Pete's Dragon (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
7Apr/170

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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After an accident with his parents, Pete's left scared and alone.  As he wanders the forest he stumbles upon a dragon, and the two become friends over the years.  The march of progress continues on as the forest is removed to make way for buildings and Pete, along with his dragon, run the risk of being discovered.  David Lowery directs Pete's Dragon, with the screenplay written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, and stars Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Robert Redford.

Per Disney tradition, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is orphaned before the title card shows up in Pete's Dragon.  It's a loving scene, with mama and papa both reassuring little Pete in his reading skills right before their car careens off the road.  We don't see mama and papa again, and Pete's young mind is already coping with their deaths by picturing the car as a creature more threatening than the titular dragon.  His parents aren't discovered by the time the credits roll, and while some viewers might see this as a plot hole, the idea their bodies are returning to the earth in a forgotten heap of metal is appropriately threatening for the maturity of Pete's Dragon.

The opening scenes sets the stage for a weird, wonderful, sometimes scary, and ultimately touching movie.  There's enough comic distancing in the performances to make the threat of violence and death go down smoothly, but not to the point where Pete's Dragon becomes self-knowing or over the top.  Director David Lowery respects his audience, kids and adults alike, too much to let the power of this simple fantasy go postmodern, even if his direction includes touches of cinematic greats that suggest a deeper undercurrent of darkness.

Gorgeous framing aids the already wonderful visuals of Pete's Dragon.

How many directors would think to link the image of frightened Pete, overwhelmed by the world after he's discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), to the Leonard Cohen classic, "So Long Marianne"?  It's not an easy fit, and with the recent death of Cohen I felt myself stirred by feelings not directly associated with the alienation Pete felt onscreen.  Yet this is where Lowery's confidence as a director shines through by incorporating bits of the past we don't expect to show up in our present.  Great art sometimes pulls inspiration from unexpected sources, and the grief of Cohen's song, combined with Cohen's death and Pete's fearfulness, coalesced into a cohesive and complicated emotional experience.

Lowery's confidence extends to strong sequences where he pays tribute to some of the cinematic greats.  The last thing I was expecting to think of when I started Pete's Dragon was Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers.  But as Pete awoke in the hospital to a dream of a room where mother and scenery alike bathed in red, I was able to get over my discomfort and relish in the connection.  Pete's mother is dead, he is afraid, and the uncontrollable pulse of the world keeps things rolling on.  Once again the pain of a distant and seemingly unrelated piece of art finds modern resonance in a kids film of all places.

The complexity of my emotions with respect to Pete's Dragon shouldn't have surprised me.  Disney's been doing a stellar job updating some of their previous films with an adult sensibility while still being aimed at kids.  It's how Maleficent became a commentary on rape culture with its sexual politics subtext, and transformed a villainous outsider into one audiences of all ages could relate to in her isolation.  The same goes with Cinderella, where its political plot threads threatened to untangle the magic of the story, but landed beautifully all the same.

Pete's Dragon, despite starring a gigantic green creature that can turn invisible, is the most grounded of the Disney reboots.  Part of this has to do with Pete's pain, but also the little touches of small-town life Lowery brings to the screen.  Everyone's in everyone else's business, where a police officer can hear rumors in the morning and confirm them an hour later, while distracted waitresses make honest mistakes on the job.  For all its supernatural trappings, Pete's Dragon nails these moments of small-town life, likely due to Lowery's work on Rectify (a spectacular television series about guilt and pain not too far removed from the world of Pete's Dragon.)

I have to find out who decided animated dragon motions should be based on cats, as this person has left me more attached to giant CGI things than most human performers.

Bryce Dallas Howard, a performer I have a love/hate relationship with, is perfectly cast here.  She's got a campy method to the way she emphasizes aspects of her characters.  Her technique works beautifully here as her character is the one who has to go through the stages of skepticism to wonder as the reality of Pete's dragon comes to light.  Robert Redford, who plays her father, gets to add to the enchanting mix of danger by letting his eyes sparkle with stories of the dragon in one scene, only to pull out a knife to start a truck in the next.  The knife scene might be the most emblematic of Lowery's approach to Pete's Dragon - even the charming old fella has fangs when the situation calls for it.

I wasn't expecting to get so emotionally invested in the remake of a C+ Disney movie.  But I like being surprised as much as a good jolt of emotional catharsis.  The tears on my face were proof that no story is beyond the pale for kids so long as an artist of complexity, maturity, and respect is at the helm.

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Pete's Dragon (2016)

Directed by David Lowery.
Screenplay written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks.
Starring Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Robert Redford.

Posted by Andrew

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