“I laugh in the face of danger.” Famous last words — or they might have been, anywhere but in a Disney musical.
But then danger struck. And Simba, hero of 1994’s The Lion King, was forced to prove himself worthy of the title “Lion King,” rendering himself legendary in the process. Pete, of Pete’s Dragon, doesn’t have to try so hard. We already know he’s worthy of legend from the way he reacts to a moment of terror at the start of the film: his parents’ car swerving to miss a deer and tumbling down a wooded embankment. There, in the backseat spinning upward in slow motion, is Pete, who gawks with astonishment and mouths, “Wow.” It’s in the woods, having survived the crash, that Pete meets the shy, furry beast he’ll eventually call his dragon. “Are you going to eat me?” he asks. We already know he’s asking as much out of fear as fascination.
Pete’s Dragon is a movie enthralled by that fascination. The film, which opens by soaring high above Pete and his parents’ car with mythic largesse, is in love with local legend, and with the people whose lives these legends touch. The legend at its center is that of a mythical green dragon, a story that’s lived on in retellings to wide-eyed children by the likes of Robert Redford. There’s another legend at play, too, rather an idea: the man of the wild, the lone survivor, out there making a life out of the unlivable. In this case, that man is the lost boy Pete, who isn’t alone, as it turns out, and survives in the woods for six years before he’s found. Pete lives in a leafy treehouse worthy of Dwell, with rope ladders that dangle into the open mouth of a cave fit for a king — or a dragon.
Another movie might have made more of the darkness of that cave. Or it might have made more of the dragon and the boy winning each other over, as the animated hit How to Train Your Dragon did. But there’s no monster under the bed in Pete’s Dragon, nor any real danger beyond what the red painted stripes on trees imply about the echoes of lumberjack machinery nearby. The movie is folksy almost to a fault. Men pluck banjos on their work breaks and shout, “Let’s go huntin’!” when threatened by the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar, in this case, is a furry, brown-eyed dragon with the wet snout and demeanor of a dog and the alert crouch and nimble ears of a cat. You’ll find yourself wishing that the home of such an animal, hidden in the undiscovered reaches of a forest, could survive unnoticed by the rest of us.
But Pete’s Dragon isn’t an environmentalist fantasy, à la Avatar or FernGully, or even a folk western. David Lowery’s interests are much less material or immediate; his movie isn’t interested in rendering this story into a topical allegory, or in hewing too closely to genre. Then again, this is a Disney movie, and reinventing the wheel is not on the itinerary. The beats are familiar — it’s Tarzan, it’s The Jungle Book, it’s Beauty and the Beast, it’s a bedtime story. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is found by a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her lumberjack fiancé (Wes Bentley), and when he tells them about Elliot, the dragon, they don’t believe him. Nor do the lumberjacks — until they see Elliot firsthand. What happens next, you can see coming. What matters more is how well Lowery, steeping his film in a sense of shared fantasy among the adults and fearless astonishment among the children, makes you feel the beat. The movie feels definitive of a particular time and a place, but also broadly familiar — it feels personal to the point of being new.
Lowery once would have been an unlikely choice for a sizable reboot of an old, non-canonical Disney property. (The original, a live-action musical whose hand-drawn, animated dragon had a punkish purple mane, was released in 1977.) His projects have stayed small and independent. One, the short film “Pioneer,” consists entirely of a father telling his son a bedtime story. Actually, the story is a fabricated myth of the boy’s own origin — a Lowery specialty. And it’s done the Lowery way, with a patient monologue delivered without silent flashbacks or voice-overs, but instead with trust in language and image. Lowery trusts in the ability of an actor and a camera to make the words loom large, as if they were the actions themselves, not merely descriptions. His last film was 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which featured Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in an intimate revamp of outlaw movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Terrence Malick’s debut, Badlands. That movie has stories, too, in the form of handwritten letters, the elegant curls of Affleck’s script and the stylized scratch of his voice spinning fugitive fantasies of a happy future.
That’s the stuff heralding Lowery as the ideal choice for this project. Anyway, it’s no longer uncommon for a company like Disney to poach a director like Lowery for a sizable summer or franchise project — in fact, it’s a trend, and it sometimes works. Gareth Edwards landed 2014’s Godzilla, and from there the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, after getting noticed for a sci-fi feature made on a $500,000 budget. Ryan Coogler landed Creed after his small debut, the neorealist tragedy Fruitvale Station, and is currently developing Black Panther with Marvel.
These filmmakers have been given a chance to make franchise movies, but so far, they’ve done one better, making tentpoles that feel personal. Pete’s Dragon is personal, too, and being that it’s about the era of Lowery’s own childhood (he was born in 1980), that of course means it’s a bit nostalgic. Fortunately, its nostalgia is not for the cinema and pop culture of Lowery’s childhood, but for the sense that comes with being a child, the sense of being small in a world that’s large, of having an imagination in a world that seems to have almost none. It’s not a movie for the kid in you, but for the kid beside you — and that difference makes the movie a rare creature, a legend in its own right. It’s a summer movie that teems with affection for detail at a time when films this size, released this season, are inclined to trade personality for bombast — and make tons of money. As for Pete’s Dragon, that we don’t seem to have warmed to it at the box office, is the studio’s loss. But that we haven’t experienced it yet is ours.