PETE'S DRAGON (2016)
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Robert Redford, the voice of John Kassir
MPAA Rating: (for action, peril and brief language)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 8/12/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 11, 2016
Even now, there's still a certain sense of wonder when the animated dragon turns up in the live-action world in the original Pete's Dragon. One can tell right away that the creature is going to be treated as a character, not just as an effect, and the incorporation of the flatly animated beast into the real world is effective enough. Most of the movie's wonder disappears once it becomes a rambling musical, but the dragon, with its good-natured personality and vocabulary of bouncy chortles, remains a delight.
Wisely, this remake of the 1977 movie does away with the song and dance. It maintains the dragon, obviously, although the beast is now rendered by means of superb visual effects that make it more than just some cheery comic relief. The dragon here has a big heart. It's willing to take in an orphaned boy, to protect the child from the threats of the forest, and to help raise the boy for six years.
The creature is part pet, part friend, and part adoptive parent. In the role of a pet, the dragon is a source of wonder, as it plays with the boy in the forest and takes him on a twirling flight through the clouds. The first flight is particularly stunning, especially in the way director David Lowery builds up to the moment with a static shot of an empty cliff from which the boy has jumped. The anticipation is almost as important as the visual thrill (Of comical note, the dragon has hard time sticking the landing).
In portraying the more delicate side of the relationship between the dragon and the boy, though, the visual effects of Pete's Dragon are really a source of wonder. It's all in the eyes—big, emotional puppy-dog portals to see the soul of this good-hearted animal. This is not an easy trick—to create the sense of a character on top of the computer outline and beneath the layers of digital tissue. There's a genuine sense of this dragon's personality. It's a mixture of animalistic innocence, pet-like loyalty, and a capacity for empathy.
That last element is the most surprising, and it's revealed early in the film. After a car accident, a 5-year-old boy finds himself alone on a road in the middle of a forest. His parents have died in the wreck. He's saved from a pack of wolves by the appearance of the dragon, covered in green fur. After the formalities ("Are you going to eat me," the boy asks the dragon, which looks slightly offended by the question), the dragon reaches out its paw to take the boy to safety. The boy looks back at the smoking wreckage that was once his life, and the dragon's eyes follow the boy's stare.
There's a moment of recognition in those computer-generated eyes. It's deeper than simply comprehending what the sight is. There's an understanding of what it means for the boy and what, by reaching out that paw, this decision means for the dragon itself. After all, the dragon is alone in these woods, too. Surely the creature knows what that entails.
The story picks up six years later, and Pete (Oakes Fegley), the boy, has grown into an almost feral child with long hair and a love of running, climbing, and jumping with, around, or on his friend. He has named the dragon Elliot (the purrs and grunts provided by John Kassir), after a lost puppy in a storybook that the boy salvaged from the accident. The two have been living comfortably all these years deep in the forest. Lowery, who also wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, quickly establishes a sense of routine for the pair, from their playing in the woods to Pete reading the book as a bedtime story for Elliot.
Eventually, the two are separated. A local logging company has begun cutting down trees deeper in the forest, eventually leading Pete to be found by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger. He's later taken back into town after being spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Grace's fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), who runs the logging company. While the three—as well as Grace's father (Robert Redford), who saw the dragon as a young man—try to figure out how Pete arrived and survived in the woods, Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sets out to hunt and capture Elliot.
The plot goes in the expected direction, but the film maintains its focus on the undercurrents of loss, loneliness, and how the boy's new connections with other people can fill a void, even as they create a new ones within Pete and Elliot. The connection established in the film's first act is so strong, thanks to the outstanding effects work on Elliot and Fegley's impressive performance (The young actor not only has to communicate Pete's emotional and psychological state but also has to do it while interacting with a special effect), that the divide between them is palpable.
The conflict is not, as the screenplay later emphasizes, about trying to save the dragon from Gavin and his hunters. It's mainly internal: Pete learning that he wants to live among people, while fearing the loss of his oldest friend, and Elliot missing its master/friend/son, while discovering that his loneliness might be a small price to pay for the boy's chance at a normal life.
None of this works if the dragon isn't convincing, both as an effect and as a character. It is on both counts, and as a result, Pete's Dragon becomes a film about believing in wonder again that actually gives us something at which to wonder.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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