Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016)

"The Bravest Boy I've Ever Met"
Ain't Them Dragons Saints?

The latest live-action remake of a past Disney film, Pete's Dragon, does not draw inspiration from the original (made during that period after Walt's death when the studio lost its way and produced "product" rather than innovation), but basically ignores it and starts from scratch, tossing out the songs, the period setting, and hammy performances from stalwart movie veterans to deliver something that hues closer to the main focus of the story, which is "a boy and his dragon."

The result is a far more satisfying film, not so much concerned with eccentrics, than with some core-values, which, although it may not have the slapstick elements of the original or all the schmaltz, still seems much more fitting the bill of "family-friendly" no matter how much mugging Jim Dale and Red Buttons could provide to amuse five year old's.

The film starts with young Pete contentedly sitting in the back seat of a station wagon driving a back-country road, while his mother and father talk about how they're "going on an adventure." They don't know the half of it. To avoid hitting a deer, Dad swerves the car off the road, flipping it and leaving Pete an orphan and alone in some pretty spooky woods that have their fair share of very carnivorous wolves. This is such a "Bambi" moment (and the director stages it with something like that film's strategy) that some kids might be traumatized by it. They won't be traumatized for long, though. No sooner do the wolves start baring their canines, do the trees begin to move and sway like nature's out of joint.
There emerges a very large, furry, winged creature who sniffs out the little kid and, having satisfied itself there is no threat, extends one paw, into which the child climbs. The creature then heaves into the air, flying undetected through the misty sky. Pete calls the creature "Elliott" (after the puppy in the book he carried with him from the wreckage of the car accident) and the two begin their "adventure" together.
Time, like a dragon, flies by. It is six years later, and Pete and Elliott seemingly have the forest (called "Millhaven") to themselves. Pete (now played by the rather stoic little Oakes Fegley) has become quite the little Mowgli, running through the trees, scampering over fallen limbs, fashioning a makeshift tree-house for himself (when he's not hanging out in the dragon's cave) with the snaggle-toothed "Elliott" keeping pace like a protective, obedient pet. Not only can "Elliott" fly, but it also has the ability to camouflage itself, blending in with its surroundings, making it virtually invisible. This becomes handy when eluding detection or for startling any bears that might see Pete as a potential meal...or a threat. No one disturbs them and no one encroaches. They're "Calvin and Hobbes" with no parental controls or supervision. What kid wouldn't love that?
But, that's a fairy tale. The town of Millhaven has stories and songs about the Millhaven dragon and one of its citizens, a retired woodcarver named Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have actually seen the dragon back in his younger days, which he is only too pleased to regale to young kids who hang on his every word, to the amusement of his ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who treats the story like the too-often-told tales on Thanksgiving, with a resigned smile and the faintest of eye-rolls. For Meacham the experience was an example of "magic" made real. For Grace, it's an old man telling stories. As she says she "knows the woods like the back of my hand" and has seen no evidence. She's too busy monitoring the encroaching of man to be noticing 50 foot myths.
Grace may have commitment issues. She's engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley) who, with his brother Gavin (Karl Urban), runs the local saw-mill. While Jack does the books, Gavin does the "harvest," which is going deeper and deeper into protected areas of Millhaven and for which Grace does a certain amount of what is often termed "environmental terrorism" (she grabs the keys from a CAT and tosses them and paints over spray-painted "tagging" marks) to impede his progress (Really? She's going to marry into this family?). She is noticed by Pete and "Elliott" and the boy manages to grab a compass she drops during her walk. 
The boy is curious about the fellow humans, especially when he sees Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). It sets up a series of encounters between the disparate parties that will expose "Elliott" to the "outside" world and separate the two and their bond. Plus, once Gavin gets wind of the dragon, he is determined to capture it for his own gain. What was once idyllic will be destroyed, never to be regained, and it will take sacrifice—a lot of it—if any semblance of "right" can be brought back to the world.  
What's great about Pete's Dragon is that it was conceived and directed by David Lowery, the independent film-maker who, a few years earlier, made the very good Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which took the simple story of crime and sacrifice and turned it into an elegaic film where images are most important and where the dialogue is circumspect and actually avoiding spelling things out, lest the hopes and secrets of the characters might be exposed and their lives...and dreams...destroyed. At the time, I wondered what other glories Lowery could be capable of. I never expected it to be a Disney film, Or a damned good one.
Pete's Dragon is not so guarded, whether in story or dialogue, and the characters are much more direct—none of them are doing anything illegal or dangerous, and at the most are just bending some rules to get by. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and their actions follow their desires, whether they're good, bad, selfish, or caring, and even the worst of them is not so shallow that they can't change their heart. It is a film of heart...and soul. And Lowery is enough of a dramatist...and a realist...that he isn't afraid to make things very bad for the characters (after all, he killed the kid's parents in the first five minutes). A good dramatist risks much, even the loyalty and comfort of the audience, in order to engage them, rather than placating. The rewards for such a strategy are great. And Pete's Dragon earns those.
The dragon's amazing, created by New Zealand's WETA with an air towards creating something oddly ungainly while plush, with the playfulness of a puppy but the eyes of an old soul. It is quite the imaginary friend, and one feels as much for the dragon as for the kid, as the two are separated from what is essentially a good thing in order to integrate them into what society considers normal. Just as the loggers are making little encroachments into the woods, reality makes its own in-roads into fantasy and the way Lowery plays it, it feels like a horrible incursion, like something precious is about to be forever lost, never to be regained, and, like the path to Hell, always asphalted over with good intentions.
But, don't tell the kids that. This is one that will keep them from being fidgety or wondering why they had to go someplace to see it, rather than just watch it on TV, and it isn't so insufferable to cause adults to check their I-watches and looking longingly for the "Exit" signs. It's a good, solid surprising "family" film that extols the virtues of family, even while it's questioning that it always has to be the best thing. Like dragons, this movie is something odd and rare and unexpected, especially given the source of Disney, who can do cinematic things that take you aback with how good they can be.

They can even spin gold from the threads of their less-accomplished films, answering the question of "why don't they remake the bad films, rather than merely try to recreate the glories of the good ones (and failing)?" Here, "they" do exactly that and make something wonderful out of it. Something that actually brought well-earned tears to my eyes.
The "original" Pete's Dragon—don't even go there.

No comments:

Post a Comment