Thursday, August 11, 2016
Review: "Pete's Dragon"
Movies nowadays tend to fall, like our beleaguered politics, into silos. Superhero movies and gross-out comedies are aimed at men under age 30, animated flicks have lots of colors and boingy action for tykes, there are grim dramas and action movies for older men, a few pictures aimed at adult women are sprinkled here and there, often with a romantic flavor and usually as an antidote for the other stuff.
It’s all rather neat, and dreadfully boring.
“Pete’s Dragon,” beyond being utterly charming, is a throwback: a true family picture. Literally anyone from little children to oldsters to in-betweeners like me will fall under its sway.
It bears little resemblance to the 1977 Disney movie with a cartoon-y green dragon named Elliot who befriends an orphan. Here, the magical creature is part parent, part pet, all best friend. He protects and nurtures Pete, here played by Oakes Fegley as a 10-year-old feral boy who was lost in the woods six years earlier after a tragedy befell his family.
The dragon is portrayed effectively through CGI, with just enough realism to make you feel like he could exist, but fantastical enough that he still seems mystical. He’s green, but with plush fur instead of scales, a body that is leonine (though the belly is a tad soft) and a dog-like snout with one broken fang. He seems to have human-level intelligence, and can fade into invisibility when pesky hunters or tree-cutters come snooping around.
Robert Redford turns up as a crusty old grandfather who had a run-in with Elliot decades ago, and his stories have become part of the lore of the town of Millhaven. No one really believes him, but they like having the yarn to spin for kids and visitors. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) grew up into a park ranger who’s protective of the trees and critters.
Her husband, Jack (Wes Bentley), is nice in a bland sort of way, but her brother-in-law, Gavin (Karl Urban), is a jerk who likes to take his woodcutting crews too deep into the forest. This results in the discovery of Pete, who’s taken back to civilization while a lonely Elliot wanders along the trail looking for his little boy.
There follows some predictable but still poignant stuff where the grown-ups fail to believe Pete and his stories about his dragon guardian, but Grace’s wide-eyed daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), bonds with him immediately. Pete starts to see the appeal of leaving the woods to live with people again, but pines for his dragon.
The film is directed and co-written (with Toby Halbrooks) by David Lowery, whose last feature, 2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” is as different thematically as you can get from this Disney remake. Still, that drama about a convict on the run to be reunited with his family, was filled with a lyricism that segues naturally into the tone of “Pete’s Dragon.”
Alas, childlike wonderment seems to be in short supply these days, both among filmmakers and film-goers. “The BFG” bombed horribly at the box office, and there were more empty seats than filled at the preview screening I went to for “Pete’s Dragon.”
But, if for a precious few, there is still a magic that lingers.