Movies from the eighties have a distinct vibe, particularly when it comes to movies that were aimed at children or young adults. It is this vibe that keeps us, as actual adults, coming back to them, again and again. It’s a vibe that can be found through and through in Disney’s new Pete’s Dragon (opening everywhere on August 12). And this is why eighties kids in particular will love Pete’s Dragon.
One of the tenants of eighties cinema is that kids go on adventures outside of the realm of parental supervision. Think about the kids in The Goonies, hunting down buried treasure and running into mobsters, all on their own. Or when, in Disney’s underrated cult favorite Flight of the Navigator, a 12-year-old kid has an intergalactic odyssey, returning to earth unchanged (although those around him have aged). In E.T. it takes Elliot’s mom a while to understand that her children have become close friends with a cuddly alien life form from a distant star.
It’s the same in Pete’s Dragon. Early on, Pete (Oakes Fegley, in a peerless performance) is left alone and wanders into the woods where he befriends the titular dragon, Elliot. And that’s where he is, for six whole years. That’s a lot of adventuring. When we meet Pete again, he’s still hanging out with his oversized friend, away from the prying eyes of adults. There’s something hugely galvanizing about this level of freedom, something slightly dangerous that really goes a long way in terms of making the story more enveloping and emotionally riveting. When Pete is eventually discovered, the question of how he survived is one of the central mysteries of the film, and adds even more magic.
Another huge element that makes Pete’s Dragon an instant favorite for the “Me Generation” is how casually the movie treats the more supernatural aspects of the storyline. Eighties movies are almost entirely set in suburbia, whether the film involves time travel (Back to the Future), ghostly hauntings (Poltergeist), or new technology able to miniaturize members of your beloved family (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids). The supernatural, paranormal, and otherworldly, when placed in the context of everyday life, becomes both more relatable and, conversely, even more wondrous. These were middle-class families going through extraordinary circumstances; if you weren’t in a family just like these, then you at least knew a family like them. The accessibility of these films was a huge part of what made them so special, and it’s a huge part of what makes Pete’s Dragon so special now.
The movie was filmed in New Zealand (a place that every member of the cast and crew I have spoken to has raved about); it’s set in a small town in America: A Pacific Northwestern hamlet (and its surrounding woods) where the average townsfolk come in contact with the truly incredible Elliot. It proves that seeing a huge, majestic dragon against the backdrop of some feudal fantasy setting, while cool, doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as seeing it flying through a small logging community. Pete’s Dragon injects wonder into the everyday and turns the humdrum into the extraordinary.
And perhaps, more importantly, Pete’s Dragon is set roughly around the time period of these eighties movies. (I asked director David Lowery when the movie was set and he told me, “Yesterday.”) Judging by costuming and technology in the film, it seems to be set sometime in the mid-eighties, but the time period isn’t a plea for nostalgic sentiment (in fact, it’s surprisingly low on that stuff, unless you have an affinity for old trucks). Instead, it’s used both for practical narrative reasons (if Pete’s Dragon took place today, the moment the dragon was sighted there’d be a million cell phone photos of it up on the internet instantly) and because of the spirit it evokes. It’s not awash in cultural, political, or institutional landmarks; instead, it just gently harkens back to a simpler time. By taking away the cluttered accouterments of modern society, so much is added.
So, if you’re an ‘80s kid, you will definitely be transported while watching Pete’s Dragon. It’s one of those movies that shows you a more magical, more captivating version of the world, and in the process takes your breath away. Watching Pete’s Dragon is just like that. It’s magic.