There is this running narrative in Disney films that seems to say that adventure in life is OK, but only for a bit. Then you have to cut your hair, go to school and stop wearing a loincloth all day and get prepared for student loans, mortgages and death. "Pete's Dragon" isn't necessarily trying to say that because Disney also likes telling kids to dream, but there is something inherently sad in watching a child grow up into some semblance of normalcy.
"Pete's Dragon" is a very loose remake of the 1977 film, which was much more of a goofy, broad musical than a serious children's picture. This modern version tells the story of a five-year-old named Pete who is on a road trip with his parents when they both die horrifically in a car accident. The little tyke grabs his backpack and a children's book and walks into the woods, only to be surrounded by a bloodthirsty pack of wolves. Pete is saved by a massive, furry green dragon he names Elliott, who he lives with in the forest for the next six years.
Eventually, Pete is found by a nice park ranger named Grace and her boyfriend's daughter Natalie. Pete is pretty well adjusted and not remotely feral, which should show kids that green dragons deserve to be parents, too. He heads home with Grace, Natalie and Grace's boyfriend Jack. Pete must then battle with his conflicting feelings about the comfort of family and indoor plumbing versus being a badass, dragon-riding wild child. Elliott has to deal with the possibility of losing Pete to clean sheets and also Jack's brother Gavin, who saw the dragon and wants to capture him.
This is a very stressful movie. The first act of the film spends a lot of time with Elliott and Pete, and their friendship is every kid's dream come true. They soar through the sky together, build an awesome treehouse and eat mushrooms whenever they want. We are so invested in The Fabulous Adventures of The Boy and His Dragon that when the modern world comes calling it's hard not to feel panic about this idyllic lifestyle being taken away from them.
There is real magic to this film. The setting in the mid-1980s gives every frame a nostalgic texture that hit me directly in the heart parts. Oakes Fegley is so captivating as Pete and Elliott is such a fantastic invention that the film easily sits in the realm of instant classic. If I had been 11 when this movie came out, it would have probably changed my life—but at 35 it made me sad.
Here's the one flaw I find with this movie (a few dodgy effects and storytelling choices aside): It's ultimately about putting aside magic for reality, taking off the loincloth and putting on your big boy pants. No one ever stays in Never Land. No one ever rides the dragon into the sunset, throwing deuces back at reality. Disney's stories seem to always comment on the death of magic in the modern world, instead of pulling back the curtain and showing us where to find it.
Dir. David Lowery
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX