During a year in which audiences have been presented with yet another Tarzan film, as well as a new adaptation of The Jungle Book, we now have one more orphan-in-the-wild story in the form of Pete’s Dragon. Here, a young boy survives the car accident that kills his parents, is almost eaten by wolves in the dark forest into which he’s wandered after the crash, and then is inexplicably rescued by a giant, furry dragon (think Falkor, but green) who becomes, for the next six years at least, his best friend and protector. Pete (Oakes Fegley) begins calling the dragon Elliot, cribbed from the name of the dog in his favorite children’s book, and the pair live together in a cave while spending their days galavanting around the forest, climbing trees and leaping giddily from cliffs. But when loggers encroach on their lush paradise, Pete’s curiosity gets the best of him, and he’s ultimately discovered, captured, and brought back to civilization, despite the best efforts of the dragon to keep him out of what he believes, at least, is harm’s way.
Housed temporarily by a forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), and his young daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), the scared and confused Pete learns what it means to be human and, more importantly to the film’s moral compass, what it means to be a member of a family. When Gavin, Jack’s brother and co-manager of the logging operation that upends Pete and Elliot’s happy existence, catches sight of the dragon during Pete’s retrieval from the forest, he becomes determined to sedate and capture the creature (to what end, we’ll never know), and Pete becomes improbably tasked with the protection of his enormous friend, reversing the original dichotomy of their relationship and allowing the film to have its hero. The film, co-written by director David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, rushes through half-etched characterizations, failing to provide substantive reasons for its characters’ motivations (namely Gavin’s sudden villainy), and the series of events that form the story feels schematic and cobbled together.
The film’s opening sequence is both haunting and opaque, reminiscent of the original fairy tales that Disney has become known for bastardizing—a flatness and abstraction into which we can project our own worst fears. Pete’s parents, just before the car accident, explain the meaning of the word “adventure,” and then suddenly Pete is removed from the world he knows and thrust into darkness. “Are you going to eat me?” Pete asks Elliot during their first encounter—and the best fairy tales are all about the nature of this question, in all its forms: What is the nature of danger, and can it be overcome?
The opening sequence allows one to grapple with that question because of what it doesn’t tell, what it doesn’t show; Pete’s fear and wonder are our own. But when the monster in the forest turns out to be a playful, fun-loving, and slightly dopey creature who just so happens to also be a fire-breathing dragon, Pete’s Dragon starts telling us exactly what to think, abandoning its subtlety and sense of mystery en route to becoming a typically moralistic screed about the preservation of the nuclear family, alongside an obvious but never-quite-resolved cautionary tale about the importance of conservation.
But the film never stops following its own rules, and the world of Pete’s dragon—that is, the world he occupies, the ever-diminishing forests in which dragons could believably be hiding—is impressively rendered, making its inevitable destruction all the more heartbreaking. In one scene, Pete climbs to the top of a tree that he’s equipped with a series of ladders and platforms, and the view is vibrant and seemingly endless, the blending of light and color almost impressionistic in the way that it foregoes accuracy for the experience of wonder. The planet we occupy loses a little bit of its mystery every day, to the detriment of all the creatures who inhabit it. With our storytelling, however, we can keep some of that sense of the unknown alive, presenting worlds that don’t explain themselves outright, but which we can instead occupy associatively, allowing an intuitive logic to guide us along.
The best children’s stories do this: Recall the horror of the Other Mother in Coraline, a masterpiece of narrative ingenuity that relies on not-knowing to fuel its plot engine, or the magical oddness of Alice in Wonderland, in which its main character must decipher for herself the rules of the strange new world she has tumbled down into in order to eventually find her way back home. The magic of these stories is that they deliver us into a space where nothing is as it seems while also retaining a sense that we’ll eventually be able to go home again. A story earns our trust by allowing us to discover it for ourselves, and the experience of watching Pete’s Dragon is like being tossed from treetop to treetop, but never having time to appreciate the view.