Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Feeling of Magic: Pete's Dragon

Pete’s Dragon was not on my radar. I have little patience for Disney’s current scheme to remake its classic properties in live action, being the kind of curmudgeon who still clings to the belief that these stories are better told through animation, and that CGI will never achieve the same impact and charm as practical effects. I guess I should have learned by now that they know what they’re doing.

If any of those properties were ripe for remaking, Pete’s Dragon fits the bill. The 1977 Disney original, about a boy who escapes his abusive hillbilly parents to live with a dragon in the woods, was a flop in every regard – so much so that it’s widely forgotten as part of the Disney canon. This 2016 update instead makes Pete (Oakes Fegley) the victim of a car crash that kills his parents and strands him in the woods, where the dragon – which he names Elliot, from the dog in his favourite book – befriends and takes care of him. Pete’s not the only one who’s seen Elliot before: tales abound in nearby Millhaven of dragons that haunt the forest, and resident coot and spinner of tall tales, Meacham (Robert Redford), has always claimed to have seen one. He insists there was a feeling of magic when he met the titular beast. It was a feeling that snuck up on him, making him drop his rifle and simply stare in wonder, and a feeling that forever changed the way he looked at the whole world. It takes a while, but Pete’s Dragon slowly begins working that same magic on you, and the moment that you see Pete soar into the air astride his furry friend – both of them whooping, howling, exulting in the sheer joy of it – you’re as entranced as Meacham was.

I cried no fewer than three times watching this film. It’s gentle, sentimental and sweet. Director David Lowery tells a simple, genuine story with a careful hand, never tipping the film’s sweetness too far into the saccharine, and taking time to pause, to linger, and to drink in the majesty of the Pacific Northwest – and of the magical things that may live there. The cast is full of likeable characters, from Bryce Dallas Howard’s park ranger, Grace, to Karl Urban’s “villain,” Gavin (who is less an actual villain and more a good person making rash decisions that he believes are for the best). Fegley is remarkable as Pete, feeling less like a true feral child and more like a sweet boy who wants to be more than that. But the most likeable character by far is Elliot, who absolutely steals the show. I was skeptical about the blend of CGI and live action when he first appears, driving away a pack of wolves from the frightened and lonely Pete, but the moment Pete reaches out to touch him and his soft green fur ripples outward in a brightly joyful emerald hue, I fell in love. Elliot is Falkor-like, canine; snuffling around and chasing his tail, capering like a goof and running in his sleep, vocalizing in howls and growls that perfectly represent any household dog. His face is hugely expressive (and beautifully designed, with wonderful detail and an underbite that dials down his scary factor considerably). He’s an amazing cinematic creation, who – once I got over his first appearance – I never stopped believing was real. Pete would be proud of me.

Lowery’s filmmaking is understated but effective. I’m sure some will call this film “Spielbergian,” with so many shots that trade in awe (like the film’s opening sequence, where the devastating crash that kills Pete’s parents is focused on just him, a look of surprise and wonder on his face), but despite its resemblance to films like E.T., Pete’s Dragon doesn’t feel like an imitation or an homage. It’s just a simple little movie that doles out those recognizable elements with quiet confidence. Its emotions are broad, but deeply resonant: you hear about the danger of these fire-breathing monsters, but you don’t believe that Elliot could harm a fly – until he’s pushed to his breaking point, and flames leap from his mouth in a sequence that isn’t so much scary or intense as it is horrifying and sad. You hate seeing Elliot made into the monster that some think he is, and you weep (if you’re me, anyway) with relief and happiness when he is redeemed. There’s sadness in Pete’s Dragon, but it’s balanced by fulfillment and joy. It’s timeless.

I think Pete’s Dragon was done as a period piece (although it’s not super clear what that period is – it could be anywhere from 1979 to 1995) to drive the point home that nothing has changed. The world is just as callous and as beautiful as it ever was. People are equally full of both cynicism and hope. There will always be those whose first instinct is to shoot, to claim, to possess – and those who reach out, instinctively, and touch something they’ve never seen before. Pete’s Dragon feels like an instant classic.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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