Review: 'Pete's Dragon' is a beautiful fable for anyone who has ever loved a pet
One of the things you have to do if you’re going to be a film critic who wants to consistently weigh in on films of every genre and style is meet films on their own terms, and while that sounds easy, it feels like more often than ever before, I see critics who just plain reject entire styles of storytelling.
How many times have you read a variation on “I hate horror films” or “I hate superhero movies” or “I hate Westerns” from critics? I don’t understand that because I love film as a whole, and I would hate to do this professionally if I was filled with dread at every single example of a type of film that I had to see frequently. Sure, there are plenty of disappointments that stack up over the course of a year, but unless you walk in wide open to every film, you’re shutting yourself off to the thing that has kept me heading back into theaters year after year after year, movie after movie after movie: the joy of being surprised. Yet I see plenty of people opt out of treating “children’s films” seriously.
Children’s films are big business for Hollywood, and there is a case to be made for the way every type of film has been infantilized in the pursuit of the family market. But when you look at the work Pixar does or you look at movies like Where The Wild Things Are, you see that just because something is ostensibly a “children’s film,” it doesn’t mean it has to talk down to an audience or simply regurgitate the same basic formula over and over. And while I’m sure it was a business-driven decision by Disney to bring Pete’s Dragon back to life, part of the same impulse that has them making live-action versions of all of their animated classics, it turns out that they made some terrific creative choices in the process, resulting in something that is just a damn good movie, one I would recommend without hesitation to any audience of any age.
Written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, the film opens with a lyrical and harrowing sequence in which young Pete (Levi Alexander) is in a car accident with his parents. They don’t survive, but he does, and he finds himself alone in the deep woods, suddenly surrounded by threats. As an opening sequence, it’s fairly intense, at least for younger viewers, but it sets up the stakes clearly. When Pete is saved by a mysterious benefactor, we jump forward to find that he has been living for almost eight years by himself with only a dragon as company. The film never asks the question about whether or not Elliott is the imaginary friend of Pete (Oakes Fegley, who does uncommonly good work in the lead role). It is clear that without Elliott, Pete would have died in the woods. The film’s first twenty minutes is largely concerned with the day to day lives of these friends, and there is something immediate and piercing about the way Lowery captures the rhythms of this relationship. It has to be terrifying to shoot a film where you know that the success of your movie ultimately comes down to how well an effects-driven performance ends up working. It’s something you can’t control, and you don’t get to see it live on the set, so you don’t know if you’ve got it. Thankfully, WETA has done sterling work in not only designing Elliott so that he communicates in a non-verbal way, but also in bringing that design to life. There are so many small details that make the difference, and they get them all right. I believed that Pete and Elliott were interacting, and that they mattered to one another.
That’s what makes it wrenching when Pete finally crosses paths with people from a nearby town. They see him as a little lost boy, but he’s more akin to Truffaut’s Wild Child, a feral little guy who is perfectly adapted to his environment. There’s nothing Pete seems to need, but from the moment he comes into contact with Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Pete is suddenly torn between this life that was stolen from him and the profound bond he’s built with Elliott.
There’s a bad guy in the film in the form of Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), but as bad guys go, he’s fairly mild-mannered. He’s a more aggressive logger than his brother, and when he and some fellow hunters stumble across Elliott, they decide to catch him. He's not evil, though, and his worst sin is a sort of curdled ambition. The film is far more interested in the emotional push and pull that Pete naturally feels at the chance to have a family again. It makes perfect emotional sense, and the mark of the film’s success is how much they make it feel like a difficult decision. Of course we don’t want the little boy to continue to live in the woods by himself. He needs that family, and it’s clear how much they need him as soon as they’re all together for the first time. Lowery makes this home life feel like a warm haven, and he shows how important it is to Pete at each of these new connections as they snap into place.
What really drives the film emotionally, though, is the beautiful interaction between Pete and Elliott. As in The Black Stallion, one of the great films for young viewers, there’s a reality to the connection, and anyone who has ever loved a pet will recognize and understand what the relationship here is. Eliott may be given a slightly heightened degree of intelligence, but it’s not like he has conversations with Pete. If you watch, the animators have given him some tendencies from dogs, some from cats, and they have fun with the body language of a big animal trying to be delicate. Perhaps the highest praise I can offer Lowery is that the work he does here in creating this relationship is as delicate and impressive as the work that Spielberg did making us believe that E.T. and Elliott were friends. The rest of the cast is very good, and in particular, Robert Redford shines in a role that feels like a bit of a gift. He gets to just come in sporadically and charm. He’s the old local who believes in dragons, having seen one years and years ago, but he plays it as a guy who understands that it no longer matters whether his story is true or not.
Lowery gets some terrific work out of his collaborators, Daniel Hart’s score is lovely, and I am fond of the needle drops that get used as well. There’s something great about hearing Leonard Cohen in a Disney film. There are some original songs, and they’re very evocative, helping to establish this mood that the film creates. Bojan Bazelli’s photography is lush and beautiful, and helps create the feeling that this is a world where Elliott might exist. There’s a great sense of time and place here, but it’s not ladled on with two hands, and that’s just further proof of the delicate touch that Lowery has as a filmmaker. He works in miniature, and it makes it even more emotionally devastating when he does throw a big punch. Watch towards the end of the film for a single gesture made by Elliott at the exact right moment. Niagra Falls. It’s surgically precise, and absolutely deadly. This is one of those movies that may well make some members of the audience ugly-cry, and that’s because it speaks to something very true. Our best fables and fairy tales are the ones that speak truth, and this version of Pete’s Dragon easily takes its place on any short list of the great films for young audiences as a result.
Pete’s Dragon is playing in theaters now.