“Pete’s Dragon” feels like a mash-up between a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn adventure except instead of two young lads it’s a prepubescent boy and a giant winged beast. The dense American Wilderness has a life-force that is staggeringly beautiful and tangibly dangerous. Watching an orphaned Pete (Oakes Fegley) wandering into the woods and predators like wolves and bears making themselves ready for an easy hot meal is terrifying; that is until an apex predator with a heart of gold takes a shine to his sweetness, innocence and adorning him with a name, Elliot.
The opening of the film sees Pete’s family fatal car accident after attempting to avoid a deer. Pete, who is about five years old, is the lone survivor. Elliot, the dragon becomes his companion and protector for six long years. Of course you’re going to ask, how does something that large escape notice for that long, but the filmmakers make Elliot a rich shade of green for camouflage and give him the power of invisibility (which he can turn on and off like a light). The human presence this far into the wood lures Pete towards his kind; and the clumsy and adorable Elliot stumbles into the spotlight.
It’s a strange and splendid thing to watch “Pete’s Dragon” in the same year as Jon Favreau’s breakout hit “The Jungle Book.” The wilderness is a force that's against Pete and Mowgli. For Mowgli, he’s a part of an animal society and hierarchy that guides his behaviours and social standing. From his scenes that he’s racing through the undergrowth with his adopted wolf brothers, desperate to defy the limitations of his humanity; we’re lead to know that Mowgli’s survival depends upon his ability to assimilate. A man in the jungle for most is most a sign of either danger, food (Shere Khan voiced by Idris Elba) or an exploitation opportunity (King Louis voiced by Christopher Walken - Fire & Baloo voiced by Bill Murray - Honey retrieving contraptions).
"Pete’s Dragon" conversely pairs these two alien creatures to a still hostile and landscape. Elliot the Dragon is not Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley); a panther ‘Obi Wan’ instead he’s an adorable gigantic and playful puppy, himself lost to the woods. When they come upon an excavator in the woods at the farthest reaching part of the logging operation, Pete doesn’t get a lesson about his kind, or fear from his dragon companion about the peskiness of humans. Instead they begin beating about yellow machine like a 1:1 scale Tonka truck. Director David Lowery does a terrific job of integrating the digital dragon into the world and creating an environment for the characters, especially Fegley, to feel like they’re interacting with the clumsy green oaf.
Pete and Elliot are fortunate to live their lives in a sort of unsupervised forest day care. Pete will often sprint to a cliff ledge and launch himself off waiting for Elliot to catch him. In those moments theres the same kind of anxiety you get when the children in your family begin launching themselves off of furniture to be caught and you know that you’re going to be scrolling through Twitter on your iPhone when you hear the thud of missed opportunity.
Pete must help Elliot escape capture and exploitation at all costs. There’s an absentmindedness to what Pete is to Elliot, and Pete is completely oblivious to the fact that his new animal friend also appears to be an orphan.
Writers David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks (adapting the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein) are very careful not to make this world too big for the characters to exist. While logging companies are inherently ‘evil’ in any film that disrupts wildlife, Elliot is an outsider too. You get to empathise that small town loggers discovering a damned dragon would be a ticket to a more lucrative life. It’s only the resulting shaking of whole sections of forest, like shaking a shrub and gigantic footprints in the dirt when Elliot’s moving about that alerts logging operation to the potential truth to the folktales.
The only real miscue comes with the speed that Pete is able to be integrated into the human family in the wake of his capture. There’s a devastating moment where Pete is sitting with Jack (Wes Bentley) and Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), his ‘new’ family, being read a bed time story. Elliot has made his way into suburbia in the cover of night and senses out Pete’s location. Instead of seeing his companion pining, he’s mildly betrayed with Pete’s immediate integration with this species. Elliot is once agin the lonely outsider.
The central family of “Pete’s Dragon,” are a collision of perspectives. Brother’s Jack (Wes Bentley, steady-tortured-sensitive) and Gavin (Karl Urban bringing the braggadocio) are in an arm wrestle about tactics for their family’s logging company. Jack’s wife Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard blurring the line between charming and annoying) provides the voice of the environmentally conscious. Her father Meacham (Robert Redford at his most warm and wondrous) is the oral historian and longstanding dragon conspiracy theorist; who opposes the interruption of their habitat.
“Pete’s Dragon” isn’t an epic, it’s a magical tale of two orphans finding their way in the world. We’re all searching for belonging, some of us find it in unlikely places, with outwardly scary beasts that are really armour plates for the teddy bears underneath. Perhaps it’s me, but given the choice between living with Wes ‘weird kid from “American Beauty”’ Bentley and Bryce ‘Jurassic Woe’ Dallas Howard and a dragon; I chose the dragon.
Directed by: David Lowery
Written by: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks (based on a screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein & based on a story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field)
Bryce Dallas Howard ... Grace
Robert Redford ... Meacham
Oakes Fegley ... Pete
Oona Laurence ... Natalie
Wes Bentley ... Jack
Karl Urban ... Gavin
Isiah Whitlock Jr. ... Sheriff Gene Dentler
Marcus Henderson ... Woodrow
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.