The sunniest months have been gloomy this year at the multiplex as the biggest movies have been disappointing and depressing. Suicide Squad was a mess, Tarzan tripped over its own feet, Warcraft was a leaky ship, and more sequels than I want to bother listing bombed despite lofty ambitions. Good films such as Captain America: Civil War have been entertaining, but not exactly optimistic.
Now, in the waning days of summer, just as it looks like the season might be lost, Pete's Dragon brings heart and soul to the big screen.
This remake of a 1977 family musical is vastly different from its inspiration, and unlike any other movie released this season. It doesn't just have one of the best dragons ever put on screen, though the playful and more than slightly canine Elliot is a big source of our affection for the movie. Pete's Dragon glows with genuine warmth and unvarnished optimism. This movie is entertaining and funny, and it doesn't look like anything else in theaters right now. More importantly, it has a soul.
Elliot Is A Spirit of the Forest
It would be easy to call Elliot the pet of our dreams. He's a flying cat-dog beast with a protective disposition who loves to play. But Elliot isn't a pet; he's a part of nature. He's something akin to the spirit of the forest, like a creature from a Hayao Miyazaki movie.
In the original film, Elliott was also a protector, almost a mentor, like a roving imaginary friend pulled into the real world. This dragon is more wild, more obviously an animal. He's a reminder of the magic and beauty of the natural world, but he's not aloof or untouchable. Sure, Elliot isn't easy to find -- just look at the character played by Robert Redford, who saw Elliot once in his youth and has spent his entire adult life pining for even one more glimpse of the dragon -- but those who do encounter him are not automatically pushed away.
Elliot must be approached with tenderness, even caution. But his demeanor is quiet persuasion that a divide between the human and natural worlds does not have to be wide, or deep.
The Family Movie Is Back
Pixar, Blue Sky Studios and Dreamworks Animation have all but owned the family movie landscape in the past decade. Animation has become the dominant mode for kid-friendly films, in part because appealing to kids is a business decision as much as a storytelling choice. Merchandising keeps studios going, and few things are better at generating merchandising opportunities than animated films packed with colorful characters tailor made for the toy aisle.
The Elliot of this film would look great recreated in soft plush, but Pete's Dragon is unique among modern studio-made family films in that it doesn't have a sales pitch as its backbone. This movie is crafted as a small story rather than a world-endangering event, with characters who seem straightforward but have their own desires and complications. It helps, too, that the two kids in this film, played by Oakes Fegley (Pete) and Oona Laurence (Natalie, the young girl who becomes part of Pete's surrogate family) actually behave like kids. They respond in a totally open way, with wonder and reverence, to Elliot, and that helps the entire movie feel bright and open, too, even when it spends time in shadowy places.
Show No Fear
Being a family movie doesn't mean that it has to be safe, exactly. This story doesn't force itself into bright, sunny images that wouldn't suit the tale of an orphaned boy, his dragon and an encounter with a potential new family. It doesn't pretend that modern cops would be cool with a dragon appearing in their town. But it also doesn't wallow in those things, or use them as an excuse to go ridiculously dark.
This is quite a change from the original version of Pete's Dragon, which despite being a Disney musical has some seriously dark storytelling. There's the opening song about how Pete's so-called family, the Gogans, sing about making Pete their slave and all the hurt they'll put on him if he doesn't play along. (They paid fifty bucks for him, after all, he's their property! Or so their song goes.)
Then there's the mid-film song where the other villains, Dr. Terminus and his hapless helper Hoagy, sing about the money they'll make by dismembering Elliott and selling him for parts. Wait, and this is a Disney movie? Seriously, watch the song -- maybe NSFW because of promises of cutting a cute dragon into bits.
Optimism Is Everything
No other studio film this summer has been as bright and touching as Pete's Dragon, nor as inviting. The Jungle Book offered a stunning digital recreation of natural landscapes and animal characters, but we didn't exactly want to scamper through shadowy boughs along with Mowgli. This film makes us want to live in its dense forests and bucolic logging town, even with the attitudes of some of the burg's less thoughtful residents.
Give some of the credit to actors like Karl Urban, who plays a logger who sees Elliot as a target and, like those snake-oil salesmen in the clip above, a way to make some dough. Urban helps his character, who in a different movie might be just another mustache-twirling villain, become a real guy -- and when his attitude about the dragon starts to change, we really feel it.
Ironically, the director of Pete's Dragon is David Lowery, a filmmaker from Texas whose last film was a heavy thriller-turned-love story featuring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. That film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, is great, but it's not exactly school's-out escapism, and too many people get shot for it to be optimistic in any broad sense of the word.
Pete's Dragon puts Lowery's ability to make something wild feel concrete and even possible to good work. The director doesn't force characters to do things that aren't inside them, instead drawing out their individual inner strengths. This is a Disney movie so some kind of happy ending is pretty much assured, but in this case the resolution doesn't feel cheap or hollow; instead, it's a satisfying vision of people in need finding that thing that connects them to the world, and realizing how precious it really is.