Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Skeptics live among us, including in my own home. My mother’s response to my recommending her this movie was a curt, “Dragons aren’t furry; they have scales.” Fine, Mom, fine. But not this one, and for Pete’s sake, use your imagination. Those who do will find a film filled with wonder, tenderness, and a breathtaking stillness. These might not be qualities of our time, but that’s probably why this movie is so stirring.

Though it borrows elements from the 1977 “live-action/animated musical fantasy comedy” film, this reimagining is a new story about an orphaned boy and his magical dragon. After Pete’s (Oakes Fegley) parents die in an accident on their way to a family camping trip, he finds safety and companionship with a furry, sometimes invisible green dragon that he names Elliot. For several years, they live unnoticed in the forest until a logger’s daughter (Oona Laurence) spots Pete and gives chase. He is briefly put under the care of Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a ranger whose father (Robert Redford) enchants the town’s children with tales of his own dragon sighting years ago. She is skeptical of his claims as well as those of Pete, who insists on returning to the forest to find Elliot since he might be in danger from the encroaching loggers.

The film is punctuated with moments of sheer adventure. At the story’s climax, Elliot, tranquilized and chained to the back of a flatbed, makes a wild escape. The whole cast joins in the chase, either conspiring to set him free or desperate to recapture him. Even ol’ Mr. Meacham contributes to the effort and plows a truck straight through a barn wall, doors be damned. You don’t need to watch the movie in 3D to appreciate the thrill of Elliot in flight. It’s a rollercoaster ride whether he’s dodging his would-be captors or soaring above the forest with little Pete in tow.

What I love best about the film is its gentleness. For a movie about a dragon, this one is remarkably quiet. It’s a rare quality in family films; writers and directors fight to keep our attention with plenty of visual and aural noise. I sometimes think going to the movies is like watching and hearing the percussion section fall over one another during the big finale. But Pete’s Dragon shows confident filmmaking, a willingness to embrace stillness in a world both onscreen and in life that never seems to stop moving. There are long stretches where ostensibly nothing happens. No one speaks. No one moves to forward the plot. Grace just walks through the forest, and we observe all that she does – the sunlight cutting through branches, the crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot, a symphony of birds and crickets.

The movie of course is no substitute for actual nature and doesn’t try to be. It does want us to appreciate our environment a little more, but it’s not out to condemn loggers either. Logging is not the problem here; unethical logging is. The closest we get to an antagonist is Gavin (Karl Urban), the crew foreman, and he doesn’t come close to villainy. He’s selfish and greedy and could use some help balancing immediate goals with longer term ones, but that’s why he has a perceptive brother to guide him through.

Gavin’s conflict feeds into the larger story about family and friendship. Jack (Wes Bentley, looking very much the lumberjack) also works on his brother’s crew and tries to mediate between the company’s interests and those of Grace, his girlfriend. He’s frustrated but not hopeless, and there’s a sense in this film that these folks are often misguided more than they are outright bad. What matters is a connection with family, community, dragons, anything that takes one beyond him or herself. Pete and Elliot share that with one another and in turn help Grace and Jack to deepen their bonds with each other and with their families.

It’s an experience to watch this film and then to step back into the present. The movie is made to be of a different place and time. Its 1970s setting, the stretches of forest, Robert Redford’s soothing voiceover – all lend a distance to the story that only gives more room for the imagination. I rather wanted to stay in this world a while longer. Certainly I wanted to meet Elliot. And for a small time at least, Pete’s Dragon allows kids and adults alike to let go and to be won over furry green dragons. Yes, Mom, they do exist.

A highlight from the soundtrack – “Something Wild” by Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon:

Released: 2016
Prod: James Whitaker
Dir: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford, Isiah Whitlock
Time: 102 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018