Exploring the fantasy pet of many a young boy and girl, Lee and Darren explore the relationship between Pete and his Dragon in Pete’s Dragon.
Pete’s Dragon is a fantasy, and the challenge with fantasy is that it often invites more fantasy. Tell a story about wizards attending magic school; wizards fight to the death after seven gruelling years in a war to protect humanity. Kids with mutated powers attend mutant powers school; mutants fight to the death after seven gruelling years in a war to protect humanity. Boy loses his parents in a car crash and gets adopted by a dragon? The possibilities for the story are endless, and that’s precisely the issue; how do you decide which one to tell?
What’s great about Pete’s Dragon is that, tonally, it decides to keep things grounded and slow. This is not the story of a boy who, after six years living in the forest, mounts an assault on the evil king’s fortress to protect humanity. This is the story of a boy, his dragon, the relationship they share and the forces of the world, be they positive or negative, that affect them. It’s told with grace and humility, and it really is great to see such a small story told in a generally small way.
We spend time with Pete, we spend time with Elliot the Dragon and we grow to understand how they have connected with one another and have come to depend on one another. That aspect of the film is done with minimal flair and with nearly zero dialogue between the pair, relying on imagery, action, camerawork and a strong child performance to tie it all together. It’s a convincing and surprisingly tasteful set-up that slowly, and unfortunately, unwinds into a story that doesn’t know what it is trying to say nor what it wants to be.
Let’s explore Elliot the dragon for a moment as a character, and what his relationship is to Pete. Fantasy doesn’t have to feel tethered to a human emotion or understanding, but if a movie wants us to believe that Pete and Elliot share a kinship upon which the entire emotional payoff of the film rests, it needs to be understood what their relationship is on a human level and why this matters to us.
If Elliot represents the foster parent in the ‘no matter who they are or what shape they come in, so long as they love you that’s all that counts’ sense, his subsequent abandonment by Pete for a real human family represents what exactly? It’s not quite ‘you have to let them make their own decisions’ territory; perhaps the angle is ‘sometimes they need more than just you’? Either way, Elliot gets a pretty raw deal here, and if he’s on board with the decision for the two to part ways, surely this only cheapens their relationship that they can part so drastically after only a day apart.
If Elliot instead represents something more intangible, say the indomitable human spirit or the will to survive, or even something spiritual, like man’s relationship to nature or, and this better not be true, God; why is there a chase scene and Elliot capture sequence? What could those possibly represent that wouldn’t already be grasping at fairly ungraspable straws.
The relationship between Elliot and Pete, while charming and endearing on the surface, appears to be hollow with any real exploration of the characters. And while this might pass if the tone of the movie were a fun, ‘boy and his pet dog’ story, the clear intentions of the harrowing opening and folksy tone of the piece indicate that this is meant to be something more, something ‘real’. And that ‘realness’ just isn’t there.
Outside interpretation, the entire plot to capture Elliot and parade him for profit by Karl Urban’s character (a plot ripped note-for-note from King Kong lore but played off with all the child-friendly Machiavellian charm Urban can muster) is cartoonishly at odds with the intentions of the first two acts, and feels wedged into the film by external forces. While we do spend a little time getting to know Pete’s potential new family, we never quite learn to grasp why Pete might choose them over Elliot, and the inevitable decision feels pressured by factors that exists solely in the action and not within the realms of understandable character behaviour.
Granted, context-wise, it is nice to see a studio as big as Disney put so much weight behind such a small story. It would just be nicer to see them put even more faith in its writers and not worry about having to hit autopilot on the final act to appease blood-thirsty test audiences. This is fantasy; imagine a story that actually focuses on what matters more than what doesn’t.
Extra nitpick: “I’ve never seen this part of the forest before.” Really, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character? You, the forest ranger for at least six years, couldn’t find the dragon den not twenty minutes from one of the continuing areas of deforestation led by your brother-in-law? That’s some serious character integrity assassination, and after the whole ‘asset out of containment’ lark from Jurassic World? Poor Howard, you deserve better.
For the last few years, Disney has been trying to reinvent its own back catalogue of movies and make them more mature in scope. Starting with Maleficent, turning a traditional fairy tale into something slightly more complex in its premise. And now Disney has turned its view towards Pete’s Dragon, a late 70’s, mostly forgotten, story about a boy and his imaginary dragon friend. I have little memory of the original movie and perhaps that’s a good thing, allowing me to have a more clear idea of what kind of story this movie wishes to tell.
Pete is a young boy in the late 70’s to early 80’s whose parents die in a car crash. After surviving the accident Pete wanders off and discovers a Dragon he names Elliot. Cut to six years later, Pete and Elliot are the best of friends who live together, A la Jungle book, and wish nothing more to be left alone. However, Pete’s curiosity of the people invading the forest to harvest wood leads him astray and he is found and taken in by the kindly ranger Grace. The rest of the movie centres around him trying to get back to Elliot and the home he loves.
Disney’s track record with this kind of remakes has been mediocre for the most part. The Jungle book, being the only stand-out good movie in a list of visually impressive, yet lacklustre movies. Pete’s Dragon follows with this being a movie that is heart-shatteringly beautiful to look at. The scenery and the locations are truly breathtaking with rich colours and solid cinematography that capture the primal feeling of nature in the heart of America. I have never wanted to move to a country more than I have in the first fifteen minutes of this film.
Setting the movie during the 70s/80s was an odd choice but it works in the pictures favour, this sort of setting being very in vogue recently, due to the popularity of Stranger things etc. The movie captures the time period very well but manages to be almost timeless in its setting. Like I said, the movie has a great look both in its scenery and prop design, capturing middle America as most Americans would like to believe it is.
The story is simple enough, following the traditional fish out of water style of story. Following the lead, as he reacts to things we take for granted and how he overreacts for comedic value. This is where the movie gets interesting. While it does conform to the tropes of this kind of story it never fully commits, instead trying to go for a more considerate approach. Pete’s oddness is never played for laughs of for anything other than just awkward moments. The tone of the movie is so dry that what little comedy it has is out of place and again awkward, such as the few moments of slapstick.
I feel like I’m missing something while watching it, that I’m meant to feel the wonder or magic that the cast keeps repeating that they do but I feel a distinct lack of charm in this one. The actors are all competent but underplayed, hampered by clunky dialogue and not allowed to give a performance much more than the three bland emotions they were each assigned before production. I’m not saying the movie is bad just that it really doesn’t know what it’s doing, just bumbling along so caught up in its own sense of self-important wonderment that it fails to give anything more than a bland and sometimes awkward movie.
I applaud the movie for taking some more daring approaches to storytelling such as having a more nuanced antagonist but it doesn’t commit wholeheartedly, giving an oddly out of character moment to our antagonist to try to raise the stakes, culminating in a car chase. But this feels so forced and wrong, going against the entire tone of the movie.
Like Pete’s Dragon himself, the movie blends into the background and disappears.