“Pete’s Dragon” is the surprisingly sad story of a young boy who lives in the forest with a big green dragon, and it would have been a fun and light story if the whole thing wasn’t drenched in a feeling of separation anxiety and gloominess as the story of Pete is one of a childhood lost and moving on from innocence into a worldly-tainted adulthood without magic or presumably joy. In old school Disney fashion, like the animated films of the 30s and 40s, this new “Pete’s Dragon” is here to entertain but does so in a dark way, filled with death and abandonment and dark forces working actively to deprive the young hero of their source of comfort and joy.
After an opening scene involving a car accident in the middle of nowhere which results in an instant orphan being hunted by wolves and then being saved and adopted by a giant green dragon, we jump forward six years, and this kid is now about 10 years old or so and running around the forest barefoot and shirtless, dirty and long haired, climbing trees and catching rabbits barehanded, completely adapted to his environment and at wild lifestyle. It helps that he has a big loyal dragon helping him out and getting his back when predators might stroll up. This is the story of Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon Elliot, which is really just a big ole dog with wings, making him quite lovable.
But then out in the forest, it was only a matte of time, Elliot finally comes across other people for the first time, which includes a Forest Ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her whole family. This includes her father (Robert Redford), who has always claimed to have seen a dragon to anyone who would listen, and her future brother-in-law (Karl Urban), who eventually ends up leading a group of men into the forest to hunt Elliot down and capture him. When Pete gets hurt and brought to a hospital, he gets some human love and compassion for the first time in years, and while he is desperate to get back to Elliot in the forest, it is obvious he misses his family and the whole loving dynamic that provided to him. As much as he loves Elliot and vice versa, Elliot isn’t a mother or father, he’s a dragon. A dragon that cares for Elliot and protects him but it’s just not the same, again it is a lot like the love from a pet like a dog.
With a good cast and a pretty solid Pete to anchor it all down, this is a very well acted movie, which is matched by a surprising amount of elegance and classic formal movie making. Between the pacing and framing and transitions, and with the very classic sounding score, “Pete’s Dragon” feels like a throwback movie in the way it is just lacking in cynicism or snark; this is a heartfelt movie, unafraid to be sentimental, and not lacking in shots of characters looking up in awe and wonder, a very Spielbergian touch to a movie that has a real 80’s Amblin Entertainment feel without being an obvious visual pastiche of prior films.
In addition to the surprise of this amount of formalism in the visual approach to this movie, “Pete’s Dragon” also surprised me in how melancholy it felt for most of the time. Anyone who pays attention will realize that Pete will have to make an ultimate decision between rejoining society in the care of a loving family or living in the forest with Elliot, and while a long portion of the movie is centered on Pete trying to get back to Elliot, we all know this is possibly so that he would just ultimately say goodbye, if not then it means he would be turning down a family and a “normal” life, and if taken from an emotional standpoint it is a tough decision either way. As such, this question hangs over the movie in a very anxious and foreboding way.
And then there is the part of the movie in which Karl Urban’s character finally gets around to hunting down Elliot and this adds an element of danger and darkness to the movie, especially when they break out the tranquilizer rifles and start shooting in a kind of intense scene, all of this adding another layer of stress and drama to the whole movie. This may all come as a surprise to anyone expecting a lighthearted movie about “a boy and his dragon,” and instead get a movie about how families can be broken up but new bonds can be made and new families formed in different ways.
Also, I’ve seen this movie described as “light” online and that is baffling. There were parents audibly sniffling in the packed theater I was in when I saw it a couple of points in the story, as this is a very emotional movie. It is also kind of a hippie movie sort of in a way as it makes a background plea for reining in deforestation, reflecting its late 70s/early 80s setting. An interesting little story detail they worked in that they don’t necessarily dwell on or yell about, it is just another layer of this movie.
I liked “Pete’s Dragon” but didn’t love it, because while classic storytelling is always nice, it can also be a little predictable, as it was for me in this case. Pretty early on I knew where the movie would ultimately end up, which makes the whole thing feel a just little slow in the middle as we are just waiting to get to the inevitable clash brought on by fear and misunderstanding, only to be obviously resolved somehow because duh we’ve seen movies before, and the the aforementioned question of Pete’s decision, which can be argued for emotionally in either direction.
Thoughtful and well meaning, though more melancholy than expected, “Pete’s Dragon” is a nice surprise of a movie, especially at the end of such an abysmal summer of big budget movies.