There’s a scene in Walt Disney Studios and director David Lowery’s 2016 feature film Pete’s Dragon when Robert Redford’s Mr Meachum suggests that living, with only your eyes open, is a prerequisite to missing out on so much in life.
This year’s Pete’s Dragon functions on a similar but almost inverse level: you could watch it with just your eyes open and not miss much of the subtextual themes, later recounted during the course of the film.
It’s not that 2016’s Pete’s Dragon isn’t just skin-deep; you could just pick up on themes and ideas via character dialogue during the film’s second half.
That being said, albeit with repetition, let’s move onto…
The directing. Director David Lowery, the title of the film both notwithstanding and considered, keeps the focus on both Pete and Elliott the dragon. This usually works when the two are together or close by but seems a bit distracting when Elliott is on his own or looking for Pete in the town of Millhaven. Perhaps, perhaps, stemming from his work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, he also reiterates the secluded, rural feel of both Millhaven and its surrounding forest. Very rarely, helicopter scene aside, do you feel that the outside world is intruding or unwelcome-ly present in Pete and Elliott’s story.
Speaking to DMagazine.com’s Christopher Kelly, director and co-screenwriter David Lowery said, ‘we thought we could use that construct of boy and his dragon to explore themes that have been prevalent in everything I’ve done‘. According to a profile on director Lowery done by FilmmakerMagazine.com, ‘ (Lowery’s short film, Pioneer, is) both a fanciful tall tale and a mysterious, even frightening, parable, the bedtime story ushers not only the young son, but us too into a metaphorical, mixed-up place, where childlike wonder coexists with adult wisdom.’ Going even further with Matt Barone, Ross Scarano and Tara Aquino’s profile of him for Complex.com, ‘he’ll tell you himself, he’s inspired by folk music‘. Breaking the cinema-honored rule of build-up in threes is a final push, director Lowery’s prior St Nick and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints also deal with children on their own.
Pete’s Dragon echoes all of those notions: Robert Redford’s Mr Meachum is the town storyteller who speaks of dragons living in the unexplored woods whom he’s seen and tells his daughter not to live with only her eyes open; the film is set totally in rural towns and forests with the appropriate country-esque soundtrack and score; and Pete is hailed for, in the absence of Elliott’s whereabouts, being brave enough to survive alone.
These themes – including those of bravery in the face of otherwise terrifying odds, resilience in the face of loneliness and the need for family – are usually discussed openly in Pete’s Dragon at one point or another.
Separately, and our dire need for a Lowery week aside, there’s an interesting narrative technique of using bystanders to near-Spielberg face or outrightly comment or show a reaction to, say, Pete running through town. It’s interesting, given its volume, if only for its comedic or tone-lightening implications.
On the acting front, and both echoing the theme of family and our actor-pair dynamic lens, there are several familial pairs – brother-brother (Gavin and Jack), father-daughter (Mr Meachum and Grace, Jack and Natalie) and adopted family (Pete and Elliott) – that come through for each other by the film’s end. Yes, even Karl Urban’s Gavin. Their usually unflagging concern for each other, even across familial lines, à la really everyone with Pete, really meshes the film together across self-interest or lack thereof.
The country-set locations and secluded vibe of the film are represented more in the film’s score than any action movie bombast and composer Daniel Hart pulls that off. Listening to the first score track on the album, An Adventure, is just homely, cozy and suitable for the family drive that the film begins with.
That being said, the film’s sound and score mix can be unbearably loud during scenes when Pete and Elliott are flying and when Natalie is screaming after falling from the tree whilst chasing Pete.
That being said, let’s move on to the gorgeous…
Cinematography, enhanced by 2016’s The Jungle Book-levels of 3D. The film feels suitably silhouette-laden in nighttime or just unaware-or-afraid character-centric moments in the forest and just as inversely warm when in daytime Millhaven or lush and foresty when in the daytime forest. The foreground-background photography is great at conveying a sense of benevolent scale whenever Elliott is on screen.
With more simplification than Pete’s Dragon warrants, Pete’s Dragon is a visibly and aurally cozy and homely family film that deals with the upside and acclaim of survival, bravery and enduring loneliness. Contrary to its trailers’ implications, it is generally comedic and light in tone and should appeal to anyone looking for a secluded country-set film this summer season.
(Whilst the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used to acquire facts: Complex.com, DMagazine.com, Esquire.com, FilmmakerMagazine.com, IMDb.com)
Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:
Plot: a car-wrecked boy named Pete seeks to make a home in the forest with the dragon who rescued him, named Elliott.
Prologue: a younger Elliott is car-wrecked in the forest after his parents are killed in the same accident; he later goes with a dragon, whom he names Elliott, who saves him from wolves.
Act 1: Pete and Elliott go off and frolic in the woods; Pete later chooses to spy on Grace from the woods and steals her compass.
Act 2: Pete chooses to spy on Natalie from the woods; Pete later signals her to follow him further into the forest.
Act 3: Pete wakes up in hospital and chooses to escape after being seen by Natalie;
Act 4: Pete decides to go looking for Elliott in the town but is caught by Grace in an alley; Pete decides to go with her into the forest tomorrow instead.
Act 5: Pete chooses to adjust to urban living; Pete later talks to Grace about his past life and Elliott.
Act 6: Pete chooses to read stories with Grace, Jack and Natalie at their home; Elliott, who spent the night looking for him after escaping from Gavin’s hunting party, sees this and returns disheartened-ly to the forest.
Act 7: Pete decides to take Grace, Natalie and Mr Meachum to see Elliott in the woods; Pete later tries to defend Elliott after Gavin’s hunting party shows up.
Act 8: Pete and Natalie choose to break into Elliott’s enclosure at the sawmill; they and Mr Meachum drive Elliott away.
Act 9: Pete asks Elliott to stop attacking the pursuant police force with fire; Pete and Elliott, after the latter saves Jack and Grace, later escape into the woods.
Act 10: Pete and Elliott return to their home in the forest; Pete later chooses to return to Grace, Jack and Natalie.
Epilogue: Pete, Jack, Grace and Natalie later find Elliott and his family of dragons in the mountains.