25 August 2016

Pete's Dragon review

In a time when studio interference seems more common than ever, it isn't difficult to appreciate what Disney have given us in Pete's Dragon. Here is a film noticeably lacking the hallmarks of a troubled production, one that isn't plagued by the kind of issues that often come from executive meddling. Instead, Pete's Dragon really feels like an example of a studio having complete faith in a directors vision, and the result of that is a wonderful little film that probably couldn't exist under any other circumstances - a film that a number of big studios could learn a great deal from.

We follow Pete, a young boy who has been living in a vast woodland with a friendly dragon named Elliot since his parents were killed in a car accident six years ago. However, as loggers cut deeper into the woodlands, Pete ends up being discovered and "rescued" by local park ranger Grace, and Elliot starts being hunted by a group of loggers led by Grace's soon-to-be brother-in-law, Gavin.

In a lot of ways, Pete's Dragon feels like a love letter to the family-orientated Amblin Entertainment films of the 1980's, but unlike a lot of other "love letters to X", Pete's Dragon is above relying on shallow, reference based nostalgia in order to stir your emotions. It's easy to simply copy a shot or a costume or a music cue from a much beloved film and have your audience recognise it and respond accordingly, but Pete's Dragon avoids that entirely in favour of something more real, more honest. The homage in Pete's Dragon comes in the form of a near perfect replication of the tone and feeling that films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial invoke, earning a sense of wonder and awe that you don't often see done in today's cinema landscape, never mind done this well.

There is a focus on tone and character here that combine with the beautiful cinematography and the relaxed yet deliberate pace to make Pete's Dragon often feel more like a particularly skillfully made indie film than it does a loose remake of a minor Disney movie. Children's films usually tend to target the lowest common denominator of the audience, but in ditching that approach in favour of appealing to those willing to pay attention, Pete's Dragon allows itself to imbue its characters and the world they inhabit with a reality and a subtlety not often seen in films aimed at children. Take Karl Urban's character Gavin, for example - he's quite obviously the bad guy of the film, but there is a real humanity to him that stops him from being the moustache twirling villain that he easily could have been in a broader, lesser movie.

This willingness to treat its audience with intelligence, to aim for something more than just another kids film, is ultimately what makes Pete's Dragon as special as it is, flaws and all. Director David Lowery is clearly very talented, and that's something on show in every aspect of the movie, whether it be his incredible handle on tone or the performance he gets out of even the youngest members of his cast, even the younger members. Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford are brilliantly understated in their roles as Grace and Grace's father respectively, as are child actors Oakes Fegly and Oona Laurence as Pete and Grace's daughter, whose growing relationship is core to the films success.

Throw in the sheer likability of Elliot himself (dog lovers in particular are going to fall head over heels for him) and the relationship he shared with Pete, and Pete's Dragon is a film that has no problem in tugging at your heartstrings. Ultimately it's telling a story you've seen too many times before to be considered a truly great movie, but that does nothing to dilute what Pete's Dragon is offering - the ability to be given back a sense of childlike wonder for and hour and three quarters. It's a film that is pretty much the best possible version of itself, one that knows what it wants to be and isn't afraid of taking its time getting there, one that can truly be described as effective, brilliant film-making. And that's something we simply don't see enough of anymore.

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