Review: Pete's Dragon
PLOT: An orphaned young boy discovers a dragon in the woods, which he quickly befriends. After some years pass, both are discovered by outsiders, and the friendship is tested as the boy is brought into civilization as the dragon is hunted by frightened townsfolk.
REVIEW: PETE'S DRAGON is a disarmingly effective movie. I hesitate to use the term "children's movie" because even though so many parts of it seem aimed at a younger audience, the film's melancholy atmosphere and abundance of life lessons make it worthy of any viewer. In fact, it may land a greater impact on the adults in the crowd, although surely everyone will be taken aback by the way it takes its fairly frivolous source material and morphs it into a surprisingly serious meditation on love, loss and the highs and lows of owning a pet.
This could have been a manic nightmare of goofy antics and silliness. Coming only a week after NINE LIVES, a movie that's tone deaf in the extreme and wouldn't know how to speak to an audience if its life depended on it, it's refreshing to see a film that takes its time to ponder the fantastical situation at the center of the action and dwell on it, as opposed to using it to create dopey sitcom moments in search of meager chuckles. Director David Lowery, who helmed the slow, thoughtful western AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, was an unusual choice for the project, but it turns out he was the right one, as he brings an unexpected (but very welcome) gravitas to the plot at hand. There will be plenty of folks who wish PETE'S DRAGON weren't so darn earnest, but when the landscape is filled with dull, insipid programs created simply to hypnotize kids with garish action and loud noises, how nice is it to find someone taking a deliberate approach to the material as well as considering the characters' motives and hopes and prospects.
Plotwise, PETE'S DRAGON is simple and without pretension. Also bursting with relatable drama. In the opening sequence, young Pete (Oakes Fegley) survives a car crash that claims his parents, sending him scampering into the surrounding woods. On the verge of being attacked by wolves, Pete is rescued by a dragon - one long rumored to be living in them there woods - who he eventually calls Elliott (based on a character in Pete's favorite storybook). Six years pass as Pete and Elliott manage to survive in the forest, miraculously unseen, until one day the real world comes crashing in. The woods are being razed by a logging company, and Pete is discovered by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of the company's foreman, Jack (Wes Bentley). Pete is dragged unwillingly from his habitat and brought into the care of Jack and his ranger wife Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), while Elliott is left stranded. Sad, but it gets worse. Elliott is eventually spotted by Jack's opportunistic brother Gavin (Karl Urban), who - once he's over his astonishment - figures capturing the creature is his ticket to the big time.
Lowery's film follows a pretty faithful E.T.-esque formula, as Pete and Elliott are torn away from each other heart-wrenchingly, reunited, then chased by stern adults who don't understand the magical friendship before them. Though Elliott is a big, goofy creature, Lowery approaches him and the material with tenderness and sincerity, making PETE'S DRAGON infinitely more effective than it would have been if it had followed the playbook of the original (which is an incredibly dated picture filled with forgettable songs. Sorry, but it's true.). There's a sequence early on where Elliott and Pete are chasing each other through the woods that is flat-out terrific, the dragon acting dog-like as it splashes around a stream. The rest of the film follows suit. Taking Elliott at face value and treating him like a genuine animal as opposed to making him a cartoony fool provides dividends, as you find yourself actually caring for this beast and hoping the best for him and his friend.
The human performances strike just the right notes. I haven't yet mentioned Robert Redford as a wise old guy who spins yarns about the fabled dragon - only to eventually come to the creature's aid - but his presence is just so terrific here. Howard is sweet and gentle as Pete's surrogate mother, and youngsters Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence are natural and completely believable. Playing the requisite jerk, Urban nails it, and even gives the character a glimmer of likability that keeps him from being completely hiss-worthy. But it's all about Elliott, really, and he's an excellent creation; sweet and kind and terrifically realized while still clearly a visual effect (that's not a complaint; it helps that he's not 100% convincing). Like the rest of the film, Elliott was obviously created with love, and I dare you not to want to claim him for yourself.