Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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“You’re very brave.”

Here is one of 2016’s most beautifully captured films, itself an ode to the joys of fever pitch childhood summers and a testament to the power of uninhibited belief. That’s purely visual though, because Pete’s Dragon – while occasionally moving and momentous – is as frustrating and messy a family film as I’ve seen this year. The pace car rhythm will only capture the most patient of children and its unwillingness to hone in on fine character detail should leave adults scratching their heads. Disney’s latest live-action update is an all out appeal to grown-ups through the likeness of a PG conference on the innocence of youth. I could tell that Pete’s Dragon had something special about it, yet the story keeps the secrets close to its chest, constantly looking back and forth before crossing the street and continually halting the action. Where’s the high dive leap into the pool of magic it suggests exists? In this case, playing it safe is as beautiful as it is clumsy.

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A deadly car accident leaves Pete (Oakes Fegley) an orphan, stranded in the East Coast wilderness, surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. It looks to be his last straw. That is until a large looming figure emerges from the brush, huffing and puffing and eventually sneezing glops of gloop everywhere. Pete stands up to this giant beast we come to know as Elliot, named after the canine character from Pete’s favorite book. It’s clear from that tie-in and the mannerisms of the giant that we’re meant to read this behemoth as Elliot the Big Green Dragon, a more undomesticated take on Clifford the Big Red Dog. If you’re going to model a human to animal relationship around anything, it may as well be that of man’s best friend. I immediately bought in to their friendship no question, which may be why the weak story surrounding them turned me into such a skeptic.

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Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the mountain ranger who knows the hills like the back of her own hand. Old man Meacham’s (Robert Redford) her dad, himself a believer in dragons, claiming to have seen one years ago. Grace dates Jack (Wes Bentley) and Natalie (Oona Laurence) is their little girl, the first to run into Pete in the wild. For as grounded as this approach is, Pete’s Dragon sort of glosses over the integrity and characterization of these people, making their indecisiveness and hesitancy to take action all the more maddening. In this world, heroes allow bad things to happen by not intervening, let alone voicing an opinion or standing up for what is right. Making matters worse is Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban in a dead performance). He hunts Elliot for no reason other than to beat his own chest, making the film’s big dramatic turning point a stumbling block. It may be true that adults are nonsensical and that children are more understanding, but here the dissimilarities feel too great to overcome.

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I really admire David Lowery’s vision behind this reimagining though, as well as Disney’s willingness to allow the filmmaker so much creative freedom. We can tell that this is the movie he intended to make. If you’ve seen his 2013 feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – a visionary rustic spin on Bonnie and Clyde – then you know his inclination for folklore. By using Redford’s unmistakably rhapsodic inflections during the tale’s beginning and ending, sounding like a voiceover artist handpicked by the gods of sound, the story captures you with a sort of fireside ambiance. One can only imagine what this film might have been with a sharper sense of pacing. Some spots test your tolerance, not for the betterment of the story, but by simply wandering far too much. In that way, Pete’s Dragon is like a young summer day, ranging from boring to exciting and back again. Such a broad range doesn’t keep the film from dialing it home emotionally, although it certainly does lessen its overall appeal and staying power. Movies with this much heart shouldn’t leave your head the moment the credits roll.

“You don’t know what an adventure is?”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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