the 1950s or just a forgotten town in the twenty-first century. The film never tells us, and we don’t need to know. What matters is how ancient it feels compared to today’s blockbusters. Typically, summer movies – even those for kids – come with a veneer of irony. They make sure everything is said with a wink, lest they be accused by today’s hip audiences of being earnest and uncool. Pete’s Dragon wears its earnestness on its sleeve. It is the most uncool kid in the class, which, as any grown-up knows, means it is actually the one most worth knowing.
It opens, like many great children’s stories do, with a loss. Five-year-old Pete survives a car crash that kills both his parents, and he escapes into the woods. He is immediately almost devoured by wolves, but is saved at the last minute by a big, green, furry dragon. He names him Elliot, and for six years, the two of them live in peace deep in the Pacific Northwest.
Any child knows that dragons can be either friendly or dangerous, but Elliot quickly shows himself to be a peaceable beast who does possess the power to destroy – he can breathe fire with the best of them – but only uses his strength to protect his friend. The problem is that while Elliot makes a great protector, no one is big enough to protect him from the world’s greatest predator: mankind. When Pete gets spotted by Grace, a kind park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), Elliot’s whereabouts become known, and a group of arrogant hunters set out to snag what is surely the biggest game of all time. Meanwhile, Pete, who has been brought back into civilization and is awaiting the dreaded social services, tries to make his way back to the forest to save his friend.
As you might have guessed, anyone whose eyes well up at opening notes of “Puff the Magic Dragon” will have just as hard a time making it through this one without a prolonged blurring of the screen. Its tone, painfully earnest and emotional but never saccharine, is the hallmark of director David Lowery, whose indie career favored stories told visually and without traditional uses of dialogue (Upstream Color, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). Pete’s Dragon is filled with powerful images that convey the story’s deep emotions through imagery, and without cliché or contrivance. He has cast stoic actors – like Robert Redford, playing the town’s only dragon expert, and Wes Bentley, as Grace’s fiancée – who can convey a lot with a little. You won’t catch them mugging for the kids in the audience, which keeps this whimsical film from devolving into kitsch.
Most crucially, he gets big-league performances from Oaks Begley, as Pete, and whatever digital craftsman was responsible for turning a bunch of ones and zeroes into Elliot. With his soulful eyes and soft purr, the dragon exists somewhere on the spectrum between a dog and a cat, which should please all comers. Acting across from him, Begley manages to create the appearance of a real, living relationship with the CGI dragon. With his long hair and shy eyes, he calls to mind the Oscar-nominated Jacob Tremblay in last year’s Room, but Begley adds a physical dimension. Feral to the core, he hops in and out of position like a jungle cat, which adds to the narrative drive: When the authorities bring him to town and try to civilize him, we feel in our bones that he belongs back in the forest.
Maybe we do, too. The summer movie line-up this year has been filled with stories that trade on our fantasies of living off-the grid. In the multiplexes, you could see Free State of Jones, The Jungle Book, and The Legend of Tarzan. In the arthouse, The Lobster, Captain Fantastic, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Given the year of off-screen tragedies and our hateful election cycle, perhaps it’s natural to want to get away from it all, even permanently. Pete’s Dragon of course, ends on a more socially-acceptable note, but it’s heart – wild, beautiful, and free – is in the right place.
My Rating: See it in the Theater