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