Reference-based nostalgia is a cheap high, the cinematic equivalent of huffing a paper bag full of airplane glue. Yeah, you’ll get a buzz, but it’s a shitty one, and it leaves you with a headache and a few thousand fewer brain cells. Referencing great things of the past, things you loved and grew up with, is easy and it’s a short cut - ‘Hey, remember this thing? Didn’t you love it? Well, now I’ve associated my movie/Netflix show with it, so you should love me too!’ - that is artless and manipulative.
That stuff is easy. What’s hard is to transport a modern audience member into the brain of an 11 year old, to make a jaded, 21st century crowd feel what it was like to grow up all over again, and to do it without the crutch of popular movie references or Greatest Hits level needle drops. It’s hard to construct a movie that, just through its own images and sounds, can drag you back to pre-adolescence as quickly as that madeleine kicked Proust’s ass back to his own childhood. In the first twenty minutes of Pete’s Dragon filmmaker David Lowery does just that, creating sights and sounds that don’t just remind you of being a kid but that return you to that state, bring you back to a time when you were open to awe, when your imagination was boundless and when the world was maybe just a little more frightening than you were willing to admit.
Pete’s Dragon is a remake of the 1977 Disney film, but this version has very, very little in common with that movie, which is kinda not that great. Where the 77 version was a broad and nuance-free kiddie pleaser, Lowery (director of Sundance movie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has made a gentle and beautiful work of art, a movie that is truly cinematic and fully emotionally alive. This is a film of grace and wonder, with meditative moments as well as a dragon blowing gallons of snot on Karl Urban - it contains multitudes.
In the opening scene five year old Pete is in the backseat of his parents’ car as they drive through the isolated woods, headed out on an adventure. A deer darts in front of the vehicle and there’s a terrible crash; we see the whole incident in a shot centered on Pete’s face, filled with confusion and wonder as the car flips and gravity itself becomes mooted. The boy is the only survivor, and after crying for a bit by the wreckage he picks up his copy of Elliot Gets Lost and heads off into the woods… where he is promptly set upon by a pack of wolves. But before the slavering lupines can get him, a huge form comes crashing through the trees, a mighty and fuzzy dragon, who scares off the attackers and extends a giant gentle paw to the boy who still has tear streaks on his face. When Pete touches the dragon he reacts physically, his fur rippling in a color change from dark green to a bright, cheerful green. That is the exact moment I fell in love with the movie.
Pete and his dragon - named Elliot, after the lost puppy in the book - live together in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest for six years before aggressive logging encroaches on their serene and fun friendship. The woods where the duo once romped and played and the trees over which they once flew are being clearcut. A lone park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose kindly old outdoorsman ad (Robert Redford) claims to have once seen a dragon in the woods, is the sole person trying to protect the wild. On the side opposite her is Gavin (Karl Urban), brother of her logging company-owning fiance Jack (Wes Bentley); Gavin is dead set on getting deep into the woods and cutting as much as possible. In doing so he inadvertently discovers first Pete, a long-haired wild child, and eventually Elliot.
Child actor Oakes Fegley is marvelous as Pete. In many ways Pete is the boy many of us wanted to be - self-sufficient, effortlessly athletic, daring, fun, and living his life with his very best friend in the whole world (who happens to be a giant dragon that can become invisible). Fegley nails all of that Lost Boys stuff with perfection, but at the same time he finds the other side of that fantasy, the side that you didn’t think about as a kid - the loneliness, the fear, the isolation. Living in the woods and paling around with a dragon is the dream of many a lonely kid, but the reality is that living the dream doesn’t make you any less lonely. Pete’s journey is towards making his own peace with society and with realizing, after so many years alone, he needs more than just Elliot in his life.
One of the thematic concerns underpinning Pete’s Dragon is the push and pull between progress and conservation, and it plays itself out environmentally but also emotionally. Pete has to struggle with his feelings about leaving the forest and Elliot behind, and that struggle is sparked by his first glimpse of a girl, Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). I loved that moment, one where Pete suddenly snaps from Lost Boy to pre-teen, immediately smitten with this girl. Laurence makes a great foil for Fegley, with whom she has great chemistry.
The rest of the cast is great as well (especially Urban, who plays Gavin not so much as a bad guy but as a misguided, wounded guy doing a thing he thinks is right), but the best character in the whole film isn’t even a person. Elliot the dragon steals the movie, becoming a high point for CGI creatures in the process. It isn’t that Elliot is the best or most real-looking CGI creature in history but rather that he becomes the most emotionally believable non-mo-capped creature I’ve ever seen. He has an expressive quality that harkens back to King Kong (and his arc is not unlike that of classic Universal monsters) and a vitality and heart that explodes beyond the pixels. Not every shot of Elliot is perfect, but Elliot is perfect in every shot, a dragon who is full of love for his little buddy and with excitement for the forest around him. He’s silly and sad, sometimes in the same sequence, and he’s always exuberantly full of life. I fell deeply in love with Elliot, with his crooked underbite and his stubby legs, with his big eyes and his charming attempts to be tough.
I came to love Elliot so much that at one point, when he was seemingly in danger, I found myself with my hand in front of my mouth, making that gasping ‘Oh my!’ face. I was totally enthralled, absolutely entranced by the characters and the world, and so much of that comes down to the extraordinary filmmaking chops of David Lowery. He has made a kid’s movie that is shot like an art film, a movie that takes the time to drink in the lush forests that must be protected and allows us the luxury of slow moments with the characters. Lowery is a master of scale, with so many of the exterior shots encompassing a sweep of primordial forest with tiny human figures within it; at the same time he is able to find intimacy in many moments without resorting to standard TV framing that’s all-too common in movies that know their eventual home is in your living room or, worse, your phone. Lowery has dared to make a movie that is a big screen movie, a movie that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and he has shot it with that experience in mind.
That big screen experience truly pays off in the film’s commitment to awe. We meet Elliot very early in the movie, but every time he is introduced to new character we are reminded how awesome this giant dragon truly is. The film never takes for granted moments of flight or fantastical friendship, it constantly reminds us how magical the forest is and it always stops for a small moment of wonder or joy. Lowery’s style is not inherently Spielbergian (although the influence is there, and how could it not be?) but his dedication to awe certainly is.
Pete’s Dragon, written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, is not just gorgeous and sweeping in its visuals, it’s also nuanced and gentle in its emotions. There are scary moments and there are people behaving badly, but the script approaches every character as a full human being. It sketches lightly at the corners of the broader story - it hints at a tragedy in Jack and Natalie’s life without leaning on it - and allows the actors to find the vulnerability and humanity in these people. It’s a movie that is very sweet but never saccharine, a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve without getting maudlin about it. Tonally, the film is a miracle.
I walked out of Pete’s Dragon with my cheeks still wet from tears. The film elicited a response from that is all too rare; it brought me back to another state of mind where anything was possible and where the world was a big place to yet be explored. It didn’t do this through old movie posters or stolen shots from films I love but it did it through character and story, through camera and sound. Pete’s Dragon in its first twenty or thirty minutes so perfectly captures a pre-teen state of being that it lit up all the memory centers of my brain, bringing me back to days decades gone. And it wasn’t the kind of decadent, consumerist nostalgia that poisons so many films today but rather a nostalgia for a state of being. Pete’s Dragon didn’t make me nostalgic for a toy, it made me nostalgic for myself. It is an instant classic.