Friday, August 12, 2016

A Reel Review: PETE'S DRAGON

In the vast cinematic catalog of Disney, there could not have been a better candidate for an update than PETE’S DRAGON. The 1977 film, which was a live-action musical with a hand-drawn cartoon dragon, was hokey and cute, and today is looked at as an obscure oddity or a gem of a family flick. For the new version, Disney turns to independent-film/arthouse director and writer David Lowery; a mismatch on paper, but on screen…the marriage could not be more perfect for flying PETE’S DRAGON back from the past.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is stranded in the vast and lush Pacific Northwest forest after a tragic car accident which kills his parents. He is taken under the wing of a friendly and furry green dragon which he names Elliot. After six years together, Pete is discovered by Forest Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is trying to protect the forest from her logging-company owner (and fiancĂ©) Jack (Wes Bentley) and his overly aggressive trigger-happy brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Grace and her father Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), an old man who has been claiming to have seen a dragon years before, set out to protect both Pete and Elliot from those who want to exploit them…

Light on plot but heavy on heart and character, PETE’S DRAGON is a film all about family, relationships, and finding one’s place in the world. Director David Lowery, in his first big-budget visual effects-driven film, guides us through these themes like a good ranger would through the forest; putting each character in some sort of moral quandary or peril, while never losing focus on the two stars of the film…Pete and Elliot. The friendship between the two, which seems better suited for a children’s storybook or a full-fledged cartoon, is palpable from the start. Lowery gets to the core of the friendship, with the both of them looking for a place to belong and relying on each other for survival. The scenes between the two of them are heartwarming, and the scenes when they are separated are heartbreaking.

For as much character as the film has, it still relies a lot on the CGI creation of Elliot the dragon, and the result could not be more spectacular. The creature looks fantastic, and Lowery makes the brilliant decision to give him the mannerisms of a friendly dog; Elliot chases bugs (and his own tail), carries big trees in his mouth (until they get stuck between two more trees), and cuddles and protects his master with a fierce love. His moments when he spreads his wings and take flight are magnificent, and his landings are always a highlight (he can’t land very well). Elliot’s facial expressions convey every emotion from joy to sadness, and his big eyes are enough to melt anyone’s heart. From design and execution, Elliot the dragon is a visual masterstroke.

Director David Lowery, who has made a name for himself in the quiet world of arthouse cinema, once again films a beautiful looking movie. The forests are deep and stunning, and his work with sunsets and sunrises gives PETE’S DRAGON an intimate and mature feel. The old musical numbers are gone, but in their place are well-timed and well-picked contemporary folk songs…with each one serving a unique purpose in the story.

Young Oakes Fegley is terrific as Pete, having to go through many ranges of emotion from happiness to surprise to the feeling of shock once he finds himself removed from the forest and into the scary civilized world. Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford are perfect as always, and Karl Urban, who takes the role of the villain in the film (he goes hunting for Elliot), is great as always.

PETE’S DRAGON borrows a lot from a handful of films which have reputations for turning people into blubbering messes in the theatre, and David Lowery is clearly showing his love and admiration for those stories. Here he has crafted a film which feels wholly original and new, while hitting every emotional note required for a classic Disney movie...while capturing the feeling of a campfire tale or a fable out of a dusty old book. Be prepared to go through joy and sadness, heartbreak and elation…and let the old Disney magic take you on a flight.


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