Saturday 17 December 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016) - Movie Review
It’s time to look at another remake, but considering this is yet another done by Disney whom have shown a decent track record so far in that regard, I’m at least willing to give it a chance. I mean, it’s not as if the 1977 original could never be improved upon. In fact, of all of the films slated to get live-action remakes over the next long while, Pete’s Dragon is probably the one that has aged the worst since its initial release.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the worst film they’ve done or anything even remotely close to that: The acting is good, the animation is proper vintage quality and the music, while a bit grating, was fun, cheery and cleverly-written for the most part. However, it is very much a product of the era, containing the kind of sappiness and mock-grime that makes it undemanding in  more insulting sense of the term. So, have to admit, I’m quite receptive to the idea of remaking it and (potentially) improving upon it. Do we actually get that, is the question.

The plot: Pete (Oakes Fegley) having been stranded in the woods six years prior, has been living in the wild with the help of his best friend Elliott, who is a dragon. By chance, local ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) happens upon the child and brings him into the nearby town of Millhaven. However, while in the care of Grace, her partner Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), lumberjack Gavin (Karl Urban) discovers the dragon and sets out to capture it and it’s up to Pete to save him.

The cast list here is incredibly solid, but that doesn’t necessarily translate out into solid performances. Bryce Dallas Howard has probably been the one actor that has recovered the least from being connected to Twilight, and while she gives a decent kind-hearted tone to the dialogue, she isn’t anything all that special. Bentley, in one of his rare non-villainous roles, shows a kind of complacency that pretty much highlights why he works best as a villain: He’s good at big and bombastic gestures, not so much with gentle humanity.

Robert Redford as Grace’s father adds a lot of weight to the legend of the dragon itself as the town understands it, delivering the stories about it well, and Laurence again brings a decent performance as she connects more with Pete. And speaking of Pete, Fegley probably comes out the best of everyone involved. While being helped by not being nearly as hokey as Sean Marshall, his agility on screen really helps deliver the idea that he’s been living in the woods for six years. And then there’s Urban as what is basically the villain, and while he maintains his track record of doing well even in weaker films, he’s ultimately let down by his characterization in spite of how well he delivers it.

As a somewhat more mature re-telling of the story, taking the recent Jungle Book approach of diverting attention from the music to the story and characters, it works rather well. I mean, any film that can take a pretty farcical tale and turn it into something that makes it easy to make Nick Cave jokes (Elliott could easily have been nicknamed the Curse of Millhaven and it would’ve fit a little too well) must be doing something right. For as much as the original film is entertaining, it did carry a lot of elements that saw human dignity as expendable if it meant getting the audience to laugh. Not even the name of the town survived the film with anything resembling sensibility intact, let alone Mickey Rooney’s drunkard lighthouse keeper or Jim Backus’ mayor who never gets a chance to light his cigar.

Here, thanks to an absence of money-grubbing travelling salesmen and money-grubbing hobo families, the story itself is given a chance to be taken a bit more seriously and the way it portrays a certain amount of grit and realism in its workings results in a film that, at the very least, makes its point about providing a different take on the story for today’s audiences. Turning the whimsy of the original into a sense of modernism with a touch of rustic folklore, even if the translation doesn’t work in every respect considering how the film itself has some moments of being unable to take the main conceit seriously, not only shows a reason for this to be released but also helps to separate it from the potentially similar Jungle Book remake. I mean, I can’t be the only one who saw Pete and thought we were just going to get a reskinned Mowgli.

Apart from the frequently clever song writing and music, the other big draw of the 1970’s classic was its use of animation. With the dragon being brought to the big screen by none other than animation legend Don Bluth, it was another commendable addition to Disney’s decades-long canon of well-done integration of live-action and traditionally-drawn animation. Now, as easy as the statement could be to make especially nowadays, traditional animation doesn’t automatically trump computer animation; both have their strengths and limitations and, depending on when they’re used, they are equally capable of doing great things in the realm of cinema. Hell, the Jungle Book remake had amazing CGI that honestly holds up alongside the original as a comparison of contemporary filmmaking techniques.

This film, unfortunately, doesn’t follow suit… at least, not entirely. I say this because the animation is still Disney quality with some very excellent animalistic and fur textures on Elliott. This is Weta Digital we’re talking about here, so this level of quality is to be expected. It may have a few moments where the distinction between the live-action footage and the overlayed CGI becomes a bit obvious, but it carries on the original spirit of merging the two styles together to craft its story. No, the real issue comes from the dragon’s model design. It does make some form of sense and shows respect to the original, which itself had an entire song dedicated to how it is essentially a chimera of actual animals to create the fantastical creature. But when the actual giant dog with wings is on screen, it can look a bit… well, silly. Heck, at times, it looks even goofier than the 1977 realization. In a film that’s trying to be more mature about things, it didn’t seem to go far enough to make the titular beast fit into the more realistic world that it crafted.

It’s at this point where this film being released the same year as Favreau’s Jungle Book was probably a mistake, as this also has prominent themes concerning environmentalism and man’s relationship with nature. Not only that, since that connection makes comparisons between the two works far easier to make than they should be, this has a discernibly more obvious approach to it. Actually, even more so than the original, this has the same level of subtlety as a stereotypical film about a child and its pet; anyone who has sat through the Beethoven sequels will know that this isn’t exactly the best thing when trying to have a grander point beyond mischief with dragons.

This is where Gavin’s inclusion in the story starts to become problematic. Even though he may not be as solely driven by greed as Dr. Terminus, who just wanted to turn Elliott into several varieties of snake oil to peddle, his ego is still in the driver’s seat. There are pretenses of him doing it to help keep the town of Millhaven safe, but he doesn’t make it a secret that the discovery of a real dragon would bring him some renown. The theme of man claiming unrightful ownership of nature is fine on its own; it’s just that, after seeing the rather deft metaphorical touch made with Jungle Book, this really pales in comparison. Then again, that’s only the subtext; the actual text, that being the relationship between Pete and Elliott, is still quite emotionally resonant and actually seems to be made better by its proximity to the environmentalism: It’s a nice and healthy way of keeping the audience’s attention in spite of that.

All in all, this film is ultimately hurt quite severely by its proximity to Disney’s previous and quite superior live-action remake. The acting is decent, the effects work has its issues but still matches Weta Digital’s recent track record, and while the writing makes some admirable attempts to modernize the pretty camp 1977 original, it falls to too many of the same heavy-handed sensibilities for this to be truly as good as it could have been. Given how the flood of Disney’s remake catalogue has officially begun in earnest, this still sets a decent precedent for what’s to come. I just hope that this doesn’t turn into a DC Extended Universe ‘retelling the same story with different skins’ situation.

No comments:

Post a Comment