Saturday, August 13, 2016

Pete's Dragon movie review.

Following the exciting and visually stunning The Jungle Book, and the thoroughly underwhelming Alice Through the Looking Glass, Disney's train of remaking their animated classics as live-action reimaginings continues to roll on, and serving as a warm-up to Beauty and the Beast in March 2017, comes Pete's Dragon, a remake based on a movie I struggle to define as a classic with a serious face.

The original Pete's Dragon - a blend of live action and traditional animation - is not a very fondly remembered film, impressive for its animation at the time, but nevertheless a dated and overly corny film that not many people remember. At first glance, it makes for an odd film to to adapt to the modern day, but when digging deeper, given the flaws and the potential of the original, this also made it a prime, viable candidate to improve upon and do great things with. It's sources may be obvious, but this newly updated rendition still resonates with a beautiful sense of originality, feeling both different and familiar to traditional Disney roots.

For six years, an orphan boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) has survived alone in a mysterious forest, except for the sole company of a furry, giant green dragon that he names Elliot. Outside the forest, lumberjacks continually scout out trees to chop down for lumber, while rangers manage and preserve them. When Pete is finally discovered, he's looked after by one of these park rangers, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who herself has very fond feelings and personal ties to the forest. Elliot, concerned for Pete's safety, begins searching in and around the forest to find his missing friend, but on his way catches the attention of local lumberjack and hunter Gavin (Karl Urban), who plans to capture the fabled "Millhaven Dragon".

A trait that has benefited these reimaginings has been in their ability to retell and expand upon the original stories of their predecessors, but unlike most of Disney's recent live-action remakes, Pete's Dragon is generally an in name only adaptation of the 1977 film, taking only the basic premise of young Pete living with his dragon friend, and forming the rest of the story from the ground up. Free from the fear of high standards or purist intervention by the hands of Disney, David Lowery, best known for his modernized western drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints, is given a tremendous level of freedom to reshape and remold the story as he sees fit to better serve the narrative.

For the most part, this is a fantastic decision on his part. While still distinct and recognizable as being under the banner of the mouse-house, it also takes a great step out of the usual Disney traditions, unmistakably bearing Lowery's fingerprints from beginning to end. It's a seamless mash up of Lowery's intimate, rural, minimalist style with the warmth and thrill of a small-scale fantasy, surprisingly very subdued and brimming with nice subtext - whether it be by facial expression or turn of phrase, and largely this works thanks to the main duo of Pete and Elliot.

Following a heartbreaking opening, Pete is consistently tinged with a deep-rooted sense of sadness and repression despite his daily enjoyment and enthusiasm playing with Elliot, often moving in a regressed and animalistic fashion, but where the character truly becomes fascinating and comes into his own is when he starts to adjust back into society and rediscover his basic humanity, taking in the sights and the experiences around him with a sense of genuine wonder and longing, and is especially terrific to watch thanks to Oakes Fegley's performance. But the true scene stealer of the movie is his CGI co-star, as Elliot makes for a terrific kindred spirit opposite Pete, sharing in the same sense of loneliness, longing and wonder, and whose interactions with the young boy are often the highlight of the film, exclusively told through small one-sided conversations, and full of meaningful subtleties and subtext present through body language, which especially goes a long way in giving Elliot a great level of soul and personality, dazzlingly brought to life by the artists of Weta Digital, and the character's actions so adorable that you almost wish it actually existed.

As strong as the two main characters may be, the supporting characters are unfortunately given less of a chance to define themselves as fully, requiring the selected cast members to do a great deal of heavy lifting. Bryce Dallas Howard makes for a magnificent kindred spirit to Pete, sharing in his wonderment and rediscovering her personal ties and fascination with the woodlands, and exudes great charm as she plays mother figure to him. Robert Redford contributes welcome soul as a carry-over storyteller recalling a time of cynicism-less adventure and belief, Oona Laurence is radiant reintroducing Pete back into the human world, but the least engaging of the cast are that of Karl Urban and Wes Bentley, sadly given the short stick as a cliched pair of brothers on uneven wavelengths, with Urban's sections of the film - despite doing the best he can - being among the least engaging qualities.

But if Pete's Dragon isn't always very deep or complex, its simplicity is often a great charm to have. As corny as it is to define the film as "Magic", there really is no better word to describe the fascinating wonder that Lowery creates. The woodlands setting particularly highlights this, with the forest being both a dangerous and beautiful environment that exudes a strange feeling of mysticism and discovery. Grace proudly proclaims she knows it like the back of her hand, but much like the world beyond those woods, regardless of that experience and documented knowledge, if one is willing to look deep enough, it will still yield new and overwhelming excitement and sense of adventure. This level of atmosphere is what helps define Pete's Dragon, in that while we may not realize it, whether it be merely in our own backyard through the power of imagination, or actually venturing into the great big world, there is a power beyond description in those journeys and discoveries we make, as well as those meaningful connections that we form with others we meet along the way. No matter how minuscule they may seem, they are still important experiences that help to shape us into the person we are and will become.

It's intentions are simple, but thoughtfully layered, and while he hits some stumbles along the way, Lowery's evocation of that childlike innocence and exploration makes Pete's Dragon a subtle, but meaningful piece of heartwarming entertainment. While it likely won't be among my absolute favorite Disney movies of the year, it's still an affecting and whimsical experience that more than earns its place under the Disney banner, while also allowing its main creative voice the freedom to define it with his own personal stamp and full conviction. His next collaboration with Disney is set to be an adaptation of Peter Pan, and if this is any indication, I think it's safe to say the project is in good hands.

**** / *****

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