Admirably quaint but radiating a felt force that can puncture all, David Lowery’s kiddie-Malick concoction benefits from that good old country comfort, from a deep resonance for quiet majesty. Lowery doesn’t inherit director Terrence Malick’s radical revisionism of American narrative tropes, but his fractured fairy tale debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints carried the residue of Malick’s sensitive and innocently mature visual poetry taken from the American Western canon. That debut also suggested Lowery’s way with Malick’s beguilingly understated melodrama (a cinematic oxymoron if ever there was one) and his pseudo-impressionistic blend of modernism and traditionalism, a tone matched by few directors this side of David Gordon Green. Pete’s Dragon, Lowery’s follow-up, similarly feels both bred in the 1950s and essentially out-of-this-world, displaced from time. It is less aggressively painterly than Saints, to pull out the most over-used adjective in the critic’s canon, but no less silently magisterial. If push came to shove, I’d say the debut was the superior film, but Pete’s Dragon extends Lowery’s philosophy to the mainstream with admirable restraint and melancholy.
The recent strain of live-action Disney updates have stymied their sense of whimsy and tonal flexibility with their monolithic blockbuster sensibility, their elephantiasis, their undying egos. Dispossessed of even an ounce of cynicism, Pete’s Dragon (an update of the sometimes-forgotten 1977 semi-animated film of the same name) radiates a more evanescent sense of self, a sensibility of whimsy that is deeply felt rather than pummeled into the audience. Rather than being appended like some Burton-esque enamel of weirdness atop an essentially conventional narrative, Lowery’s whimsy is ruminative, reflective, evanescent. Mixing the fanciful and the quotidian with a wistful sense of lost time, this Pacific-Northwest tale of the youthful Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his sometimes-invisible green furry dragon contemplates the value of loneliness and family.
After losing his family in a car crash and being raised for five years by the dragon Elliot, Pete eventually rediscovers humanity – and humanity catches a whiff or two of his only real friend – when forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) takes him in to live with her husband Jack (Wes Bentley) and step-daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Grace’s father Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) also wields vague reminiscences of his own brief encounter with the dragon, and Jack’s more reckless brother and business partner Gavin (Karl Urban) has also recently come into contact with the dragon’s mercurial side.
That sounds like a preamble to an impending narrative collision waiting to happen, and while things do toil and trouble and raise a narrative fuss, the pleasures of Pete’s Dragon are much gentler and more tied to perceiving and sensing in the Malickian, even Tarkovskian, sense. These are the foundational pleasures of cinema, too often reduced to mere appendages or vestigial structures hiding behind “thematic importance”. Pete’s Dragon isn’t interested in the state of the world so much as the state of the mind, in shivers of majesty, in whispers of simple being, in reconnecting with the disappeared corners of nature, in what is lost to high-minded issue films which shuttle tendentious narrative demands onto the pure, out-of-the-way sensibility of looking, searching, and feeling rather than simply thinking. Richard Brody viably defended Dragon for its astounding “is-ness”, a wonderful phrase modernizing the old idiom about poetry: that it “should not mean” but should “be”. Great art simply exists.
This is why Pete’s Dragon, ostensibly the more superficial film than the similarly themed A Monster Calls (which trumpets and bludgeons us with its self-important mental observations about the value of storytelling), is actually the more mature and more important film. Lowery goes beyond storytelling and into an understanding of “meaning” that permeates into a more unconscious realm, a plane of existence beyond one where experiences of the body and mind are only calculable if siphoned into a jerry-built narrative framework or political or thematic argument. Monster’s adolescent fixation on the nature of myth as a way for confronting the world (a la the similarly overrated Pan’s Labyrinth) has nothing on the more ambivalent, gossamer questions Lowery’s film offers.
Lowery’s film asks not why we imagine or whether imagination and myth can be ancillary to some real-world achievement but how we imagine at all, mimicking the pure mental exercise of the mind lost in the senses and offerings of the world that have value outside of their weaponization for coping against trauma, discovering oneself, or changing the world. A Monster Calls is dedicated to its own self-worth, to proselytizing for the value of the story that it is, to retreating into the only means of purpose it knows. Proving its importance by layering on themes is its reason for existing. Pete’s Dragon, contrarily, derives importance out of unimportance, out of its simple being sans luxuries or addenda or concerns, out of its own mental enthusiasm and vitality. Its importance effuses out of its very being, out of its mental will to conjure for the sake of conjuration rather than as conscripts for a narrative ambition. In fact, it is more synonymous with last year’s Certain Women and the other works of Kelly Reichardt than the winking post-modernist school Monster Calls crawls out of.
So although Pete’s Dragon is fantastical, its head is much closer to the ground than other blockbusters which float around in the realm of high-minded ideas rather than tumbling with experience. Pete’s Dragon is not an ethical tale or an argument but an imaginative presence of felt and fur brushing your skin. The dragon is not a metaphor for anything; it eludes and dirties metaphors, shakes out of the prison of interpretation. It is something to behold, a present-tense work that locates the long-forgotten power and wonder of existence untampered by the mental prisons of socially-sanctioned ethical concerns. So many blockbusters are obsessed these days with convincing us they have a brain and a heart that they forget that they have eyes, ears, and fingers. And that we have them.
When films ask us to “feel”, they forget that this vibrates in a corporeal as well as emotional sense. Although the titular dragon is not a triumph of technical artistry, it most certainly is a wonder of imaginative potential, a physical being that succeeds not because of what the narrative can do with it but because it exists, because we have to confront it, because it is a sight and a presence that our minds refuse to accept but which confounds us with its sheer being. The dragon can turn invisible and, yes, this comes in handy for the conclusion in narrative terms. But the invisibility is also a philosophical gambit, a quandary about the value of seeing something when it isn’t always there. Or, rather, of searching for something in nature that is always there, but we cannot always see. Of course, and like any of Malick’s films, it’s a statement to cinema: the film we see is not always in front of us, and yet it lives on in the mind. Pete’s Dragon is about making the intangible tangible and the tangible intangible again.