Friday, August 19, 2016

Pete's Dragon Is Far More Heartwarming And Well-Crafted Than I Could Have Ever Expected

Pete's Dragon is a pretty blatant attempt to cash in on the success of two March 2010 family movies; Alice In Wonderland, which proved remaking classic Disney movies could be a fruitful road to profit, and How To Train Your Dragon, another tale of a boy and his dragon developing a friendship. I'm sure some Disney producer was looking around for other titles Disney could remake after Alice In Wonderland became such a massive box office bonanza and thought Pete's Dragon could coast on the coattails of How To Train Your Dragon nicely. Yep, this is a pretty cynical cash-grab, a marketer's most serene fantasy....and it's also an emotionally thrilling with an excellent script and plenty of strong performances. Who'da thunk?

David Lowery, the director of the 2013 film Ain't Them Bodies Saints and the editor movies like Upstream Color, is the director of this enterprise and, along with Toby Halbrook, writes the screenplay for this iteration of Pete's Dragon. I'm completely unfamiliar with Lowery, but I am quite curious to see if the level of thoughtfulness and craft that's quite clearly on display in Pete's Dragon is present in his past two directorial efforts. For Pete's Dragon, Lowery and Halbrook seem to have made the primary goal of this movie to be sure that the audience understands and buys the friendship between Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliot the dragon. The duo live in isolation in the woods with Elliot raising and taking care of Pete.

The smart decision has been made here to make Elliot a silent character, which has the heroic dragon speaking in roars, growls and primarily body language. You'd be amazed at how much more can be conveyed via subdued physical movements instead of having your CGI creations shout things like "BANANA!" over and over again until everyone in the theater has a horrible migraine. The script actually devotes a lot of time in the first few scenes of Pete's Dragon to just showing our two main characters romping around in the woods, perfectly establishing why these two have such a strong bond. They look out for each other, care for one another, their bond is immediately understood and imprinted on the viewer, which is thanks in no small part to Oakes Fegley, a child actor whose kind of a revelation in his performance here.

Of course, Pete cannot stay hidden away from civilization forever and he's eventually discovered by a local park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). There's this really awesome trend in this movies adult characters to paint them as authentic human beings in contrast to a lot of live-action family movies which typically portray adult characters in a very stylized manner. Instead, Grace's primary flaw of having a difficult time believing in the outlandish is treated not as an overtly antagonistic facet of her personality but rather a seamless extension of her general demeanor. Bryce Dallas Howard, by the way, does a great job executing this characters warmth and kind personality, you totally understand why she's the first person in this strange new world that Pete grows close to. Speaking of Pete, once he enters the human world, Fegley does a great job conveying how out of place Pete feels with his striking body language and physical mannerisms.

While on the subject of people who impress in the case, Karl Urban as the primary adversary of the movie is similar to Bryce Dallas Howard's character in that he's more grounded in a way that is consistent with the overall true-to-life nature of Pete's Dragon that even the obviously fantastical elements of the piece like, y'know, the titular dragon, don't upend. These seemingly opposing elements manage to work together in a harmonious way, an indication that the script is really firing on all cylinders in terms of setting up and executing this movies universe. David Lowery also works quite well as a director, even managing to make that light blue color grading that's been popping up in a bunch of recent movies (like Jurassic World and Money Monster) work for a distinct and satisfying purpose here.

Something else that deserves major praise, in regards to a visual aspect of the movie, is Elliot the dragon's appearance. As a bit of a connoisseur of dragons (seriously, dragons might be my favorite mythological creature) in pop culture, Elliot actually looks quite unique from typical visual depictions of dragons, namely in that he has soft looking fur covering his body. Of course, cool looking appearance aside, it's the aforementioned emotional connection between Elliot and the human boy Pete that really drives the film and provides some of its most emotionally rewarding moments, having a super cool and unique to that dragon is just a bonus.

On the surface conceptually, Pete's Dragon sounds like a blatant marketing plot, but don't be fooled. This is actually an emotionally rewarding movie that manages to be so soul-stirring by putting an emphasis on interesting characters and engaging character dynamics, not to mention some great performances from a game cast. I never would have expected Pete's Dragon to be such an affecting parable about loss and friendship, but considering what a quality movie it turned out to be, I'm so glad this movie surprised me as much as it did.

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