I’ve been tapping out my mezzo-mezzo review of Jason Bourne, having finally seen it last night and being more or less in agreement with the “yes but it’s not enough” crowd. But Peter Debruge’s curiously affectionate review of David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon (Disney, 8.12) just landed in my inbox, and now I’m growling and seething. Bourne will have to wait.
I’m always ready to sink into an absurd, wildly illogical fantasy as long as the filmmakers are willing to supply some excuses and rationales. Just work with me, guys. Help me to half-believe in your children’s storybook scenario by answering some basic questions, and the effort alone will most likely win me over. Really. I’m not looking for trouble. Help me be a kid again. I’ll take the plunge.
Just keep in mind that when you make a movie you’re creating your own universe with your own laws, but this universe has to be whole and spherical and at least somewhat specific. Which also means that it has to adhere on some level to a semblance of natural law. Another part of the deal is that you, the creator, have to at least make an attempt to sell your fresh universe to a skeptical audience member (i.e., myself).
Did the Pete’s Dragon filmmakers understand these rules? Did they do the right, responsible thing when they put it together? Of course not.
Pete’s Dragon is basically an E.T.-like fable about a cute young kid with a profound attachment to an exotic, extremely vulnerable creature whom the authorities will want to capture, inspect and imprison for the purposes of scientific study or commercial exploitation. Ever heard this one before?
The loving family members who adopt the kid and help him protect the creature are played by Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Oona Laurence and Robert Redford — you all know the drill. The selfish, Trump-supporting bad guy (i.e., Bentley’s brother) who wants to capture the beast and sell worldwide rights is played by Karl Urban.
The first act begins with Pete (Oakes Fegley), an 11 year-old feral, long-haired and loin-clothed and looking like “boy” in the old Tarzan movies, living with a gentle, nurturing, gargantuan dragon named Elliott in a Pacific Northwest forest. Pete and Elliott have been cohabiting since Pete’s parents’ died in a car crash six years back. They frolic around by day and sleep in a cave together at night.
Why does Elliott have semi-luminous green fur and the body of a gigantic Great Furry Dane? Why does he seemingly weigh at least 2000 pounds and yet can fly around the forest with wings that clearly aren’t strong or wide enough to even glide with? You’re not allowed to ask this stuff. You just have to go with it. But I can’t. And I resent the “just go with it” attitude.
Why has the widely known and accepted lineage between reptiles and birds been ignored by the filmmakers? Because if Elliott was scaley and bird-like I could half believe in him. I’ll totally buy the idea of Peter Pan flying around in green tights, no problem, but not a 2000-pound green dog the size of a house. Imagine one of Werner Herzog‘s grizzly bears flying around with wings covered in bear fur — same difference.
What does a cute 2000-pound dragon eat? He’s not carniverous, of course, because that would upset the kiddies so I guess he eats leaves and insects and tree bark. But what does Pete eat? Fish? Squirrels and other rodents? Ants and beetles? No answers.
I suspect that Elliott has been recreated as a dog because it gives him expressive eyes and allows him to make dog-like sounds and therefore become emotionally endearing, but this is such bullshit. I can’t stand it. I really can’t.
It would be one thing if Pete had created Elliott as an imaginary friend and protector, and given him a cloak of invisibility to shield his dream from adult scrutiny, but that’s not the case here. Elliott is an actual dragon who can become invisible at will. Why, then, doesn’t he just flip the invisible switch when Urban and his bad guy friends show up, as they always do in films like this? Why allow himself to be seen at all? To what end? I’ll tell you to what end. So Elliott can be caught, chained and threatened with permanent enslavement. This is lazy, bullshit-level storytelling.
And where, by the way, is Elliott’s family? He had to be born and reared. Was his mom shot by a hunter like in Bambi? It’s a mark of how sloppily written Pete’s Dragon is that Elliott’s family problem is suddenly addressed and solved within the last 60 seconds.
If I cared enough to send these and other questions about Pete’s Dragon (I could go on and on and on) to director and co-writer David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and co-scenarist Toby Hallbrooks, they would probably respond as follows:
“Forget it, Jeff. We don’t care about guys like yourself. You were hoping for…what, some kind of nicely textured, warmly emotional family drama merged with an ethereal, Val Lewton– or Jean Cocteau-like dragon fantasy? Or something along the lines of…what, Darby O’Gill and the Little People? Seriously, why are you even reviewing this thing?
“We are here to shovel shit in Louisiana, Jeff. When it comes to today’s family audience we can get away with anything. They aren’t burdened with even a semblance of taste, and will pay to see any shit we make as long as the CG is state-of-the-art and the film delivers a happy, love-filled ending and it shows the hero jumping off a cliff or a vehicle of some kind falling off a tall bridge, and as long as the mood is blandly engaging. And most of the critics will give us a pass. So why should we even think about addressing your concerns?”
For the record, I am a fan of Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It has just as much fantasy-fable bullshit as Pete’s Dragon but is far superior — a much better script, more of an effort in bridging the gap between “reality” and fantasy, crudely crafted effects that are oddly more persuasive, etc. It wouldn’t pass muster with today’s 10-and-under audience, of course, but it’s a better film all around.