Probably my biggest – it’s not a weakness per-say – but biggest quirk as a critic is that I’m oversentimental. I’m a big sap. I have a soft spot for soft spots. Anything involving a boy and his dog or other non-human companion hits me right in the gut. I’m a crier, and I am completely unashamed to say that I left Pete’s Dragon with watery eyes and wet cheeks.
Pete’s Dragon isn’t just another Boy-and-his-Blank story though, it may be the best example of the genre since ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (Narrowly beating out The Iron Giant); and undoubtedly filled with the same wonder and gentleness. Like the best of the genre, Pete’s Dragon is smart enough to avoid the loss of innocence story for something both more nuanced and more emotionally valid. It’s a movie about the necessity of growing up, about how trying to stay a child forever suffocates one’s ability to be human. Even better than the recent The Little Prince adaptation, Pete’s Dragon shows audiences that growing up doesn’t mean abandoning the magic of childhood, but understanding how to share it with other people. And yes, Pete’s Dragon totally acknowledges that there will be tons of people who won’t accept your magic, who will want to make you run back into the woods; but that by doing so, you never meet the people who will truly love and understand you.
Another one of my weaknesses as a critic, or maybe just a writer, is that I front load all the critical stuff before talking about stuff like plot. So onto that stuff…
On paper, the first five minutes of Pete’s Dragon should be the most traumatic thing in a kid’s film this side of Watership Down, and it is a testament to the film’s gentle nature that it doesn’t immediately kill the mood. A five year old Pete (Levi Alexander; Oakes Fegley at 11 years old) is the only survivor of a car accident that kill his mother and father, leaving him stranded in the middle of the woods where he’s immediately set upon by a pack of wolves. But before any more harm comes to the boy, he is rescued by a dragon – a great big fuzzy winged-beast with an under-bite and puppy-dog eyes – that embraces the young boy and holds him safe against his chest. Pete spends the next six years with the dragon, whom he names Elliot, after a picture book – the only surviving memento of the crash, where he makes a home in the woods playing with, and protected by his only companion in the world.
And then Pete sees Natalie (Oona Laurence). The daughter of park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and lumberjack Jack (Wes Bently); Natalie is the first person his age he’s seen – his first chance at a new friend – and without hesitation, he invites her to play. Pete invites Natalie into the woods – into his world – but both of them are forcibly taken out by Natalie’s parents once they notice she’s been gone.
After a sequence of Pete trying to make his way back into the woods (in one of the year’s best chase scenes); Pete’s Dragon makes an interesting pivot. Instead of getting the story of a boy losing his dog, we get the story of a Dragon who’s lost his boy. We watch Elliot leave the woods to try and fine Pete. The story hints early on that Elliot is as much of an orphan as Pete, and that he’s also just lost his best and only friend in the entire world.
And when Elliot is discovered by Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), he decides that the dragon must belong to him.
From there the plot is exactly as you think it is. Pete slowly adjusts to his new life with Natalie, Grace, and Jack; Gavin finds Elliot a second time and makes me cry for the second time in the movie’s run-time; there’s another chase scene, and so on and so forth. What makes Pete’s Dragon rise above, again, is how warm and gentle it is.
Starting with the crash in the very beginning; we don’t see anything graphic at all. Instead of the wreckage all around, the film stays centered and upright on Pete’s face, who is clearly more confused by the sudden commotion than anything else. And once that terribleness is done with, the movie doesn’t rush to start the plot. We get plenty of time to bond with Pete and Elliot as they play in the woods. We see the love they have for each-other and the joy and comfort they provide the other. These early scenes don’t just make you nostalgic for childhood, they transport you back to a time where running away to the woods and living with your best friend really did feel like the best idea ever. And through the rest of the film, that magic is never ripped away. It’s never lessened in the slightest. It’s challenged, it dares you at moments to hold tight to it and not let go – but that light barely dims. Even at the film’s darkest, the wonder of it all is front and center. “There’s a dragon!” the film seems to exclaim, “There’s a dragon right there and he’s friendly.”
And by the end of the film, you might surprise yourself by how distant you let that dragon roam from you. The film eases its characters and its audience into realizing that you don’t need to have the dragon there to know what it was like to have seen it. We see how dangerous it is it try and capture and keep it for ourselves. We learn to be like Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford), the only other character to have seen the dragon before Pete, and who never went looking for it again.
Writing this review, just remembering Pete’s Dragon, has made me misty eyed again. It’s a beautiful movie, one that perfectly recalls the magic of childhood and shows you how to be brave enough to let it fly away in under two hours. I don’t plan on ever having a child of my own, but if one day I do, I know I’d want to watch this movie with them.