Bryce Dallas Howard David Lowery

PETE'S DRAGON Review: Easing Out of Loneliness

Monday, August 15, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Childhood can be traumatic. The best movies about kids understand that there is no need to talk down to them. They’re remarkably adept at picking up signals, whether they have experienced tragedies themselves or not. The most important lesson a movie can teach a kid is that, no matter what has happened to them, they are far more than damaged goods -- they can find someone who accepts them for who they are. Bambi rebounded from his mother’s death and Elliot found the love his absentee father wouldn’t give him when E.T. fell to Earth.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is the latest member of the “kids who overcome bad stuff in movies” club in director David Lowery’s latest, Pete’s Dragon. Orphaned as a four-year-old during an “adventure” with his parents into the vast expanse of the Pacific Northwest’s forests, the kid shows resilience and fierce intelligence as he makes a life for himself in the woods. Of course, he has help -- we all do -- in building his woodland home, complete with a makeshift cabin and a cave to protect him from the elements. Pete’s helper is more fantastical than an ordinary kid’s, but he’s wonderful nonetheless. He’s big, green, oddly fluffy, and he can fly. Pete names him Elliot after the dog in a storybook he retains as his only tangible connection to his parents. Despite the fact that Elliot’s technically a dragon, he’s the best dog a grieving little boy could ever ask for, the kind that chases his tail and remains deeply loyal no matter what. There is love in Elliot’s eyes and playfulness in his movements. He is as real as anything in the movie, even if there are moments every now and then when the movie magic falters just a touch to make him appear painted rather than made of actual matter.

Pete and Elliot are not left alone for long. A logging operation, headed up by two brothers, Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban), is quickly encroaching on their part of the forest. Jack is quietly responsible and Gavin is a striver, careless in his ambitions to make a name for himself. Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), an environmentally conscious park ranger who is also Jack’s fiancee, takes charge of Pete after the now-10-year-old is found near the logging site, wearing tattered clothes and sporting a mane of hair that would not look out of place on mid-’80s David Lee Roth. Pete is not quite feral because of his ability to speak and read simple sentences -- he was learning to read when he lost his parents and set off into the woods to live with Elliot -- but he’s pretty far gone.

For the burgeoning family -- the couple is raising Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), together, with the mother out of the picture -- it is not a deal breaker for this wild child to enter their lives. Sure, he is a burden, a mystery full of headaches for his new surrogate family. But Pete is not ruined and he has a lot to bring to the table. Grace’s gentleness in dealing with Pete -- Howard’s performance is all soft spoken care for the little boy who has lost his parents -- perfectly complements Lowery’s graceful direction, which strikes a tone that is somewhere between melancholy and soaringly hopeful.

Pete’s Dragon tackles the loneliness of life in terms that are both blunt and oblique, depending on the characters. When Pete and Natalie talk, their conversation makes the subtext into text. The newly minted step-siblings don’t dance around each other or the situation -- they confront it head on. While discussing the friendly dragon that has been Pete’s only companion for half a decade, Natalie wants to make sure the green fuzz ball isn’t a coping mechanism Pete developed during his alone time in the woods. She explains the concept of imaginary friends and their place in a solitary kid’s life. But Pete’s insistence that Elliot is indeed a real creature -- and Natalie’s quick acceptance of his conviction -- puts them on the path toward partnership. And that partnership is integral to the film’s CGI adventurism in its third act.

Direct loneliness isn’t the only kind the film’s characters experience. The adults are all yearning for something, aching really. Grace longs for the preservation of the woods she loves so much, but she cannot prevent some of the trees from falling -- by her future husband’s hand, no less. Jack wants to balance his life between the progress of his company and doing right by the woman he loves and the environment he calls home. Grace’s father, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), wishes that someone, anyone, in the town would believe his stories about the dragon he encountered years earlier in the forest -- Pete’s arrival lifts his spirits so much that Meacham’s posture improves with vindication.

But Gavin is perhaps the loneliest of the bunch. He is in his brother’s shadow, despite his reasonable ideas for expanding the business. He grows disenchanted with his lot in life, which leads him to be more reckless in how he operates -- moving faster and farther into the woods than he is supposed to, according to the company’s contract. Once he catches wind of a dragon in the forest, he sees his chance not only for glory but for acceptance, legitimacy. He organizes a hunting party to round up the beast, which treats him with hostility -- and some mucus. Gavin is not an evil figure, which makes his actions murky but at times understandable, even when he’s shooting tranquilizer darts at the lovable dragon.

It is no mistake that the climactic sequence set on a bridge serves to bring these lonely people together to confront their aloneness. When danger strikes, their actions serve the community rather than themselves. Each character gets to shine with a heroic moment, including the movie’s erstwhile villain, because they cannot fix the problem they face alone. It requires cooperation and an admission of limitations. It requires togetherness.

As he does throughout the picture, David Lowery threads a fine needle in the final action set piece. The setup is fraught with peril, both for the characters and the movie as a whole. It threatens to fall into ostentatiousness, but it is instead graceful. The actors could scream, but they underplay the moment. Their voices are tinged with deep, aching concern rather than overcooked emotion. It is neither a screech nor a clamor. It is resolved with a gorgeous, blissful understanding. If that’s not the cure for loneliness, I don’t know what is.

Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

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