Skip to main content

Follow that dragon!

Pete’s Dragon
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I didn’t see that that many movies at the cinema as a wee nipper (I know, boo-ruddy-hoo), but one I did was Pete’s Dragon. Aside from clips, I haven’t revisited it since, and I can fully believe it ain’t all that, reflected through the unflattering rear-view mirror of adulthood. But I was, and am, a fan of the mashup of animation and live action found in the likes of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (but not Space Jam). It seemed to me this remake was going for the least-imaginative route available in fashioning a CGI beastie. One who didn’t even talk, for heaven’s sake; it wouldn’t even be up to the standard of Dragonheart (ahem). Happily, I was wrong, as Pete’s Dragon ’16 is really good.


I hadn’t even taken much notice of the positive reviews. The trailers put me (and possibly the general public too, since Pete very much didn’t make a mint) off, with their feral child and furry dragon. I mean to say, divesting a dragon of his dragonhood via an anodyne redesign and his ability to converse, and so making him little more than an overgrown, devoted hound, seemed like something I’d happily miss. But this is way, way superior to that other kid-makes-friends-with-an-oversized-fellow movie from last summer (Spielberg’s disastrous The BFG). David Lowery’s picture engages in expert button pushing, aided by a thoroughly, upliftingly manipulative Daniel Hart score, but for the most part he succeeds admirably in delivering a movie that feels heartfelt rather than cynical.


Sure, there are elements on the side-lines that don’t fully succeed. Wes Bentley as the eventually adoptive father can’t appear in anything without the air of someone who has something sinister stashed in his wood shed. Bryce Dallas Howard tries to give off mumsy but is trying to give it off too hard (young Pete is too quick to hug her, to validate her desire for uber-mumsiness). And their daughter, Oona Laurence, is one of those kids who looks about 11 going on 80 (I realise now I previously saw her in Southpaw, where she was similarly jarring). As for poor Karl Urban, given the thankless role of logger turned crazed dragon hunter (and brother to Wes), the best I can say is that he serves his cartoonish antagonist purpose.


And he certainly is antagonistic, in a compelling scene where he and his cohorts capture Elliot. It made me realise there aren’t enough of these traditionally structured stories – there seemed to be a lot more around in the ‘70s, at any rate – pivoting on the dire straits of the good guys before paying off with ultimate release and triumph.


Or maybe it’s just that Lowery executes it all so well. He isn’t a consciously obtrusive director, but he is stylistically accomplished. Occasionally you become aware of how effective his approach is, such as when the sound drops out to emphasise a moment, but the most “look at me” sequence is actually the opening death of Pete’s parents, sensitively shot so you see nothing of what has befallen them, only the fallout on Pete. At other times a shot – Elliot bound on the back of a trailer, from overhead – is noteworthy, but for the pathos it instils, rather than demanding to be looked at. So too, the effectively-staged climax on the bridge is full of drama and energy.


I was grumbling away to myself for maybe half an hour that not having Elliot talk missed the entire appeal of the original, but Lowery has fashioned a justifiably distinct beast of a movie, where Oakes Fegley, despite that feral look, turns in a tremendously affecting performance as Pete, carrying the picture in a manner that translates entirely naturally (unlike, say, a Haley Joel Osment, of whom you were always very aware of his studied actorly choices and responses).


Robert Redford (he’s effectively playing Mickey Rooney – has it come to this, Bob?) has a lovely role as the grandpa who saw a dragon years before but wouldn’t relinquish his story, no matter how much he was mocked. And the dragon himself, for all that I don’t think the design is something to shout about (even Elliot’s drawing looks more like a dragon), has genuine soulfulness. Lowery even inserts the occasional bit of knowing humour – the picture is fairly straight shooting, not goofy like the original and certainly devoid of songs – as Elliot sniffs out Pete, arriving at a hospital where a girl announces to her oblivious mum she has seen a monster at the window, and some stunned medics drop their patient off a stretcher.


Pete’s Dragon is simply a supremely satisfying, assured family movie. Yes, it doffs its hat to E.T. a little obviously at times (the symbiotic link, the inevitable rite of passage of saying goodbye – although Lowery opts to soften that particular blow in slightly sugary fashion, and the separation is admittedly part and parcel of the original), but this is exactly the sort of family fare that deserves respect. There’s a strong conservation theme running through it, but never once does Lowery feel the need to grandstand on the subject, respecting (young) viewers enough to allow them to discern what they may for themselves. And, best of all, since it wasn’t a hit, we don’t have to endure the inevitable diminishing returns of an unnecessary cash-in sequel. Who knows, maybe Lowery can even make that elusive, decent live-action Peter Pan. On this evidence, I do believe in Lowery. I do, I do.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c