(3 out of 5 reels)
It wasn’t a difficult task to make 2016’s Pete’s Dragon better than the 1977 version as the original is easily one of Disney’s worst movies. If you remember that film fondly from your childhood, I invite to listen to just the first song. Yet even if the original film had been a success, this year’s adventure would still be better. It’s rare to see a movie strike the perfect tone from the first few minutes, then successfully carry it through to the endeven if the story is completely predictable. The sad part is that, like its two protagonists, this Dragon doesn’t fit well into any niche.
In the first (and rather predictable) act, poor young Pete (Oakes Fegley) finds himself a victim of a typical Disney opening. Orphaned and abandoned in the woods, he is befriended by a friendly Dragon he calls Elliot (John Kassir). Six years later, he is found again by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kind-hearted forest ranger, who wants to help Pete. The rest is easily guessed: Pete wants to go back to the woods but can’t; Elliot is worried about Pete and goes looking for him; a hunter who sees Pete wants to catch him; a finale occurs that involves a little bit of danger but not too much; and everything works out for everyone, even the hunter. One can imagine the plot of Pete’s Dragon being similar to a ridiculously easy game of connect-the-dots. Yet the acting, writing, cinematography, score, and visual effects are all so good, it’s hard to notice.
Most Disney films involve a sense of lost innocence as children deal with adult problems, but it has never been shattered in such a dramatic way. In the first scene, Petebarely five years oldreads a picture book about a lost dog as his parents drive through a windy forest road on vacation. They are happy and safe. Suddenly, the father swerves to avoid a deer. In the backseat, everything goes into slow motion. Pete looks puzzled, then curious, as he notices the items next to him floating in the air. He knows nothing of death or suffering, and is unaccustomed to laws of physics. He smiles at the new world of upside down objects. Then the crash. Pete walks away from the wreckage and looks back, somehow knowing his parents cannot follow him. He realizes his world is over, and there is nothing he can do. Yet he is saved by a supernatural creature. Again, due to his age, he finds nothing extraordinary about this, simply being grateful to have a friend. Only later does the audience learn that Elliot too is lost, and their common experiences bond them as friends in pain.
When Pete is thrown almost violently back into the world of his species, he has no idea how to behave. He is alone again until Grace and her daughter manage to reach out to him. Unfortunately, the strange phenomena of feral children is quite real, with several documented cases. These poor children, who have lived on their own for years with or without animal help, are so psychologically damaged that it is nearly impossible for them to successfully integrate into society. Beyond these rare cases, how many children have been abandoned, purposefully or accidentally, only to die far from the eyes of society? Indeed, every person is lost from original grace, far from Eden. Pete’s Dragon allows its characters to feel this loneliness deeply and demonstrates how it is only comforted through relationships marked by deep friendship, real romance, and spiritual goodness. This follows from the first scene to the last.
Grace is skeptical of Pete when he talks about Elliot, but her father is not. Played wonderfully by Robert Redford, he freely tells elaborate stories to schoolchildren about his battles with the “Millhaven Dragon.”
“Just ‘cause you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he tells her.
“And just because you say something happened, doesn’t make it true,” she smirks. It’s easy to not believe when the story sounds fantastical, but as the facts line up, Grace confronts her father. It turns out that his stories were highly embellished, but not false. “I just stood and looked at him,” he says. The same is true of many things that seem impossible. When someone trustworthy experiences something supernatural, the first instinct should not be to disqualify it based on its improbability but to consider the character of the witness. Pete’s Dragon could have been told as a mystery where the dragon isn’t revealed until the end or even not at all. Including the dragon front and center from the beginning demonstrates that the Universe is full of the miraculous, and it’s our job to discover and believe it.
Despite being wonderful overall, there was one specific element that harms the film and takes the audience out of the experience. Grace lives with a man named Jack. They have a large, multi-story house with a fireplace. They have a twelve-year old daughter together and read stories with her on the couch before they put her to bed. They love each other dearly. By any standard, they look and act like a married couple. Yet in a quick throwaway line, it is learned early on that Grace is Jack’s fiancée, not his wife. There is absolutely no reason why they should not be marriednone except to prop them up as a “modern family” that is traditional in everything but name. This awful trend, which has plagued Disney as of late, is bad enough even when an important part of the narrative, but here is totally unnecessary.
Pete’s Dragon is, I think, a lost film in search of an audience. It is too sentimental and small for adults, yet too serious and scary for children. Like its spiritual cousin The BFG [see CWR’s July 5th review], it likely will not make much money and may well be forgotten almost instantly. Yet like Pete and Elliot, it will find a second chance among those who browse the dark corners of Netflix and are willing to make effort in seeking out quality entertainment.