In the real world, childhood is fleeting. In the wild, it can live on forever. It’s a breathless wonder evident in the second scene of Pete’s Dragon, one that follows a moment of realistic tragedy uncommon in films for children. But if the moment preceding it hasn’t elicited tears, the visceral image of nothing more than a boy and his dragon weaving through an expanse of green as far as the eye can see, the world to themselves, will.
Director David Lowery proved his talent for disarming simplicity with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, an old-school fable of doomed romance and sacrifice that, like many before it, bore a resemblance to Terrence Malick. With little more than sunlight streaming just-so through branches or from a single bedside light onto Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck’s faces, Lowery was able to elicit inexplicable tears.
There’s a similar delicacy yet robustness to his follow up, an in-name-only reboot of the forgotten 1970s animated musical Pete’s Dragon. There’s no songs, no twee animation, and no narrative contrivances that promise a commitment to realism despite the film’s distinctly mythical co-lead.
The real world comes knocking when Pete is ten. He’s lived undisturbed in the woods for the six years, following a car accident which killed both his parents and saw him find a dragon he names Elliott. Akin to a green, fluffy dog in character, Elliott is the perfect companion, even able to vanish into thin air when his and Pete’s idyllic world is invaded.
The cynicism of growing up comes in the form of progress-hungry loggers (Wes Bentley and Karl Urban) and a kindly park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose father Mr Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have encountered a dragon in the woods in the past. Pete tries to introduce his world to Natalie, the daughter of a logger (Oona Laurence), but a stumble sees him unwittingly fall into the hands of the outside world. They, of course, want Pete to join their world. But Pete, of course, refuses to. In a heart-pounding sequence, he escapes a hospital he’s sent to, riding and jumping off of speeding school buses. Stripped of what he fashioned from the clothes he was wearing when he became stranded and introduced to a world of grilled cheese and television, where routines reign supreme and dragons are only in the pages of long-forgotten story books.
Lowery’s fable, like many before it, is about the loss of belief in wonder and magic that comes with adulthood. Elliott is able to make himself invisible and is therefore initially visible only to Pete, the sole believer of his existence. And of course, when he eventually reveals himself, there are people who believe he’s dangerous, a persona he briefly adopts as a result (like any Disney movie, good and evil are not ambiguous). But luckily, there are, despite initial hesitation, believers. A journey with Grace, Natalie, and Mr Meacham to the edge of the forest confirms the tale told the local children for many years.
It’s a sentimental view that could end up being hokey, but is instead one that Lowery brings to life with simplicity and realism through unobtrusive direction and paired-back writing. Independent film sensibilities, tried and failed to be brought to studio films countless times before, meld beautifully here. It’s refreshing and miraculous, especially coming from Disney, a land of uniform corporate product where emotional manipulation is often a hair’s breath away and seems to be getting further away from producing films for families. But Pete’s is an independently spirited Lowery film through-and-through, from its ambiguously 1970s setting (also in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), to its earthy setting, where New Zealand (unconvincingly but nonetheless gorgeously) stands in for Oregon, to its romantic and almost otherworldly yet grounded approach and lived in performances that makes the film authentically moving for adults as well as children. 11-year-old Oakes Fegley (Pete) is the lead in Wonderstruck (an adaptation of the Brian Selznick novel of the same name), the next Todd Haynes film. Remember that name. He’s going to be phenomenal.
It’s an experience only helped by its bittersweet ending. Pete is at an age many will remember with a certain sadness – a time where loss starts to ache more, memories are less ephemeral, and magic starts to disappear forever. The world isn’t a kind place. It ultimately isn’t for Elliott, and one that sadly forces him and Pete apart. But go to the woods, a place of wonder, and it returns. In the real world, childhood is fleeting. In the wild, it can live on forever.