Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Directed by David Lowery

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Pete’s Dragon would seem to be an unlikely follow up to David Lowery’s 2013 film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, not to mention an unlikely precursor to 2017’s A Ghost Story.  This is a straight up Disney fable, a big-budget movie about a CGI dragon while those other two are small, independent arthouse films without much concern for box office receipts.

Still, Lowery brings a similar sensibility to this movie.  I can only really describe it as an appreciation for life and storytelling.  In this movie we see not only the story unfold but we hear how others tell that story, namely Robert Redford.  Playing the elder statesman of the film, he narrates with an air of authority the rumored existence of the Mill Haven Dragon.

This will be the dragon we see befriend a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who finds himself lost in the forest following a car crash that killed his parents.  Pete nicknames the dragon Elliot, and together they have a friendship like the one you see in E.T. and soon a conflict involving sinister outsiders much the same.

Meachem (Redford) gives us more information about the Mill Haven Dragon.  Having seen it once before, many years ago, Meachem tells neighborhood kids about the dragon and the power of things we cannot see.  His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a park ranger who insists he stop telling such stories.  She’s a realist, I suppose.

So the movie calls attention to Meachem’s act of storytelling and thus the whole framework within which we ingest a story like this.  Like most Disney movies, fairytales in their own way, Pete’s Dragon is about how we tell stories like this and what we hope to get from them.

Later in the movie, Meachem will explain to Grace the significance of seeing the dragon so many years ago and the importance he took from the event even if no one else would believe him.  He says that the moment profoundly shaped how he saw the rest of the world and the people in it.  It offered him a sense of peace he had presumably been looking for.

Pete’s Dragon is a sweet, sincere movie that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but doesn’t need to.  It’s a well-made film with an appropriately adorable, furry dragon and a child who needs a friend.  When the movie reaches a “sad moment,” it’s very sad, and when it needs to be heartwarming it’s very heartwarming.

There used to be a point when I loathed the mechanics of a movie that worked to tug on my heartstrings, but for at least right now I don’t mind.  Even as you can see the algorithm working, it works.

So the text is fairly straightforward.  We know pretty early on who the antagonists are, and they represent a destructive force that comes from not being able to see the bigger picture.  In this case it’s a a hunter, Grace’s brother-in-law (Karl Urban), who wants to capture the dragon for his own personal gain.  By the end, however, he will appreciate the dragon for what it is and step back.  It’s a simple beat, but instead of his own humiliation he learns to see things a new way, like the initial antagonists in a Spielberg film.

So Pete’s Dragon is full of wonder, and by the end everyone feels it.  I did too, sh*t.  I really enjoyed this movie, and I found particularly poignant Redford’s speech about the effect the dragon had on him.

Up Next: High Noon (1952), Starship Troopers (1997), Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (2018)

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