Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
After The BFG, this is the second blockbuster I’ve seen this summer that has evoked within me memories of Spielberg’s E.T. People like to complain that they don’t make movies like that anymore but the truth is that they do. They may not get made often enough or may get overshadowed by something more popular like Minions, but they’re still there for people to watch. Like The BFG, this movie targets itself towards young children but also offers something for the teenagers and adults who remember what it was like to be that age. Like in E.T. the plot in Pete’s Dragon is secondary to the central relationship being focused on. The film is childish in its playfulness and whimsicality but also adult in its tranquillity and stillness. Although they may not get made or seen often, the claim that Hollywood’s children’s movies have lost this thoughtful and wondrous quality is just wrong.
Six years ago, a little boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) got lost in the forest and was found and rescued by a great but friendly dragon with the ability to turn invisible. Pete names the dragon Elliott (sound familiar?) and goes on to live with him in the forest. When an older Pete spots a lumberjack crew chopping down some trees near his home, he is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of the foreman Jack (Wes Bentley). After he gets caught, Jack’s girlfriend, the park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes Pete in and tries to learn who he is and where he came from. When Grace learns about Elliott, she finds herself believing the story her father Meacham (Robert Redford) used to tell her about the time he came across a dragon in the forest. Pete agrees to lead them to Elliott, unaware that Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), a hunter, has also encountered this dragon and plans to catch him.
One of the things Pete’s Dragon accomplishes so well is that it captures the subtle yet immediately identifiable sense of what it feels like to be a child. The forest and the dragon that inhabits it not only look enormous, they feel enormous the way that everything does when you’re little. It captures that childish sense of adventure in both its wonder and scariness, a sensation that Pete’s parents remark on right before the car crash that would leave him an orphan. Bravery, says his father, is what he needs to see an adventure through and that is what a lost, scared and forlorn Pete finds in Elliott. It is significant that we meet the dragon immediately at the beginning because it means that imagination and fantasy are allowed to reign supreme. How trite would this movie have been if it had opted for ambiguity surrounding the dragon’s existence assisted by misunderstandings and dismissals by joylessly unimaginative grown-ups? This is a movie that appreciates the depths and possibilities of children’s dreams and imaginings and fully embraces them.
In this film Pete names Elliott after the dog in the book he’s reading and their relationship plays out in a classic A Boy and His Dog fashion. The dragon is simply teeming with life and personality and shows himself to be caring, loyal and protective of Pete. He is a smart and perceptive creature capable of reason and thought, allowing their friendship to be a mutual one on an emotional level. Elliott needs Pete every bit as much as Pete needs him. At no point does Elliott talk in this movie, meaning that the movie must convey his character solely through his expressions and personality, something that it does marvellously. A lot of the film’s heart is carried through by the humans as well with their subtle yet affective performances, save its two-dimensional baddie. Howard’s portrayal of a sweet and down-to-earth woman witnessing a phenomenon beyond anything she could have imagined is a moving one. Redford, being the old pro that he is, acts everybody else under the table as he manages to bring a childlike innocence to his role without it seeming silly or even quirky.
There is no shortage of smart and thoughtful children’s movies being made today and not all of them belong to Pixar. Pete’s Dragon, like The BFG before it, is a charming and enchanting movie that I found to be delightful. It takes itself and its audience seriously, but not too seriously. The film is sincere, restrained and heartfelt but it is also bright, exciting, funny and childish. While there are many kid’s movies that make the misstep of always being on the move and constantly making noise for fear of losing the children’s attention, Pete’s Dragon is a movie that allows itself to stand still, take a moment, and just breathe. Perhaps the approach isn’t as nuanced as it is in a typical Studio Ghibli feature, but it is welcome regardless. If it is to be believed that these movies are indeed a dying breed, then I truly hope that audiences will embrace and cherish this film and all the others like it.