“Some Secrets Are Too Big To Keep”
Directed by David Lowery
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford
Pete’s Dragon is the tale of a young boy and his friendship with a magical dragon named Elliot, whose ability to become invisible makes most people assume he’s imaginary. Pete and Elliot stumble into a quaint little town, where Pete is taken in by the lighthouse keeper and his daughter, while being pursued by the violent redneck family who in some means purchased him and wish to assert their ownership. Meanwhile, Dr Terminus is in town, a quack doctor looking to go ‘legit’ by selling remedies made from slicing up Elliot. At the end, Pete has a family, and so Elliot goes off to help the next child in need, as magical friends in disney movies of the era were wont to do.
Both the child slavery angle and the threatened violent dismemberment of a sentient being are, of course, discussed through the medium of jaunty, upbeat singing. It’s not terrifying like, say, Darby O’Gill and the Littel People is terrifying, but it is weirdly dark given the tone of the songs, or possibly vice versa. In particular the cheery tune of the number ‘We Got a Bill of Sale Right Here’, and the fact that no one seems to question the Gogans’ claim to ‘own’ Pete on any sort of legal grounds, worries me.
70s Disney; it’s its own brand of messed up.
In 1977 a car crash kills a couple and strands their young son, Pete, in the forest. Six years later, Pete (Fegley) is living in the care of a displaced dragon he has named Elliot. As a logging operation moves into his home, he is spotted by Natalie (Laurence), the daughter of the foreman, Jack (Bentley), and soon after found by Jack and his fiancee Grace (Howard), a forest ranger. He is eager to get back to Elliot, but his discovery has already led Jack’s brother Gavin (Urban) to find Elliot.
Pete leads Grace, Natalie and Grace’s father (Redford) to Elliot, but Gavin captures the dragon and intends to exhibit him. Pete and his friends help Elliot to escape and Jack and Grace are almost killed when he turns on his pursuers. At last, Elliot flees to the north to rejoin his own kind, while Pete becomes part of a family.
It’s not a musical, although there is a folk song about where the dragons live.
What’s wrong with it?
Pete is in conspicuously good condition for a boy who has lived six years in the woods. Even if we assume a high protein, low sugar diet, lots of fresh air and exercise and a reasonable aversion to getting too into the question of parasites in a children’s movie to have kept him physically hale, his linguistic ability is pretty much standard for an eleven year old. You might think that having begun at a five year old level and been practiced only in conversation with a dragon who growls and rumbles, his capacity for human communication might be rather more limited.
I swear, Karl Urban must be older than that by now. He’s four years older than me (and seriously, only four years?) and they’re still reasonably casting him as a brash younger adult. Wes Bentley is younger than me, but gets to play his older brother; what’s up with that, Hollywood?
What’s right with it?
I mock the CGI, but actually Elliot is both awesome and adorable; he’s awedorable.
The cast are excellent, both in general and at acting to a ball on a stick that’s going to be a dragon one day. Oakes Fegley could easily have been as annoyingly cutsey as… well, as the original Pete, but comes off as convincingly scared and vulnerable.
With the CGI seamlessly integrated into a gritty world of struggling rural industry, the dragon occasionally threatens to be less than wondrous (which interestingly diminishes the impact of Gavin’s plans to monetise him as a sideshow,) but the cast – and especially Redford, more than justifying his inclusion as acting muscle – manage to bring that sense back.
I like that Gavin isn’t some diabolical caricature, like the Gogans or Dr Terminus, but just a slightly short-sighted man trying to get by, and who ultimately risks his life to save his family.
How bad is it really?
So, long-term readers probably know that it’s a good sign when I start nit-picking the paediatric health science of a movie about a dragon. It suggests that the film doesn’t have any really glaring flaws. If Pete’s Dragon has a failing it’s that it ends up being a little too… safe, which explains my choice of best moment (the other alternative being an excellent near-monologue from Redford describing Meacham’s encounter with the dragon.) Also that Pete spends surprisingly little time with the dragon. Overall it’s a good, solid movie with a strong emotional core and a desperately awedorable dragon.
And for the record, I don’t give a crap if the dragon has fur. It’s a dragon, I’m not about to assume I know some shit here.
Best bit (if such there is)?
As Jack and Grace, Gavin and… well, just about everyone are following the truck carrying Elliot, he recovers from his tranquilising, gets off the truck and busts out the napalm breath at his pursuers… led by Jack and Grace, who are sympathetic characters who never harmed him. It’s the one moment when the movie reminds us that this Elliot isn’t a magical friend, but a wild – if intelligent and wondrous – beast that does not share human understanding and priorities.
What’s up with…?
- How does one sex a dragon? Seriously, it occurs to me that Elliot could just as well be a she as a he.
- The vanishing of Elliot? It turns out that a folk song it a perfect guide to where to find dragons, and it’s not like Pete is the only person in the world with a compass.
Production values – The film is gorgeous, not just the CGI but the use of locations. 2
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is a bit of a weak point in the film, with nothing hugely memorable. The performances on the other hand transcend the material. 7
Plot and execution – The plot feels oddly wishy-washy on the matter of Pete’s fate, and I actually found myself perplexed by the absence of a fussy, jobsworth social worker threatening to remove Pete from any proximity to the forest. All in all though, it’s a well-paced, simple story; actually much simpler than the original. 6
Randomness – Especially given the source material, Pete’s Dragon is remarkably down to Earth, with goofy slapstick and contrived mishaps abandoned along with the musical numbers. The weirdest thing is how little impact Elliot’s discovery ends up having. 3
Waste of potential – I do feel that there was a slightly darker, more heavyweight movie that could have been made from the decision to turn Pete’s Dragon into a straight drama, but what we have is in no way disappointing. Indeed, it is much, much better than I would have expected. 3