Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford
Director: David Lowery
Rating: Four stars
HOW TO NAME YOUR DRAGON
A child’s imagination, unencumbered by adult anxieties, can be both, a thing of innocence and of beauty. Calvin had his Hobbes and Charlie Brown his Snoopy. But in cinema, children have developed even unlikelier friendships. There was Free Willy in 1993. Steven Spielberg, of course, pushed that envelope further with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and more recently with The BFG (2016). Moral of the story – even aliens, beasts and giants are not impervious to the disarming qualities of a child’s doe-eyed gentleness. Pete’s Dragon uses this familiar trope to reinvent a 1977 musical that sorely needed updating. There’s no song or dance here. The storytelling is simple, the frills minimal.
The film begins with a crash. A child loses his parents as their car overturns. Alone in the woods, frightened and forlorn, he is about to become dinner for a pack of wolves. Thankfully, a dragon intervenes and adopts this orphan. Though he might breathe fire, there’s a stuffed toy quality to his green and cuddly CGI fur. His facial expressions are almost always soft and once he is christened Elliott by Pete, he comes across as a colossal puppy, incapable of the monstrosity you had come to expect.
We next meet Pete (Oakes Fegley) six years later. He is ten now. Able-footed in the forest, wearing a loin cloth, he resembles the Mowgli Disney had resurrected with The Jungle Book just a few months ago. With Pete’s Dragon, the production house only reaffirms its mastery of the live action-animated picture. When discovered by Natalie (Oona Laurence) and the forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), the slow-burning film suddenly finds a needed spark. The idyllic world that Pete and Elliot had built for themselves is disrupted. Elliot is no longer a myth for the lumberjack crew that chances upon him. The Millhaven dragon they had all heard of is only too real.
The sight of trees being felled by lumberjacks does certainly amplify environmental concerns that Pete’s Dragon otherwise hints at, but director David Lowery never belabours these points. There is no obvious evil that one can point to in the film. Even when the dragon is being hunted, we don’t necessarily wish the gun-wielding perpetrators dead. You’re left with a lasting belief that the love Elliot and Pete share will win the day. There’s no sappy sentimentality in their affection. Even the maternal Bryce Dallas Howard doesn’t make you cringe when she looks toward Pete with adoration.
Played delightfully by Oakes Fegley, Pete’s yearning for human companionship is depicted with a sensitivity that’s moving. At one point, he tells an irate Elliot, “I need them [people].” Much like Tarzan before him, this jungle boy simultaneously longs for the world while wanting to keep one foot in the forest. Writers Lowery and Toby Halbrooks have come up with a screenplay that can never resort to verbosity. (Elliot never speaks and Pete’s knowledge of language is rudimentary.) But despite these limits, the emotions here hit a perfect pitch. Your heart strings are tugged, not pulled.
Robert Redford plays Grace’s father in Pete’s Dragon. It is undoubtedly a pleasure to see him be the star he is on screen, but as the only man in town who had once seen the dragon, he imbues his stories with a certain wonder. He preaches the importance of magic. Pete’s Dragon is, in the end, a testament to the magic of old-school cinema where the simplicity of a narrative counted for something. The technology that has enabled this film’s makers is but a tool, and that really is a relief.