Pete’s Dragon: For Pete’s sake

The animated dragon in Pete’s Dragon never quite melds with the environment, especially with the humans, and in another film, it’d be tempting to think of this as a flaw. But here, this incongruity is almost sort of the point. Elliott, the dragon, is among the most docile ever seen in cinema, and not just when it comes to the portrayal of dragons. Its green fur is almost grassy in texture, and one of its canines is chipped, likely the result of a harmless hop gone wrong. At all times, Elliott, the dragon, reminded me of a golden retriever pup. From how it exposes its belly when sleeping to the ungainly way in which it descends to the ground each time to how easily it gets distracted by butterflies and garden sprinklers. It’s not at all surprising then that the film’s opening line is, “This is the story of a puppy called Elliott.”

Where there is a puppy — er, a dragon — there is a child, of course. In this case, a ten-year-old Pete, who’s had a Mowgli-esque upbringing in the depths of the jungle, and so, growls and grunts better than he talks. The Jungle Book’s not the only film Pete’s Dragon reminds you of. The attempts at capturing the dragon reminded me a lot of King Kong. What is fiercely, uniquely the film’s though is its milieu: An 80’s under-populated American town whose residents seem to know each other quite well, and whose sheriff isn’t as much feared as he is thought of as a helpful cohabitant. I loved the story’s small-town appeal, its lack of ambition. The harmony of the town is why it doesn’t seem odd at all when forest ranger, Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), welcomes Pete into her home, despite already having a young daughter. You’d expect nothing less from such a community.

Genre: Fantasy Adventure
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Robert Redford
Storyline: The adventures of a boy and his dragon

Pete’s Dragon is a Disney film, and as you can imagine, almost every character is good. Even the evil Gavin (Karl Urban), that horrible lumberjack who feels no guilt about operating in the protected areas of the forest, has no great agenda, no destructive plan. As he says towards the end, “I haven’t really thought it through.” When as many characters are shown to be innately decent, it is only natural that sometimes, it all almost seems simplistic. Like when Grace’s father, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) — and through him, the director David Lowery — gently rebukes Grace for refusing to believe in the existence of dragons for lack of evidence. But this isn’t the sort of film in which you want to science things up and tell Mr. Meacham that the burden of proof rests on whoever claims the existence of something. The film’s, after all, about magic. In the words of Mr. Meacham himself, “Magic. Nothing else can explain it.”

This is also not a film in which you wind yourself into a knot over minor practical details. So, when Pete is shown labouring over everyday tasks like brushing, and eating a sandwich, you don’t quite wonder why he, who was five at the time of the accident that made him a denizen of the jungle, doesn’t quite remember these tasks. In Pete’s Dragon, it’s the emotional details that truly matter. Like when Pete, unable to bear separation from the dragon, howls like a pained dog. Like when Mr. Meacham, when in the presence of the dragon, looks at his daughter with pride, and asks, “What did I tell you?” Like when the dragon rests with Pete in the great outdoors at dusk and gazes, almost longingly at the northern star. No words are spoken, but eventually, you wonder if Elliott was craving the company of its kind, just like Pete seems to when he investigates Grace’s compass and finds a photo of her family.

The music in Pete’s Dragon is as light and comforting as an evening breeze. The sort of twanging guitar and soulful vocals that make you feel the promise of approaching beauty, that make you want to set out on a trip to the great outdoors in the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, you could spot a dragon too.

This review was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.

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