Friday, November 11, 2016

Film Review: Pete's Dragon (2016)

With the wild wilderness of our world being slowly overtaken by the expanse of human civilization there are many advantages.  But there are also some losses.  Chief among them is the loss of mystery and wonder at that this world has to offer.  The more we turn the world into a mundane reflection of our own expectations, the less we see the magic in what we cannot control.

This admittedly strange philosophical point of view is key to understanding what is so wonderful about the remake of Pete's Dragon.

The movie is set in the 1980's, but you can hardly notice.  Technology makes little impact on the story because you are more concerned with the environment that you are in.

The story begins with a tragic car accident deep in the woods that claims the lives of a young couple.  Their toddler son wonders into those woods and encounters a dragon who he names Elliot.  A few years later this little boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley)  is living like Mowgli in the Jungle Book, wild and free with Elliot.  But he then begins to become curious about humans when he encounters a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Through events in the story, Pete is brought into Grace's life along her fiance Jack (Wes Bentley) and Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence).  In addition to this, there is a growing threat to Elliot as Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban) keeps pushing their family's logging company further and further into the forest towards Elliot's home.  Grace has a difficulty believing Pete's tales, even though her own father Meacham (Robert Redford) is a local legend for his tales of seeing dragons in his youth.

What follows is a tale of family, adventure, kindness, and magic.

As I wrote above, the environment is one of the biggest selling points of this movie.  Director David Lowery makes the forests feel expansive and magical.  You get the feeling that a world could get lost in those woods and so you have no trouble at all believing that they could hide something as massive as Elliot.  In addition, the forest comes off as a truly magical place, full of danger and possibilities.  Lowery films these locations beautifully.

But the other thing that really makes this movie work is Fegley's performance as Pete.  The problem with most child actors is that they tend to go over the top with overacting or deliver a monotone underacting performance.  Fegley does a fantastic job of delivering a performance that is powerful, effective, and yet feels restrained.  There is a naturalness to what he does that was truly impressed.  And since Pete must express himself quite often in non-verbal, Fegley is able to do quite a bit while not going too big.  No small feat for a child.

The other performances are also perfectly fine.  Howard creates a warm, feminine presence that attracts the orphaned Pete.  Lawrence matches Fegley's childlike innocence while not appearing unintelligent.  Bentley is solid and Redford brings a sage stability.  Even Urban's performance brings more life and layers to what could easily be a one-dimensional character.

This movie makes you look at the beauty of the natural world while at the same time not hitting you over the head with an environmental message.  Nothing kills a good story faster than preaching a message at the audience.  Lowery opts not to take this route.  Instead he makes you fall in love with the beauty of unspoiled nature.

A small note is that I was disconcerted that it appeared as if the lead adults were engaged and living together in this children's movie.  But my wife pointed out that this was something I inferred rather than something that was implied.  I was glad that I was only reading into things, because it was the only thing keeping me from being completely absorbed in the story.

And above all the movie is good-natured and has a tone of awe that is lacking in so many movies.  We want to see a movie like this because when we see Elliot and Pete soar through the sky we want to feel our hearts soar with them.  And when this movie clicks, that is exactly what happens.  This is a movie that

4 out of 5 stars

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