If you are aged enough, you may recall the treacly flower-folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary. One of their biggest hits in the 1960s was Puff, the Magic Dragon — then and now disavowed as having any reference to smoking dope. It’s all about the loss of innocence in childhood, Peter or Paul (or perhaps Mary) claimed. People still sing it at parties, worse luck.
I am agnostic on its doper credentials, but some lines are worth revisiting. They reflect the breakdown of the love between Puff and a boy, Jackie Paper, who either grows up or dies (perhaps in Vietnam):
"A dragon lives forever but not so little boys,/Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys./One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more/And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar./His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,/Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane./Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave/So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave ..."
And so to Pete’s Dragon. A remake of a 1977 film (directed by Toby Halbrooks), it is neither a musical nor wholly animated, except for the dragon, which is a huge furry green ball who befriends Pete (Fegley) when the boy is lost in the forest after a car crash has killed his parents. He is rescued from wolves and then raised by the creature he calls Elliott.
What levers the new movie up several notches of emotional intensity is that crash. Like the original film, this is a Disney production, and for actual death to enter so soon foreshadows the enduring sadness of the film. Like Jackie and Puff, Pete and Elliott are separated once loggers move in on their forest sanctuary. There is a weighty ballast of ecosympathy here.
Without the certainty of a Disneyesque happy ending, human cruelty is given its ancient prerogative. Luckily for Pete and Elliott, a young woman, the aptly named Grace (Howard) and her husband-to-be, Jack (Bentley), live by an almost visionary conversion to the idea that all hunted creatures (such as dragons) are special, drawing a higher power from the swathes of flowers, vines and trees that surround the action — of which there is more than might be expected, though several philosophical issues are at stake.
The bad guys are the loggers with their chainsaws, ripping away beauty, which the film glories in. Their leader, Gavin (Urban), is related to Jack, but this bond is intensified only near the end when the full "moral" of the tale unveils itself — that family, hope and home are the primary determinants of all creatures great and small. Part of this closure is asserted by a strong-willed girl, Natalie (Laurence), who helps release poor Elliott from chains when he has been drugged and bound as a form of circus attraction. Redford is a kindly presence.
Vitally, Elliott (like Pete) has lost his family. Entire passages of the film show his solitary sadness, indeed his grief at having to leave Pete, who finds with Grace, Jack, Natalie, and even Gavin, a restoration of his human family. Elliott must fly off alone (though perhaps not for long) in search of the place of happiness and play he forfeited at an unknown time. As a kind of angel, he (or perhaps she) has entered the world of the "real" (our world) and resumes his perhaps endless quest.
The animators have created Elliott as sometimes clumsy, more often powerful and fearless, but above all as a universal soaring hope.
Directed by David Lowery; co-written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks
Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, John Kassir (dragon’s sounds), Robert Redford