Film Reviews

Pete's Dragon (2016) and Problematic Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. And after trying to make it through fifteen minutes of the first Pete’s Dragon from the 1970’s with the kids, we had to abandon all hope of ever liking it for the following hour and fifteen minutes. This is sad, but it is indicative of what happened to Disney after Walt died. To say the company lost direction is an understatement. They literally (not figuratively) reused old slides from the forties and fifties and inserted them into Robin Hood and The Rescuers. The color was from a horrible pallet, the outlines were vague, and the voice acting was on par with Peanuts (which I love, but come on). So when I went to the remake of the horrible original that opened with a musical number of redneck hobos singing about child abuse, I went with caution.  

Caution turned to trepidation after the first fifteen minutes was over.  We all knew going in that Pete’s parents were dead meat. It’s the Disney way to commit fratricide and matricide at the beginning of their films. So the kids were not shocked. In fact, they were expecting it. But I was not expecting a camera style that respected Pete’s point of view, displaying the tragedy and risk of the moment in a light that didn’t just pull at your heartstrings, but put you into a plot without needless emotional blackmail like most films…Disney’s included. This style wraps around the character of Pete like a warm blanket that makes the audience feel secure, too. This is done so effectively that when we are reintroduced to the human world, we feel off, and this is where the film may fail.

It’s not that the camera stops while the loggers are killing the forest; it’s just that it makes us feel uncomfortable. Bryce Dallas Howard and Karl Urban are capable actors, but miscast in this adventure. To be honest, Jessica Chastain would have shone in this role. Urban would have been better deployed in Wes Bentley’s role. It is at this juncture, with these characters that I first looked at my watch. 30 minutes. Not a good sign.

There are bright spots: the actor Oaks Fegley is an inspired choice for Pete that could be one of my son’s friends. Oona Lawrence as Natalie whom he is paired up with shares the cake and is not sidelined as a girl. And Howard may be the star but real reason why most people are seeing this film is the acting powerhouse that is Robert Redford, and when has this man not delivered? He’s extremely rough in this film and I have to say I like it better when he doesn’t shave or comb his hair. Redford has cleaned up for some gigs in the past, including Captain America: Winter Soldier and though I loved him in it, I have to say I prefer Sundance to The Sting. Redford probably put in a weeks’ worth of work but he made it count. And he’s not the reason if the film suffers.

The film is pure fantasy of course, but it is fantasy that a lot of people need right now. I’m trying not to let my late experience in California bias my opinion of the film (see my blog ‘Fantasyland’ on the Docking 94 Blog) but we’re having a hell of a time up here in Alberta and it was nice to see the Fantasy Machine in Hollywood is alive and well. It was kin to seeing Star Wars in the middle of a bad bout of StagFlation. In this vein, Pete’s Dragon is a good film, but not a great one. The middle hour isn’t horrible but very predictable and punctuated with scenes by actors who could be replaced and conventional shots that are not on par with the opening and close of the film. Disney’s live action franchise is suffering quite badly considering they are flushed with cash from Marvel and Disney, and unfortunately their only plan forward is a series of live action remakes of older films (Cinderella and Jungle Book in the past, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan upcoming) that show how deeply conservative the company is in wagering money on their own films. I will always believe original storylines will go farther than rehashed material but we also must recognize that studios are spending their hundred million, not our hundred million. What then do we expect them to do? Of course they are going to play a safe game – as would you with your money. It’s risk mitigation with scripts and casting. Disney seems to have the right idea in hiring challenging directors like the brilliant Kenneth Brannagh, and XXXXXXX here. However it also seems they need help in screenwriting, editing, and casting. These are the outstanding problems in Pete’s Dragon. Hopefully these issues will be corrected before Disney asks me to spend another hundred dollars to entertain my family. Halfway doesn’t cut it when you’re on a limited budget.