October 5, 2016

Pete’s Dragon: Magic, Fire and Tears

There’s magic in the cinema if you know where to look for it.  But just lately I’ve been losing the faith. Last time all four of the family went to the movies  we suffered through the virtue signalling, glitz and glamour, all smoke and mirrors, of every progressive upper school English teacher’s next assignment topic, the animation Zootopia.   Replete with gender, sexuality and immigration sermons it felt like we were being played – too hard.  Which of course, we were.

So I have to admit when I watched the trailer for Pete’s Dragon I was a little worried that the depiction of a small town US logging community in the midst of pristine forest would be Hollywood’s perfect opportunity to castigate Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”.  You know; nasty conservative loggers living on the edge of  a green forest, in pursuit of a poor green dragon, with fervent  activists saving the aforementioned green things from destruction.


What a pleasant surprise I was in for – or a teary one actually.  Pete’s Dragon is a beautiful tale of love, loss, redemption, mystery and yearning – the best stuff of movies rolled into a timely 100 minutes.   Someone was peeling onions at a rate of knots in the theatre for sure, cos the sniffles grew louder as the rustling of potato chip packets grew softer.

If you remember the 1977 original, and I surely do, this is not only the obligatory step up in terms of sheer screen magic, but in terms of narratival and conceptional sophistication.   For once CGI hasn’t been used as an excuse for a rubbish story line. The opening scene that sets up Pete’s new life without his parents is sparse in words, but bursting with raw emotion, wonderfully shot.  It’s shocking and stunning at the same time, tapping into a child’s nightmares without resorting to jump scares.

The story is set in the logging town of Millhaven, a small mill town  on the edge of a deep forest, and in which there are underlying tensions in the logging community over the need to mark their next patch and stave off competitors.  But it’s no buzz-saw frenzy.  More trees are felled by Elliot, the aforementioned dragon, than any redneck lumberjack. But the next patch proves to be on the doorstep of Elliot’s lair, a tree root bunker he shares with the now-orphaned Pete, far from other humans.  I heard the whispers of kids around us – along with my own eight year old son – “It’s like Mowgli from Jungle Book”, which of course it is. Or Romulus and Remus if you know your classics.

The acting is wonderful.  Pete, played by Oakes Fegley (great name!), balances the lost-in-forest-for-six-years-wild-child, alongside the little boy who lost his mummy and daddy and just wants to go home. All he has is the book he was reading in the car “Elliot Gets Lost” and the creature who befriended him.

Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron, plays forest ranger, Grace, a woman who offers and yearns for grace herself. Grace has suffered her own loss, that of her mother at a tender age.  Her father, Mr Meacham, an agreeably grizzly and avuncular Robert Redford,  regales the local children with tales of a dragon-sighting he’d had when so much younger, and much to his daughter’s chagrin, lives in a far more enchanted world than her botanic sensibilities will allow her.

I loved Howard in this movie.  So did my 15 year old daughter who remarked how glad she was to see a non-blonde non-New Yorker playing the lead. There wasn’t a thigh gap in sight. Howard, with her burnished red hair and muted green ranger’s uniform, is a beautiful, sombre presence as she first comes across Pete, seeks to rescue him and then, to rescue Elliot at the same time.

Rescue him from what, or for who?  Her partner’s brother, Gavin, played by New Zealander, Karl Urban. He’s no evil schemer, but the siblings run the saw mill and the tension between them is evident.  The brother, single dad Jack, is played by Wes Bentley, the troubled young man of American Beauty fame. He is less gung-ho when it comes to cutting down trees, wanting to ensure something a little more sustainable, a sustainability he needs to hand on to his daughter, Natalie, played wonderfully, gently, and oh so slightly crooked-toothly by Oona Laurence, the star of Broadway’s Matilda.

So when Gavin and his crew have a run in with Elliot and decide they have to hunt him down, the brothers are soon at odds with each other.  Meanwhile Pete himself is locked in a tug-o-war between a variety of agencies, hospitals and social services departments, all wondering how a ten year old survived six years out there alone.

Of course he wasn’t alone.  And what a treat to have a non-talking dragon – you know, an actual animal who responds in the manner of animals among humans.  What an honourable thing to have a cow-nosed snuffly, groaning, broken-toothed, sombre-coloured creature with enough primitive ferocity to keep everyone on their toes.  What a wonder to keep the mysterious distance between a man and an animal (pardon the paraphrase Bono).

And it’s the theme of mysterious distance that sets this picture apart.  When Grace and her dad are talking about his disputed dragon sighting all those years ago, he says this:

“There’s magic in the woods if you know where to look for it.”

His dragon sighting changed everything about him, or more to the point as he puts it, it changed how he sees everything else. He sees magic and wonder. He looks at the world differently now, sees it in a way that Grace cannot see, and no amount of trying to explain it to her can do for her what only an encounter with the dragon will do.  Boom! There’s such a strong gospel apologetic right there, a true understanding that no amount of argument will ultimately win over what only true revelation can.  It was a Narnia moment indeed.

When Grace counters to her father that she’s scoured most of that forest, knows it like the back of her hand, and wouldn’t have missed a dragon if there had been one, he counters that somehow she missed seeing Pete too.  Short, succinct and sparse – it’s a true gotcha moment filled with tenderness. Sometimes it’s the things right in front of you.

Of course the dragon is captured.  Of course there is an escape plan.  Of course there are cop cars chasing it.  Of course there is mortal danger, a danger so dangerous that Gavin puts his life bravely on the line to rescue Jack and Grace from Elliot’s primal instincts and animal love for Pete. We’re held in the tension of heart-breaking loss for just long enough before a dragon soars above us, lifting our hopes with him. If Clinton and Trump had been sitting watching side by side, they would have held each other’s hand at that point.

Oh for all you HBO The Wire freaks out there, seeing the despicable Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr), morphed into tender-hearted, funny and competent Millhaven sheriff, Gene Dentler, is redemption enough in itself!  Not a “sheeeeeet” in sight!

What else can I say, but go see it!  Its muted green tones; its small town story with a big picture narrative; its vast landscape with no sign of a city; its wonderful final scene, all make this the perfect family film that allows the story to do what only good stories can do – change you a little bit, make you think a little bit, make you leave the cinema pondering the beauty and mystery of not only the visible, but the invisible also.

Pete’s Dragon gets five out of five onions: a real tear jerker with a whole lotta layers.

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