I loved “Pete’s Dragon” for a very simple reason: The movie itself is rather simple. Maybe that makes it sound cheap, dumb or otherwise unworthy of serious evaluation or adoration, but it’s not. Perhaps a better word would be pure. It’s a film with purity of emotion, character and intention. Which is surprising, since I haven’t been a fan of most movies Disney has put out recently. But “Pete’s Dragon” breaks that trend and hopefully provides a template for Disney —and other big budget studios — to follow in the future.
Much of the film’s success comes down to two elements, the first of which is director David Lowery. I’ll admit — somewhat ashamedly, now that I’ve seen what he’s capable of — that I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Lowery’s work until now. I’d heard great things about his breakthrough feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” but time demands prevented me from seeing it myself. From the few images and moments from that film I had seen though, Lowery’s style and fingerprints are all over “Pete’s Dragon.” His affinity for nature photography and natural light that gives scenes an ethereal glow are apparent in both films, and his approach to “Pete’s Dragon” makes him seem like the cinematic lovechild of Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick. And while his style doesn’t seem entirely unique to him, there’s no denying the artistry and feeling he brings to the film. Which is exactly what this film — and so many others like it —needed. The difference is that so many of those other films simply didn’t have it.
Lowery isn’t interested in dazzling us with special effects or big action. He’s more preoccupied with making us feel, whether that be melancholy, elation or wonder. The distinction is subtle but important. Dazzling audiences, as so many current commercial films attempt to do, involves a kind of audience passivity, a bludgeoning and dulling of the audiences’ visceral, emotional, and intellectual faculties such that they are tricked into enjoying it. Lowery pulls the emotion and excitement from within the spectator, tapping into what lies deep within the human psyche. It involves more investment in cinematic and narrative technique, as well as character.
Which is precisely the second element that makes “Pete’s Dragon” work: character, generally, and the dragon himself, Elliot, specifically. Far from feeling like a piece of weightless, inanimate computer generated fluff, Elliot’s designers manage to imbue in their mythical beast a kindness, wisdom and intelligence that seems to far exceed that of any of the human characters in the film and offsets his more traditionally adorable animal qualities. I’d be hard pressed to name a film character before Elliot that simultaneously had the friendly playfulness of a puppy and the stoic guardian quality of Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings.” If he were played by a human, it would be one the all-time great acting performances. Instead, it’s one the greatest achievements in visual effects.
Above all, this is a film unafraid to take its time, which can sometimes result in a languid pace. But I find myself at a loss to discern what the filmmakers could have removed from the film to make its pace brisker while still maintaining its many emotional wallops. It’s all necessary to telling the powerful, pure story that it does. This isn’t a film concerned with making a grand statement — there’s no allegorical plea against deforestation or call to be kind to everyone — but that’s all definitely there if you’re looking for it. It has the quality of a fable, like the stories Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) tells to young children at the film’s beginning, minus any divisive and condescending “lessons” or easy moralizing that most fables — including those by Disney — like to preach. None of the characters are cut and dry bad guys, not even Karl Urban’s antagonist, Gavin. He’s merely a man who’s gripped by the trifecta of compulsions and flaws — fear, greed and foolish arrogance — that causes so many people to do unintentionally evil things.
“Pete’s Dragon” is a film that reminds you what it is to feel and tries to make you imagine the joy of being raised in the woods by a benevolent mythical beast. Take young children to see this film. With any luck, it will make them see what it is to be gentle, to have a friend, to be scared for that friend’s safety and hopefully prepares them for the bittersweet experience of having to move on in life, without having to let that friend go. This is the kind of movie Disney should be making.