Pete’s Dragon, like Cinderella or The Jungle Book, is a remake of a classic Disney film that not only improves on the original, but also manages to be a refreshingly individual film in its own right. Here’s a movie that doesn’t so much defy formula as simply ignores it; it’s content to simply tell its own story, without any kind of heavy handed message or attempt to appeal to mass audiences. Probably not everyone will like this movie; it has a leisurely pace and little ‘action,’ and the humor is low-key and elicits smiles rather than laugh-out-loud moments.
That, to my mind, is part of what makes the film special. Against all odds, this isn’t just a media giant attempting to cash in on a familiar title; it’s an honestly good story told by people who clearly cared a lot about the finished product. To me, it feels a lot like a classic children’s book; the kind that adults look forward to reading to their kids.
When five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegly) is orphaned in a car crash in the Pacific Northwest, he finds himself unexpectedly adopted by a friendly, furry dragon whom he christens ‘Eliot’ after the main character of his favorite book. Six years later, he’s discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who, together with her father, Meachem (Robert Redford), her fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), slowly comes to realize that Pete comes with an unexpected level of magic.
Like I say, the film moves leisurely, spending lots of time just hanging around with its characters, especially Pete and Eliot. Their relationship is obviously at the heart of the film, and plays out rather like that of a boy and his dog. Only, of course, this dog is twenty feet tall, can fly, and can turn invisible. The relationship is charming, and Eliot is cute without overdoing it (one detail I especially liked was that Eliot has several noticeable battle scars, hinting that the dragon isn’t just a cuddly pet). Needless to say, the effects that bring the dragon to life are excellent, and I applaud the decision to make Eliot a mammalian dragon rather than your standard scaly beast. Not only does this make him more cuddly (and make his devotion to Pete more plausible), but it also makes him feel more at home in the Pacific Northwest setting (you don’t find pythons or crocodiles in Washington state or Canada). If there are dragons in those woods, I would expect them to look more like Eliot than, say, Smaug. Some might complain this makes his color-changing ability a bit harder to swallow, but then again, who’s to say it isn’t just magic? Put it this way; I found Eliot’s invisibility powers far easier to swallow than those of the last monster to share a screen with Miss Howard.
The movie spends its time, not in hairs-breadth escapes or high adventure, but in setting moods and encouraging us to enter into the feel of the scene: playful when Pete and Eliot are rollicking through the forest. Peaceful and serene when Grace is walking through the forest. Warm and comfortable when we’re sitting in Jack and Natalie’s house. Wonder and amazement when Eliot reveals himself to the other characters.
Though, of course, there is a story, and things do happen. Pete, having spent so long in the woods, at last begins to find himself tempted back to civilization, first by a chance encounter with Grace, then by another with Natalie (thus, he’s drawn out by beauty; a very nice touch). Of course, once it’s discovered that there’s a little boy living alone in the woods, no self-respecting adult is going to just let him stay there. Pete’s first encounters with civilization are very well done, as we’re allowed to feel his confusion, disorientation, and desperation to get back home, and then his growing comfort under the loving care of the family he stumbles into. The only problem is…what’s going to happen to Eliot? Especially when Jack’s troublemaking brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sets his sights on the beast.
Among the film’s bold moves is to avoid having a real villain. Gavin serves as the antagonist, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s just an ordinary, flawed human being. He’s presented as kind of a jerk, but his actions, though selfish, are by no means unreasonable and he has more than one redemptive moment. In fact, all the characters here are refreshingly ‘normal.’ They’re not generic Hollywood character types, but individuals of their own time, place, and milieu. I cannot stress enough how relieved I am that the film isn’t yet another rural-bashing story about small-minded villagers who hate whatever they don’t understand (a trope I have grown to loathe so much that it makes me cringe even in otherwise brilliant films like Beauty and the Beast). Everyone here is basically a decent person, and the small-town rural setting is presented with real affection.
I also like that the movie doesn’t feature any modern technology like cell phones or computers, and that the time period is deliberately left ambiguous. It could be modern day, or the eighties, or even the seventies. This helps give the film a timeless feel that fits perfectly.
Thematically, the movie tackles the rich and deceptively complex theme of belief and magic, a theme previously given scope in the writings of C.S. Lewis and, especially, J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories. Imagination, wonder, and the humble enjoyment of the secret glories of creation are woven throughout the film, not only in the presence of the dragon but in the joy the characters take in the forest and the delight of working with your hands and spinning tall tales. Eliot in particular brings magic with him, but the encounter with him deepens and enriches an experience that was already ‘magical’ in effect.
These ideas are drawn out in broad strokes primarily by Meachem (a wonderful performance by Mr. Redford). He’s a wood-carver who spins tall-tales about an encounter with “the Millhaven Dragon,” but whose stories turn out to have a core of truth to them. He insists that seeing the dragon brought with it a kind of “magic” that has never left him.
“It changes the way I see the world,” he tells Grace. “The trees, the sunshine, you.”
Reinforcing this is a folksong, played over the opening and sung later in the film by one of the characters, telling of the ‘dragons’ who live in the forest, calling to mind hic dracones and the primeval human tendency to fill unexplored regions with fairies and monsters. Later, Pete and Natalie have a thoughtful (though entirely childlike) discussion of imagination and reality.
I remembered C.S. Lewis’s comments in On Writing for Children; “Fairyland,” he says. “Arouses in [the child] a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him, to his lifelong enrichment, with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods. This reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Pete’s Dragon is a film that not only explores this idea, but is itself a shining example of it. It rings with the love of nature, not in silly half-pagan environmentalism but in humble joy at the beauty of creation.
Like The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon is another movie that ignores parochial themes for deeper, timeless ideas that seek to enrich the viewer rather than instruct him.
Though I enjoyed the movie immensely, I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, at least not that would fit in a review. This isn’t the kind of film where a whole lot happens, so that you can say ‘here’s how this scene went’ or ‘I liked this bit.’ Rather, it’s a film that is best just seen and enjoyed.
I feel as though there are two Disneys at work today. One is the giant money making machine, pumping out films of varying quality, but all very much catering to the tastes of the filmmakers and the audience; no different from any other media empire.
Then there’s the Disney of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon (and, on the small screen, of Phineas and Ferb): the Disney that is still animated by the spirit of Uncle Walt, that has his audacity, his love of storytelling, and his ability to reach right down to the roots of our common humanity to inspire wonder and joy in the audience. I can only hope that this latter Disney continues to produce films like this.
Final Rating: 4.5/5: Probably not for everyone, but a film to treasure.