petes_dragon_3 Year: 2016
Director(s): David Lowery
Writer(s): David Lowery, Tony Halbrooks
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: PG
Digital, Color, 103 mins

Synopsis: The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon. (Source)

Pete’s Dragon is a reminder that we should never forget “the magic”. The term, as it pertains to the film is broad, but can be distilled to an innate awe and wonder, a reverence and respect for what we can’t control or take for granted on a daily basis. It’s an unsaid truth that the older we get, the more this trait is clouded and contaminated by fear. In many ways, David Lowery’s latest film feels like a wake-up call, a kid’s movie for adults. He’s created a film that is big and ambitious, but far removed from all the empty spectacle flooding blockbuster filmmaking, instead using a fantastic premise to look deeply inward to great effect. Simply put, this is a film that forces us to react – it’s full of thrills, has a huge heart and most of all earns its emotion. I’d go as far as to say that if you don’t cry at least once, you may already be dead. Trust me, you’ve gotta see this one to believe it, and you can bet it’s a towering achievement that stands as one of the year’s best.

5-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is on a vacation with his parents. Driving down a secluded highway, a deer jumps out and their car goes careening off the highway. Pete is the only survivor, but just when he’s about to be eaten by a pack of wolves, a giant, green dragon comes to his rescue, instinctually feeling the boys confusion and pain, and taking him into his arms. Flash forward to six years later, and the two are inseparable. Pete has now named the dragon Elliot – they’re a true family, thriving off the deep, untouched wilderness, playing games together and flying into the sunset needing only each other. That’s all threatened, when a lumberjack and his crew begin chopping trees further into the forest than they should. Soon enough, Pete’s discovered by a kind forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). She and her family take Pete in, but are curious as to how he survived in the wilderness for so long. As Pete and Elliot attempt to reunite, the aforementioned lumberjack, Gavin (Karl Urban), discovers Elliot and tires to hunt him down for his own selfish gain.

petes_dragon_2Lowery’s approach is smart, and he knows that the soul of his film lies in the relationships at its core. Pete and Elliot’s bond is primal, rooted in a feeling of belonging and family, and this is tested when Pete is taken in by Grace, whose daughter Natalie and boyfriend Jack, immediately accept and treat him like one of their own. By having Pete torn between these two worlds, one which involves a roof over his head, and the other the comfort and protection of a dragon’s giant wings, the film finds genuine conflict in a desire to simply be loved and love in return. In essence, Pete and Elliot are a pair of sympathetic outsiders, both lost and separated from the ones they love, and tethered to each other by compassion. And yet the film goes further, dissecting Pete and Elliot’s relationship to find a fear that also makes them complacent. In the end, the film transforms into an ode about friendship, about the people in our lives who challenge us to be the best that we can be, and who aren’t afraid to show us that what’s comfortable isn’t always what’s right. These are simple ideas, but powerful ones which the film relates to us in brave and bold ways.

The film’s commitment to realism carries over into its portrayal of Elliot himself, with Lowery giving us one of the best CGI creations possibly ever. Lowery is smart to give Elliot a glorious, cathartic reveal even before the title card comes up, helping us to buy into him immediately and fully accepting his existence. From an animation standpoint, Elliot soars, with obvious references taken from dogs or cats (a cracked tooth and realistic fur go a long way), to make him feel like a loyal, lovable pet who acts through nuanced instinct. Because of this, he never feels out of place, and anyone who’s ever had a pet will instantly recognize Elliot’s body language and commitment to Pete. The most important thing however, is that Lowery knows which parts of Pete should be slavish to real world physics and when to strain credulity, giving us a perfect blend of fantasy and practicality. Combined with the fact that Elliot is totally fleshed out as a character, even getting his own parallel story line and unique set of obstacles, there’s no way to resist his charms, which offer majesty when he’s in flight, and tenderness during some intimate moments with Pete.

petes_dragon_4On the human side of things, the ensemble is strong on all fronts. Oakes Fegley, as Pete, is a perfect mixture of headstrong attitude and pure will. Blending feral physicality with human sincerity, he’s exactly who the film needs to embody its themes. Fegley brings with him an innocence, but also a presence that we can’t ever ignore. As Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard fits into the matriarchal role with ease, acting as the best attributes of what humanity has to offer, and helping to really sell the film’s stakes with a personal perspective. As Grace’s soon-to-be stepdaughter, Natalie, Oona Laurence is another great addition, giving Pete an understanding tether to the human world. Karl Urban and Robert Redford are welcome flourishes to the film – they don’t have the biggest roles (for good reason), but make every second count.

There are a lot of shows and films out there currently riding a wave of nostalgia, appealing to our childhoods and the simplicity of our youth. Rather than fashion a film based on obvious references or playful nods to our past, Pete’s Dragon instead embodies the sincerity of the past, showing that we need it now more than ever. It’s worth noting that the film is a period piece, taking place in the 80s, but never rubbing our faces in it – it really just wants to show an understated contrast of how times have changed and what we can learn from that. The fact is, I love this film so much, I could go on talking about it forever. That would be a bore though, and what should really happen is that you should see this thing for yourself, ASAP. They really don’t make them like this anymore, and like that, Lowery’s created another Disney classic, a warm, imaginative and inspiring human adventure that’s sure to stand the test of time.

SG