Directed by: David Lowery.
Written by: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks based on the screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein and story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field.
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard (Grace), Robert Redford (Meacham), Oakes Fegley (Pete), Oona Laurence (Natalie), Wes Bentley (Jack), Karl Urban (Gavin), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Sheriff Gene Dentler).
The list of indie directors who have got the chance to helm a major film for a movie studio is long, and frankly more than a little depressing. Many of these filmmakers got the chance to helm those big movies by making a few indie films – smaller in scale, maybe not perfect, but show potential that those filmmakers may grow into something truly special. And then, Hollywood comes calling, and these indie directors get lost up there – and never do find that level they were reaching for. I think of someone like Boaz Yakin, whose Fresh (1994) was one of the best debut films of the 1990s, and whose follow-up, A Price above Rubies (1998), wasn’t as good, but was quite daring. I wanted to see where this guy was going. Apparently where that was is Hollywood, with films like Remember the Titans, Uptown Girls and the Jason Statham starring Safe. You can list any number of other directors as well – Duncan Jones, who seems to get further away from the promise of Moon with each film, Colin Trevorrow, who made the quirky and funny Safety Not Guaranteed, before helming the behemoth Jurassic World, etc. You get the idea. When Indiewire did a survey of female indie directors and asked them if they wanted to direct big, studio movies – the complaint having been (rightly) made for years that they don’t get the chance to, most of them said yes, but only if they could make the type of big studio film that they wanted to – only if they had some sort of control over the final product. Which is probably at least one reason why those filmmakers haven’t made the jump yet – studios don’t want to give their big movies to directors with a vision, and who want to control the final product. They want filmmakers who will execute how they’re told – probably one reason why Marvel keeps hiring TV directors to make their films – those filmmakers, as talented as they are, are used to it. The list of indie filmmakers who get to go to Hollywood, and make bigger movies that are still undeniable their films is short. The last one was probably Gareth Edwards, who Godzilla remake from 2014, was undeniably the work of the same filmmaker who made the very low budget Monsters (2010) – and that’s one of the reasons why it’s one of my favorite recent blockbusters (many disagree, and I’ll tell you what I tell my wife, who adamantly disagrees with me on this one – “You’re wrong”).
So, after that longwinded opening paragraph, it gives me great pleasure to report that David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon is one of those increasingly rare examples of an indie filmmaker who goes to Hollywood – Disney, no less – and makes a terrific major, special effects laden film, and retains his own identity. His terrific breakout film was 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Malick-esque love story of sorts, about a convict, who escapes prison and comes back to the wife he loves (Rooney Mara) – but has perhaps moved on, and the child he never met. That was a sad, truly touching film – it’s also a quiet film, that doesn’t have much of a plot, and doesn’t suffer for that. There, Lowery was more interested in mood and tone that plot. Remarkably, the same thing is true about Pete’s Dragon – a live action remake of the all but forgotten 1970s Disney film (which if I did see as a kid, I’ve completely forgotten).
The story in Pete’s Dragon is a simple – a little boy, around 4 or 5, is travelling in the middle of nowhere Pacific Northwest, when there is a car wreck that kills his parents, and strands him in the middle of the forest. Luckily for him, he almost immediately meets a dragon – who he names Elliot, who is basically a big, friendly, green, flying dog – who basically becomes Pete’s whole family – parents, sibling, pet, etc. Flash forward six years, and their idyllic life in the forest comes to an end, as they all must, when loggers invade their forest. Pete is discovered, and brought into town by a kindly forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who ends up taking her into home with fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter, Natalie (Oona Lawrence). Grace’s father, Meachum (Robert Redford), has been telling the story of how he met a dragon in those woods for years – more as a story to frighten kids (in a kindly way), than is a crazed mountain man way though, Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack’s brothers, will eventually discover Elliot – and want to capture him.
That doesn’t seem like much plot, and it isn’t, but like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I think the film is actually at its weakest when it has to go through the motions of that plot – and at its best, when it dispenses with, and focuses on the mood and the characters. There are fairly lengthy stretches (especially for a kids movie), near the beginning that almost play like a silent film – with Pete and Elliot rollicking in the forest, which deepens their connection, and the sense, when it eventually does come, that they are really losing something. Lowery isn’t afraid of those quiet moments – he actually uses them to his advantage. He also is not afraid of subtlety when it comes to performances either. Karl Urban gives probably the films weakest performance as Gavin – it’s not really his fault, he has to be the antagonist, and drive the plot, which is the weakest part of the film – and even he never even comes close to the type of mustache twirling overacting you would expect a bad guy in a kids movie to do. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a beautiful, understated performance as a woman who longs for the type of life she didn’t get growing up (her mother died young) – who genuine connection with Pete is beautiful. There probably isn’t another actor alive I would rather see play Meachum than Robert Redford – who takes what, in lesser hands, could have turned a saccharine performance, and turns it into a genuine one. I’m not sure there is anyone else who wood carve in a flannel shirt and spin tales about dragons with as much real warmth and humor as Redford. It even extends to young Oakes Fegley as Pete, who doesn’t rely on normal cute kid tricks in the film – not even when he’s howling. More experienced, adult actors have been undone by the task of acting opposite a CGI creation – but the kid handles it like a pro.
I mentioned Malick earlier in the review, and you can see some of that still present in Pete’s Dragon. Lowery doesn’t go as far as Malick does with his poetic reverie (or as far as Lowery did in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) – it’s still very much there though. The other major influence on Pete’s Dragon is undeniably Steven Spielberg – as the film, at times, resembles E.T. with a large dragon instead of an alien. Spielberg may have the (largely unwarranted) reputation of being sickly sentimental, but he mostly knows just how far to push things. Lowery does to – like in that is perhaps the best in the movie, when Elliot goes looking for Pete, and eventually finds him. They scene starts off exciting, moves to the comic, and ends up in heartbreak (yes, I cried at a movie involving a dragon) – all with a word being uttered, and without making you feel overly manipulated in the end.
The finale of the movie is, as expected, action based – there is a chase, there is fire (you cannot have a movie with a dragon and not have him breathe fire), there is a moment where we are led to believe tragedy has struck, when ultimately it hasn’t, etc. It isn’t my favorite part of the movie, but it is part that we all knew had to be there eventually – and it is handled quite well.
This summer has not been a particularly good one for big movies. There have been a lot of bad or at least mediocre and instantly forgettable movies to come out so far. Pete’s Dragon will not be the huge hit that some of the others have been – but it is easily the best big budget movie we’ve seen this summer. That David Lowery came to Disney, and made a film that is both a wonderful kid’s film, and one that is undeniably his as well, is the best news for the future of big budget movies I’ve seen all summer.