2016 has been a cynical year for summer blockbusters. After all, we live in a world now where superheroes must pay for the consequences of their actions, and it seems like sometimes that’s all they’re doing. On the same token though, this has been a banner year for Disney studios, with almost all of their films being critical darlings so far, and three milestone achievements already in Zootopia, The Jungle Book, and Captain America: Civil War. In Pete’s Dragon though, the new loose remake of the 1977 film of the same name, they have given us one of their biggest surprises and best films so far this year.
Directed by David Lowery, a filmmaker who has injected his indie roots and ideals into the very core of Pete’s Dragon, the new film is set during an unspecified time in an unspecified location in the Pacific Northwest (actually shot in New Zealand, who’s endless hills and forests can pass off well for the American region), and follows the story of a missing boy named Pete, who is discovered in the woods six years after the death of his parents by a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard). What seems like a closed-and-shut missing persons case though, takes a fantastical turn when Pete tries to escape back to the woods, where Elliot, his dragon, lives.
The thing that Lowery and co. make apparent from the beautiful opening moments is that Pete’s Dragon is a fairytale, can you imagine that? A movie imbued with the same fiery sense of melancholy and optimism that was ever so present in some of the best Disney classics, but in almost all blockbuster films nowadays, has either been blown out or dimmed down. This is a movie where all of the characters are good people, all trying to do the right thing, where the villain isn’t even a bad guy, but who more or less is just trying to prove to his brother that he’s not wrong about something.
All of that magic and love relies of course, on Lowery’s casting of the film as well, who has filled the supporting roles with experienced veterans like Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Karl Urban, and Wes Bentley, all bringing their respective charms and charisma even in the smallest of moments. Redford for instance, doesn’t get to do as much as you might expect an actor of his calibre to, but instead joined onto the film because of his relationship with Lowery, which should give you an accurate idea of how skilled of a filmmaker he has become. Howard meanwhile, gets the most to do out of any of the adults in the film, and helps to bring a good-natured and loving character like Grace to life with a motherly touch that never feels anything other than natural.
Lowery makes his biggest achievements though in the casting of the film’s two lead kids, Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence (who impressed in last year’s Southpaw opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. As the titular Pete, Fegley brings so much natural talent and appeal onscreen here that it’s not hard to see why Todd Haynes has already cast him opposite Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck. As Natalie, Laurence shines once again as well, the daughter of Wes Bentley’s Jack, who first discovers Pete in the woods. Both kids expertly bring an inquisitive and unharmed innocence to a film that needs it in order to really succeed.
Working opposite Fegley for a majority of the film though is Elliot, the film’s titular Dragon brought to life by the geniuses over at WETA digital, and who’s adorable and lovable nature goes deeper than just the green fur covering him. We meet Elliot in the opening minutes of the movie when Pete does. The scene between them has no dialogue, but thanks to the emotion already filling it and the subtle beauty which has brought Elliot to life, helps to bring the film’s emotional and stellar introduction to a close. There are, of course, echoes of films like E.T. here in the relationship between Pete and Elliot, but they never override or turn the relationship between them into an imitation. Pete’s Dragon does not rely on nostalgia to work, but instead manages to capture the same heart and love of those Spielberg movies, thanks to Lowery’s unusual approach to a summer blockbuster here.
When I say that Pete’s Dragon is unique, I mean it both emotionally and technically too, because there is by all counts, no real structure to it. The film doesn’t follow the same three-act outline that so many others do, and if there really needs to be a description, it can more or less be broken down into a prologue, followed by one long act after that. Thanks to this decision, the film moves at an unhurried and pleasant pace throughout, with the action sequences often undercut by the film’s memorable folk soundtrack (the track list features songs from both The Lumineers and Leonard Cohen), giving it a storybook quality in every possible category.
If there are flaws to be had with Pete’s Dragon, they’d probably be the film’s somewhat sudden and almost unexplained ending, and the forced nature of Gavin, the movie’s “villain” played by Karl Urban, and his motivations. Where all of the other characters feel natural and authentic to the narrative, Urban sometimes goes a little too far over-the-top with his performance here, and the character’s sudden desire to capture Elliot for himself, feels out of place compared to everything else we’ve seen from the film up until that turning point.
With all of that being said though, Pete’s Dragon is by and large, Disney’s most successful live-action remake to date, managing to not only deliver a beautiful film to look at, but one of heartfelt emotion as well. It’s unlike anything else you’ve seen this year, and when you look back at the summer of 2016, I think you’ll see that the movies that were the most well-embraced were the ones that seemed to love and respect their characters more than anything else. I think when you really look back too, you’ll realize that no other summer film this year loved its characters with quite as much sincerity as Pete’s Dragon, one of this year’s most genuine, heartfelt surprises.
Pete’s Dragon is set to hit theatres on August 12th.
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