Friday, August 12, 2016

Pete's Dragon: A somewhat unsteady flight

Pete's Dragon (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.12.16

All right; there’s such a thing as too much pathos.

Disney films have a merciless Dickensian history of parental mortality, usually as a means of first-act dramatic impact. The trend goes all the way back to 1942’s Bambi, and has remained a scripting constant ever since, reaching its horrific nadir with 1985’s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. (I still wince over how that one started.)

Having grown up in a remote forest, with only a massive green dragon for a friend,
Pete (Oakes Fegley) knows a life of nothing but fun. Alas, that's about to change, when
he and his huge furry buddy are "discovered" by people.
In some ways, this new Pete’s Dragon is even more brutal.

On the whole, director David Lowery has done a lovely job with this updated fairy tale, giving it a contemporary, top-to-bottom re-write with the assistance of co-scripter Toby Halbrooks. The fantasy elements are impressive, with the fuzzy green dragon — Elliot — not only brought to persuasive life, but also given a charming, shaggy dog personality: not an easy task, for a character that cannot speak.

Much of the film also takes place from a child’s-eye view of the world, which is a nice touch.

The storyline has a gentle environmental undertone that’s given additional heft by the presence of Robert Redford, both as co-star and occasional narrator. His distinctive voice is immediately familiar, with its warm and friendly cadence; at this point in his career, he has become everybody’s favorite uncle, while also radiating the graceful ecological integrity of icons such as John Ruskin, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

He’s perfect here.

On the other hand, this film’s tone is far different than its larkish 1977 predecessor. Poster art for this new Pete’s Dragon shows our young human hero — a sensitively nuanced Oakes Fegley — resting peacefully on Elliot’s huge tail, smiling up at his furry green friend. The implication is happy and cheerful, which is extremely misleading.

Because, before Pete can befriend a massive dragon that has remained (mostly) undiscovered in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest, he must lose his parents. This takes place during a prologue that introduces Pete as barely more than a toddler, driving through the woods with his parents, and excited by the thought of a “family adventure.”

That anticipation is shattered one road accident later. Although Lowery deserves credit for handling this sequence with off-camera sensitivity, it’s no less heartbreaking ... and it also sets the mood for what follows. And while the subsequent narrative is by no means nonstop tragedy, it feels that way, in great part because of composer Daniel Hart’s unrelentingly gloomy orchestral score. Sad and maudlin themes undercut far too much of this film’s action.

(Just in passing, Lowery and Halbrooks also deserve to be spanked for the immediate peril that prompts the nearby Elliot to rescue little Pete: Wolves don’t attack people! A bear would have been a far better choice.)

Flash-forward six years, as Pete has blossomed into a ragged 10-year-old wild child who delights in racing through the woods, with Elliot galumphing alongside: a sequence that will look very familiar to those who recently watched The Legend of Tarzan and, more specifically, the live-action Jungle Book. (Once again, I can’t help wondering: Do all Hollywood people read each other’s mail?)

Elsewhere, in the peaceful lumber community of Millhaven, aging wood carver Meacham (Redford) has long delighted local children with his tall tales of a “fierce dragon” that resides in the nearby woods: a creature he once was fortunate enough to have seen. These anecdotes are tolerated with amusement by Meacham’s daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who as a forest ranger has devoted her career to protecting those same forests.

That occasionally puts her at odds with longtime boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley), who happens to own the local lumber mill with his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban, best known as Dr. McCoy in the re-booted Star Trek series). Jack is sensitive to Grace’s forward thinking, while at the same time constrained by the business realities of keeping his company solvent; the hot-tempered Gavin, in contrast, belongs to the demolish now/worry later school of thought.

Jack has an 11-year-old daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), and the two of them — with Grace — make a cozy family unit. But Grace hasn’t felt comfortable formalizing that bond yet, for obvious reasons: a clever bit of scripted character conflict.

Gavin’s aggressive penetration of the forest brings his crew ever closer to the region where Elliot and Pete hang out. No surprise, then, that Natalie soon spots the inquisitive Pete, spying curiously on this activity. Inevitably, he’s caught and brought to Millhaven, where Grace attempts to figure out who he is, and how he survived so long.

Not that big a deal, Pete replies. A friend helped.

Fegley’s work here is the second persuasively endearing performance we’ve seen from a young actor depicting an adolescent boy’s “introduction” to a civilized environment, following Jacob Tremblay’s co-starring role in last year’s Room. Granted, the parameters aren’t quite the same: Tremblay’s Jack never knew life outside his comfortable prison, whereas Pete has his memories, as a 4-year-old, of a different life. But the similarity exists.

Fegley is sweetly endearing as this young stranger in a strange land, and he sells that concept quite believably. He also shares several nice scenes with Laurence: The two children bond well, particularly over a picture storybook with which both are familiar.

Elliot, back in the woods, misses his small companion. Graced with the nose of a bloodhound, and the winged means to cover vast swaths of territory quite rapidly, the dragon sets off to find Pete.

Complications ensue, most notably a development lifted straight out of King Kong. And with similar, deeply upsetting results.

I’ve often complained that modern family films lack teeth, and indulge in cotton-candy storytelling bereft of real-world conflict; happy endings are more successful when the characters involved struggle to achieve them. But I fear that Lowery and Halbrooks have gone too far in the opposite direction, particularly given how much effort went into making Elliot an intelligent, sensitive and compassionate creature.

He really is a marvel in every respect. He bounds friskily like an overgrown puppy unaware of his size, invariably looking surprised when his bulky self knocks down trees. He has a dog’s curiosity about his own tail, and will chase it in circles; he also — and this is my favorite bit — is rather unsteady about landings, after a bit of flying.

We’ve no idea how old Elliot is, but we can assume he has been around for a long time, evading the gaze of people via a chameleon-like talent for becoming nearly invisible. He smiles, frowns and looks distraught, displaying a wide range of emotions through his soulful eyes, the set of his mouth, and playful, purr-like rumblings or disgusted snorts (the latter often rather gooey).

Most of the primary human characters also are well played. Redford has a particularly nice scene when he finally tells Grace, sans embellishment, what he actually experienced all those years ago. Howard is completely believable as a dedicated forest ranger, and she also displays earnest warmth as Grace tries to gain Pete’s trust. Then too, Howard is adept at acting with immense beasties that don’t exist on the sound stage, having gained considerable practice from last year’s Jurassic World.

Urban is credible as the sorta-kinda villain of the piece: not an exaggerated monster by any means, but just a self-centered guy who probably wasn’t good at sharing, as a kid. Gavin feels real, like the guy next door who never recycles and refuses to stop watering his lawn.

Bentley, alas, never gives Jack much of a personality. That’s not entirely his fault, as Lowery and Halbrooks didn’t grant Jack any memorable defining characteristics. He mostly responds to the actions of others, rather than displaying resolve of his own.

All production credits are top-notch, but the Pacific Northwest setting — gorgeous as it is — is a cheat; the film was shot in New Zealand.

Much of what has gone into this new Pete’s Dragon is laudable, and we can’t help being captivated by every aspect of Elliot. But I fear that Lowery’s often melancholy tone will prevent this fantasy from becoming a family go-to favorite. The hovering memory of “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is too strong to be ignored ... and that’s a problem as large as Elliot himself.

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