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