On Pete's Dragon, learning to fly, and structure as a double-edged sword
Pete's Dragon Walt Disney Studios
Director: David Lowery
Screenplay: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, based on a 1977 screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban and Isiah Whitlock Jr
Rated PG / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.35:1
August 12, 2016
(out of four)
The magic of Pete's Dragon is something of a disappearing act. I suppose drawing a parallel to its title character - a dragon named Elliot who frequently cloaks himself in invisibility - would just be too easy, but there it is.
At least Elliot has an excuse. For him, it's camouflage. He may live deep in the forest, but there are still plenty of lumberjacks and hunters and small-town locals (particularly mischievous kids) running around, and there's no better way for a furry, bright green dragon to hide in plain sight than by simply disappearing. It's survival is all. The movie has no such excuse. It has moments of astonishing beauty and poignance, and yet a perpetual impulse to sink back into expected rhythms - to opt for the familiar over the rare and sublime. Perhaps this movie and its dragon do share a certain pragmatism in their methods. Pete's Dragon is brisk, it gets in and gets out, it hits all the beats it's "supposed" to hit, and then it ends. It must have seemed like a good strategy.
And yet for the most part it's such a perfunctory execution of a safe formula that it can't help but feel overly programmed. Borderline robotic. This is not a screenplay so much as an outline for a screenplay - maybe a first draft - roughly sketching out a movie that could eventually be great. It's all the story beats with little of the detailing or depth, like an immaculately drawn coloring book that hasn't yet been touched. The final product we see on screen is the before, rather than the after.
The film is a clean piece of structure ... but it's nothing but structure. All smooth edges and neatly carved-out paths. My reaction is similar to the complaint I leveled last year against Marvel's generally well-regarded Ant-Man - that its absolute efficiency was a drawback rather than a benefit. Like that film, this one too often has its life and personality strangled out of it, all too intent on moving things along instead of exploring them. The script is so tight that all it has time to do is signal what happens and how we're supposed to feel about it. It does all the Right Things, but only at the expense of the specificity that we see peeking through in fits and starts. Only at the expense of that magic. Pete's Dragon peaks at the beginning, as five-year-old Pete miraculously survives a car crash that claimed the lives of both of his parents, wanders into the surrounding forest, and winds up face to face with the creature who will become his friend and protector. The initial meeting between Pete and Elliot - a moment of chance, an instant emotional connection, tinged with melancholy and need - is sublime, and the film's best moment, ethereal and - in the matter-of-fact suddenness of its magic - almost surreal.
But then it shrinks from those more daring and singular impulses, and not for the last time. What gets lost along the formulaic path that follows is specificity. The specificity we see in that forest, in the hazy afternoon light when the little boy whose life has been shattered sees his salvation in the (green, furry) flesh. The specificity we see in Elliot himself - his clumsiness, his nervous body language, the charming boyishness of his personality, all expressed through physical movement (not to mention the gorgeous, piercing soft green of his fur). The specificity that retreats from view every time the film leans on another half-developed character as a narrative crutch.
Pete's Dragon is in the tradition of movies like E.T., The Iron Giant, How to Train Your Dragon and The Water Horse, by way of The Jungle Book and Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child (and with a little bit of King Kong thrown in, adding a dual sense of wonder and danger to the story's grounded realism). After an introduction to the blue-collar northwestern town in which the film is set, Pete re-emerges as a feral 11-year-old (played by Oakes Fegley), and quite by accident finds himself stuck in civilized human society, poked and prodded by the grown-ups who have no idea how he survived in the woods for as long as he has, and most certainly do not believe he has a giant, invisible, flying, fire-breathing friend protecting him. The various (half-baked) narrative threads that revolve around Pete and Elliot are all basically contained to one extended family. It's the park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, leading me to assume this is a direct sequel to Manderlay), who takes him in. It's her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) who runs the lumber mill near where Pete is discovered. It's his daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence) who first sets eyes on Pete (and directly leads to his capture). It's Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban) who hears Pete's story and decides he wants to capture the dragon for himself. And it's the park ranger's yarn-spinning dad (Robert Redford) who for years has insisted that there's a jolly green dragon hiding out there in the woods ... and finally has the ammunition to convince his skeptical daughter of the same.
It's not so much that these characters - as well-performed as they are, with Howard and Lawrence as the particular standouts - are functions of a formula, but that their purposes are almost entirely dictated by formula. Why does the Karl Urban character exist? Because, hey, the movie needs a villain, right? So it gives us a guy who tries to capture our beloved dragon for material gain, like a visionless Carl Denham. Why does the de-facto protagonist need a soon-to-be husband and soon-to-be daughter? Because there needs to be a readymade surrogate family available to Pete - which is fine, and important, except the film never has the time to make an emotional imprint with that new family unit. It's too busy following Pete as he's escaping and being chased, or following Elliot as he's being chased and then escaping ... and eventually it decides it's had just about enough, and the story resolves itself at a point that feels like the end of the second act, not the third. A point where it feels like the meat of the story has only just begun. It may have felt more substantial if there were more meat on the bone to begin with, but we've spent so much time rushing through everything that plot points only ever feel like plot points.
Pete's Dragon - a remake of Disney's live-action/animation hybrid from 1977 - was directed and co-written by David Lowery, whose superb Ain't Them Bodies Saints was on my top-10 list in 2013. His stewardship of this film is what makes the frustrating half-failure of it - despite its unmistakable visual elegance - such a surprise to me. Saints had a defined but sparse plot, finding its voice through everything in between - the way the light acted upon his performers' faces; the pregnant pauses and moody spaces between feelings; the shifts and breaks that alternately disrupted and connected time and space. Every moment - every shot - was an ache, and what was, on its surface, a very spare narrative felt like an eruptive overflow of life and incident and emotion and circumstance. Yet this, Lowery's follow-up, is in many ways the reverse. For his studio debut, he structured his voice nearly into oblivion. That he told this story in such a straightforward fashion is not the problem, necessarily. But in doing so he wound up giving us something Perfectly Fine instead of something that breathes fire of its own.