Pete’s Dragon kind of feels like a film from another time. The modern family film has fully bought into the idea that what kids want is constant stimulation, and more often than not these projects are frantic balls of energy that meant to be forgotten. Pete’s Dragon is much more willing to be languid, to stay inside a feeling rather than move on to the next bit of frantic action. The plot doesn’t fully hold together, but its consistency of tone and imagery make it somewhat more memorable than your average family film.
The film opens on tragedy. A family is driving up to their new home in the Pacific Northwest when they lose control of their car. Five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is the only survivor of the accident. The young orphan wanders into the woods, and encounters something quite strange: a dragon. The film then cuts to six years later, where Pete and the dragon (who he has named Elliot) have managed to build a life in the forest. But a gang of loggers has made its way into the deeper woods, and this leads to Pete being spotted by young Natalie (Oona Laurence). Pete is taken into town while people try to figure out how he survived in the forest for so long.
The film is making an active attempt to be timeless. It’s actually a little unclear when this movie is actually set. There is a distinct lack of visible technology in its scenes. This might just be because the existence of the camera phone would complicate this plot a little too much. Or it might be a conscious effort to set the film outside of bounds of what has become normal everyday life. Whatever the reason, the film does a good enough job of not making it feel weird. It fully commits to its timelessness, every aspect of the production contributing to a greater sense of temporal vagueness.
There isn’t a lot of incident in the movie, but it engages in other ways. It opens on a profound loss, and it lets that grow into melancholy as the story goes on. And then it opens up, allowing itself a measure of poetry as it follows this essentially feral kid adjusting to his new surroundings, relearning what it’s like to be around people, and to have a family. And in the dragon, the film creates something genuinely magical. The hardest thing to do in visual effects is to convey a real connection between the effect and the humans in the frame. But Elliot is expressive in ways that are truly moving. There is no question that he loves Pete, and that Pete loves him back. And that’s all you really need.
The character work gets a little spotty on the fringes, particularly with the figures meant to insert conflict into the narrative. But decent performances help that slide, more or less. Oakes Fegley is the heart of this film, and the range of emotions he displays is key to the telling of this story. Oona Laurence is perfectly charming as Natalie, the relationship she builds with Pete totally convincing. Robert Redford lends his blend of soul and grit to the picture, and it helps tremendously. And Bryce Dallas Howard hits the right notes. Wes Bentley and Karl Urban are saddled with the weakest roles in the bunch, but they manage to make it work.
Pete’s Dragon is slower than most recent films aimed at children, but this shouldn’t scare anyone off. The film doesn’t want to just be a distraction. It wants to linger a little bit, to create images that stay with the viewer a little longer. And this is a good thing indeed. The film wants its viewers to feel something, to get more out of the experience than just seeing things whiz by for ninety minutes. There are clunky parts, certainly, but the net effect is still pretty wondrous.