Thursday, 15 September 2016

Pete's Dragon

(PG) ★★★★

Director: David Lowery.

Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford.

"Man, your dog is ugly. And fucking huge."

WHEN Disney started digging into their treasure chest to find story nuggets to re-model, polish up and re-mount as live action films for the big screen, there was the typical burst of cynicism that comes with the announcement of reboots and remakes.

But this heritage mining has yielded a couple of gems so far, in particular the reinventions of Cinderella and The Jungle Book.

Both nailed the things that made the Disney animations great. Cinderella captured the fairytale whimsy with perfection while simultaneously making Cinders a more modern character. Likewise The Jungle Book captured the swinging moods – from the humour of Baloo to the menace of Shere Khan – while creating a visual approach that was fresh and memorable.

Which brings us to Pete’s Dragon, the latest heirloom to be pulled out of Disney’s box of tricks. The 1977 musical mix of cartoon and live action has not aged well and is not as fondly recalled as Cinderella or The Jungle Book, but has its fans.

Even they will be impressed by the transformation the story has undergone. Instead of an orphan who escapes hillbillies to live by the sea with his traditionally animated dragon, Pete is an orphaned wild boy, forced to survive in the American north-west wilderness with his CG-animated dragon following the death of his parents (which is shown in a beautifully heartbreaking opening).

Pete (Fegley) and his dragon Elliot survive unnoticed in the forests until their world is intruded upon by humans in the form of park ranger Grace (Howard), her mill worker boyfriend Jack (Bentley), and Jack’s impulsive lumberjack brother Gavin (Urban).

As much as this is based on a ‘70s musical, its antecedents are ‘80s family films. The pacing, the predictable fish-out-of-water (or feral child-out-of-forest) plotting, the unconventional family dynamic, the big chase finale, the old man with the unbelievable stories – all these tropes feel like they’ve come from a hundred great and not-so-great all-ages adventures from a couple of decades ago. Throw in a captured beast that harks all the way back to King Kong, and a wild boy right out of the aforementioned Jungle Book, and you have a film that’s not exactly original.

So it’s to the film’s credit that Pete’s Dragon is so enjoyable and captivating. Like a great modern song, it somehow feels new and classic at the same time. Its comedic touch is light, so it’s the heart and the cast that are its biggest strengths.

The two kids – Fegley and Laurence – are excellent. The former has the tougher role, but the latter does hers effortlessly. They’re surrounded by plenty of talented adults, notably Urban, who keeps his ‘villain’ on the right side of goofy, the always solid Howard, and the 80-year-old legend Redford. The last name there is a spark that helps ignite the film’s latter half, which builds to a predictable yet enjoyable conclusion.

The fact Pete’s Dragon does everything you expect and yet somehow still keeps you hanging on is, ironically, somewhat unexpected. It can really only be put down to the strong storytelling, tight film-making, and a heart as big as a dragon’s. The start and finish are particularly good examples of this – the opening is concisely edited and powerfully sad, while the climax is a wonderfully satisfying set piece that manages to ramp up the tension while still being stunning to look at.

Through it all is Elliot the dragon. It should go without saying these days that the special effects are incredible (although you’d be surprised what some films try to get away with), but they really are amazing. Elliot fits into the world perfectly and is another great example of modern FX wizardry.

So Disney is on a good run with its live action rehashes. Let’s see if next year’s Beauty & The Beast can maintain the winning streak.

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