I loved Pete’s Dragon for a very simple reason: because the movie itself is rather simple. Don’t confuse “simple” with “cheap”, “dumb”, or unworthy of serious evaluation or adoration. It’s not. Perhaps a better word would be pure. It’s a film with a purity of emotion, character and intention. Which is surprising, since I haven’t been a fan most of what Disney has put out for the last while. But Pete’s Dragon breaks that trend and hopefully provides a template for Disney and other big budget studios to follow with subsequent blockbusters, remakes and commercial fair.
Much of the film’s success comes down to two elements, the first of which is director David Lowery. I’ll admit (somewhat ashamedly, now that I’ve seen what he’s capable of) that I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Lowery’s work until now. I’d heard great things about his breakthrough feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but time demands prevented me from doing so. From what few images and moments from that film I had seen though, Lowery’s apparent style and fingerprints are all over Pete’s Dragon. His preference for nature photography filled with natural light that gives every scene an ethereal glow are apparent in both films and his approach to Dragon makes him seem like the lovechild of Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick. And while his style to me doesn’t seem entirely unique to him, there’s no denying the artistry and feeling he brings to the film. Which is exactly what this film and so many other like it needed. The difference is those other films simply didn’t have it.
Lowery isn’t interested in dazzling us with special effects and big action. He’s more preoccupied with making us feel, whether that be melancholy, elation or wonder. The distinction is subtle, but important. Dazzling audiences, as so many current commercial films attempt to do, involves a kind of passivity, a bludgeoning and dulling of the audiences visceral, emotional, and intellectual faculties such that the film almost dupes you into enjoying it. Lowery pulls the emotion and excitement from within the spectator, tapping into what lays deep within the human psyche. It involves more investment in cinematic and narrative technique as well as character.
Which is precisely the second element that makes Pete’s Dragon work: character, specifically, the dragon himself, Elliot. Far from feeling like a piece of weightless, inanimate, computer generated fluff, Elliot’s designers manage to imbue in their mythical beast a kindness, wisdom and intelligence that far exceeds any of the human characters in the film and offsets his more traditionally adorable animal qualities. I’d be hard pressed to name a film character before Elliot that simultaneously had the friendly playfulness of a puppy and the stoic guardian quality of Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. And as I said above, Elliot embodies his character better than any of the flesh and blood people we see on screen. It would be one the all-time great acting performances. Instead, it’s one the greatest achievements in visual effects.
Above all, this is a film unafraid to take its time, which can sometimes result in a languid pace, but I find myself at a loss to discern what the filmmakers could have removed from the film to make its pace brisker while still maintaining its many emotional wallops. It’s all necessary to telling the powerful, pure story that it does. This isn’t a film concerned with making a grand statement, there’s no allegorical plea against deforestation or being kind to everyone, although that’s all definitely there if you’re looking for it. It has the quality of a fable, like the stories Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) tells to young children at the film’s beginning, minus any divisive and condescending “lessons” or easy moralizing that most fables, including those by Disney, like to preach. None of the characters are cut and dry bad guys, not even Karl Urban’s antagonist, Gavin. He’s merely a man who’s gripped by the trifecta of compulsions and flaws – fear, greed, and foolish arrogance – that causes so many people to do unintentionally evil things.
Pete’s Dragon is a film that simply reminds you what it is to feel, and tries to make you imagine the joy of being raised in the woods by a benevolent mythical beast. Take young children to see this film. With any luck, it will make them see what it is to be gentle, to have a friend, to be scared for that friend’s safety, and hopefully prepares them for the bittersweet experience of having to move on in life, without having to let that friend go. This is the kind of movie Disney should be making.