Movie Review: Pete's Dragon
By Ben Gruchow
August 18, 2016

You'd think the loggers would love this dragon.

A children’s storybook figures heavily into the mechanics of the plot in Pete’s Dragon, and I refuse to believe that this was coincidental: the movie it’s contained in has the cadences and rhythm of a storybook itself, all big and broad emotions and gestures and happenstance. You couldn’t miss the themes or character arcs if you tried to. This does not preclude the movie from having a strong and clear narrative thoroughline, nor from possessing a handful of moments that are absolute cinematic perfection, nor from stumbling in a few crucial ways that prevent it from reaching the stratospheric heights it was clearly capable of.

It is at any rate more accessible and audience-ready than the 1977 Disney film of the same name, of which it is a very [very, very] loose remake. One does not easily quantify the original Pete’s Dragon; it is by turns lightly satirical and positively saccharine, and sometimes both at the same time. The titular dragon was a bulging, slow, beady-eyed thing that looked more like one of those Sour Patch Watermelon candies than anything from nature or mythology. And you never knew quite whether the movie was patting you on the back or planting a "Kick Me" sign there. This new movie corrects for that by dialing up the earnestness of both the premise and characters; whereas the earlier film mostly contented itself with a well-adjusted central character coming to be accepted by a town full of eccentrics, this one is much more straightforwardly a story about rediscovering familial and human connection.

It’s more emotionally available for that, although I confess that it leaves me at something of a minor loss in articulating much about the movie other than what it does, it does well enough to merit a recommendation. In that sparse column of things that do jump out at me, one of the first is the storybook framing of the narrative. The three-act structure here has an absurdly clean division, such that the transition from the second act to the third act is actually punctuated by a momentary fade to black. The film is bracketed by voiceover introduction and resolution, and all of these things lend the proceedings a tone that’s reassuring and almost complacent.

That opening sequence, by the way, is one of the handful of moments of perfection. It takes place more or less through the perception of a four- or five-year-old Pete as a chain of events leads him from the backseat of a car to the woods to his first meeting with the titular dragon, named Elliott here as before. The texture here is absolutely dreamlike, everything filtered through a haze of soft color and unseen sounds. The sequence involves a car crash and the (offscreen) death of Pete’s parents, and what follows are a few minutes or so that set up the mystical elements of the story about as well as they possibly could be set up; I’d go so far as to say that first appearance of Elliott, achieved mostly through backlit silhouette and audio, is an instant classic of fantasy cinema.

The narrative proper takes place in what looks an awful lot like 1970s-era Maine, like the earlier film; here the town is named Millhaven, one of the first hints that we’re headed for a more earthbound story than the original’s Passamaquoddy. That setting was a seaside town; this one is a logging community. Most of the population appears to be down to loggers, represented mostly by Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban); they’re working on cutting more deeply into a vein of the thick forest that surrounds Millhaven, which doesn’t sit well with Jack’s girlfriend and resident forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) or her father (Robert Redford); the latter occupies most of his time telling the town’s children about the mythical Millhaven Dragons, and of the time long ago when he faced one down.

Eventually, the loggers cut deep enough to discover Pete, now several years older and played by Oakes Fegley; since he wandered into the woods as a five-year-old, he’s been living with the companionship and protection of a creature that we come to know as one of the fabled Millhaven dragons: occasionally a quadruped, more often a biped, covered in green fur and generally looking like a plausible organism but for the flashes of cognitive understanding we don’t much associate with anything other than humans and canines. The name Elliott here comes from the storybook Pete was reading in the car before he wandered into the woods. Grace happens to be around when Pete is discovered; she and Jack take him in with their daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) while they try to find out who he is and where he came from, and how he survived.

Adding to the storybook nature of this story is the timing; everything in the movie other than the bookending sequences seems to take place over a single 48-hour period. If this were to happen in a non-fantasy film, I’d call it bad pacing; as it stands, I’m inclined to think of it more as the incidental byproduct of a gently-constructed fable. The bulk of the plot may revolve around establishing Pete’s origin and Elliott’s nature and fate, but these are without exception the most workmanlike elements of the film: they get the job done, but our attention is diverted more by the slight but unmistakably authentic development of Grace’s surrogate-parent role to Pete, her belief in the fantastical aspect of the story, and her father’s rusty but persistent recollection of the day where he really did run into a dragon. Within the context of these elements are the remaining parts of the film that attain everything they’re attempting to and a little bit more; there are other moments to rival that initial glimpse of Elliott, although not so much as to pull the whole film up a level.

Working on setting it back are some shortcuts that I think are more characteristic of the storybook structure and depth than of any particular shortcoming of the story or characters: one of the loggers seems to be shoehorned into a lightly-villainous role toward the end, as a tool to establish some kind of stakes and sense of risk. There’s also the question of how exactly Elliott seems to exist: I wasn’t looking for an origin story (such a thing would’ve been a major detraction), but the movie makes it plain that the dragon is not a figment of Pete’s imagination, and I found myself idly wondering about the physiology of an anthropomorphic dragon: is he omnivorous, like a canine? Does he spontaneously generate biomatter? Elliott attains a presence in the story, and I guess we do come to feel for him a little, but he’s still a little closer on the scale to a plot device than a plausible organism or supernatural creature. And the entire movie really is pretty slight, good without being wholly remarkable outside of those handful of moments.

If there is a consolation to these (pretty minor) flaws, it’s that it’s a pleasure to witness; the movie may have been shot in New Zealand, but the surroundings look uncannily like rural Maine, and the sense of time and place is persuasive. The special effects, too, are impressive: we are moderately startled, in an age where a $200 million production budget is par for the course in a studio film, to find a movie made for $65 million where the CGI and practical effects blend as seamlessly as they do here. Elliott is wholly convincing as a visual element, and there was only one moment (involving a wide shot of a flatbed truck driving along a highway) where the digital nature of the film’s namesake edged toward revealing itself. Like The Jungle Book from last April, this is a better film than the original and good in its own right, an assessment well-earned even by its distinctly modest metrics.