Pete’s Dragon: Nice and Simple, by Tyler Smith
Pete’s Dragon, directed by David Lowery, is a pleasant enough film, with an uncomplicated story and even less complicated characters. It feels very familiar. In many ways, it is a stripped down version of E.T. and a more optimistic King Kong. None of this is inherently bad (a movie could do much worse than be simple and pleasant), but it isn’t particularly compelling. The film is at once refreshing and frustrating. Lowery’s desire to keep the film small and quiet is a nice reprieve from the increasingly loud blockbusters currently in theaters. But, once the film was over, it evaporated from my memory, leaving me struggling to remember anything about it.
A pared down remake of the 1970s Disney film, Pete’s Dragon is about a small forest town whose inhabitants live quiet, simple lives. They go to their jobs at the lumber mill, laugh heartily while they work, then go home to their families. Like many towns, it has its own folklore, namely about a dragon that is said to live in the deep woods. It is established early in the film that this legend is true, as we see Pete (Oakes Fegley), a young orphan boy, wander into the forest and be taken under the literal wing of a benevolent green dragon, whom he names Elliott. Years later, the local loggers soon discover Pete and bring him to town, separating him from Elliott. Pete is taken in by a loving family and is soon torn between wanting to continue these new relationships or return to Elliott. Meanwhile, some of the more aggressive loggers have discovered Elliott and want to take him as a prize.
We’ve seen much of this before, but Lowery wisely treats the material as though it were completely new territory. It is Lowery’s commitment to this story – and to the central relationship between Pete and Elliott – that is the film’s greatest asset. Whenever Pete is on screen, striving to figure out what is expected of him from the townspeople, the film comes alive. Much of this is due to Oakes Fegley, who brings just the right amount of childlike curiosity and animal instinct to the role. Pete is reminiscent of Jack in last year’s Room; a character we instinctively want to protect. So many movies would use Pete’s unusual upbringing as a way to comment on the small-mindedness of the townspeople, but Lowery wisely understands that, as loving and protective as Elliott has been of this young boy, a human influence is badly needed.
It’s in this respect that the film begins to come up short. The various townspeople that Pete encounters – so important to his development as a character – are paper thin. They’re not even memorable enough to be considered archetypes. The actors try their best – with Robert Redford as the wise old man making the most impact, mostly by cultural default – but they just don’t make much of an impression. The family that Pete is welcomed into means well enough, but their bland sincerity is non-specific and ultimately unengaging. The original film, despite its many flaws, had a number of interesting, well-developed characters. Even if many of them were cartoonish, they at least had a pulse.
Perhaps this is all by design. Maybe the townspeople aren’t meant to be that interesting, so that we are much more invested in the emotional connection between Pete and Elliott. And, indeed, it is a fairly effective connection. The visual effects bring Elliott to life in a way that is somehow both impressive and subtle. While there are several “hero shots” of the dragon, the film mostly treats him as a simple fact of life; a consistent and reliable presence in Pete’s life. We believe Elliott is really there, primarily because Lowery doesn’t feel the need to show him off to us. Elliott is a real character, not merely a visual effect.
It is this same unassuming air that allows Lowery – and his cinematographer Bojan Bazelli – to craft a consistently enveloping world. The woods feel deep and cool. As the sunlight peeks through the branches, the effect is one that quietly invites us to share in Pete’s adventures. It is effortlessly beautiful.
There is indeed so much going on in Pete’s Dragon that it is a shame that the film isn’t more distinct. As stated, it is a pleasurable enough experience to recommend for both children and adults. And, while its story is comfortingly familiar, it is overly content to remain just that. It is pleasant and familiar. Not much more. And while a filmmaker could do much worse than what David Lowery does here, the effective elements only serve to highlight the director’s relatively low ambition in his storytelling. This film could be genuinely great, but too often settles for merely good.