**Trailhead Warning: This path leads to creek-sized spoilers**
First, let me preface this with saying, I am one of those horrible people who watched Pete’s Dragon with absolutely no recollection of the storybook and only vague memories of the sea from the 1977 film by the same name. I knew the basic premise going in but I had little idea on what to expect, mainly because all of the trailers were suspiciously lacking the sea.
My overall impression? This movie has everything and more that I wanted to see in The Jungle Book but didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Jungle Book. However, it never seemed real.
I know, I know. It’s a story about an imaginary dragon, how on earth could it possibly seem real? Read on, fellow moviegoers.
The story takes place in a small logging town set somewhere in the middle of forest and low-lying mountains. It’s never really clear where exactly the town is set, or if it was, I was too engrossed in the story to stare at license plates to try and figure it out. The story is fairly basic; a small boy experiences a traumatic car crash where he loses his parents and wanders lost and alone into the woods. He is saved by a not-so-imaginary dragon that the boy, Pete, names Elliot, after a character in the book he had been reading. For the next six years, Pete and Elliot roam the woods, with Elliot serving as a much needed caretaker, while Pete lives the life that every child dreams of as an adorable ball of energy. As with all good things, their happy existence comes to an end at the hands of the loggers that steadily creep closer to the deep woods. But never fear! There is a much deserved happy ending in store for little Pete and his friend.
There are so many wonderful things about this movie that I don’t know where to start. It is the first honest, feel good movie I have seen in a long time. As I watched it, it brought back fond memories of Free Willy and in fact shares similar story elements to that 1993 classic. For the purposes of this review, I’m going to focus on two key aspects: casting and emotions or we would be here all night.
The casting of this movie was beyond brilliant. The show-stealing star is a Oakes Fegley. He plays the main character, Pete, the young boy with the most amazing best friend in the world. The main reason I loved Fegley and his portrayal of Pete is that he explored the world around him. When encountering a balloon in the hospital, he poked at it. He examined, he looked, he prodded. He acted exactly like a curious child should. There was nothing false in his behavior. Nothing that screamed, “I’m trying to act.” It was a perfect performance and heart-rending in all the best ways.
Robert Redford was no slouch himself and was probably the biggest name to grace the screen. He served as not only a storyteller (I loathe to call him narrator because that is not the nature of the movie), but as a father, and as someone who deeply believes in magic. The odd thing for me was that while watching it, I only ever saw Robert Redford (after that kind of career, it’s hard to disappear into the character), but by the end, I firmly believed that Robert Redford believed in the magic of the movie. It sounds corny, I know. But it’s true. In fact, all of the characters/actors in the movie not only put on the most believable performance I’ve seen in awhile, but you found yourself believing right along with them.
Staring at CGI creatures was not a difficult task for Bryce Dallas Howard after her stint in Jurassic World, but this is a much softer role for her. More care-taking and hugs, less screaming and running from teeth. She plays the mother figure to Fegley’s lost little boy. While never a doubter, her character firmly believes in the realness of the natural world and it takes seeing Elliot up close and personal before she truly begins to believe in the magic of the woods. It is a beautiful performance on her part.
As I’ve said before, every movie has to have a bad guy. Never have I wanted to poke someone with a stick as much as Karl Urban. This man is one of my favorite actors. He’s gorgeous and talented and usually snarky which places him solidly on my “Actor To Watch” list. So when I say I want to stab him with something sharp and pointy, it says a lot. His character is the one primarily responsible for hunting Elliot the dragon down. While he plays his role to perfection and eventually has a semi change of heart, I spent most of the movie wanting Elliot to swat him with his tail into the nearest tree. I say he’s a bad guy, but to be honest, his character is probably the most human of all of them. He goes hunting in the forest, finds Elliot and his little brain lights up with the most basic human instinct: “How can I profit from this?” I may dislike the character, but props to Karl Urban for pulling it off without making it too over the top.
That brings us to the last character and the heart of the movie. Elliot. Raise your hand if you’ve seen How to Train Your Dragon. Good! Now put them back down. In essence, Elliot is 20 ft tall, green, winged puppy dog. He does not speak, but purrs, and roars. Much like Toothless, he is very expressive and playful. Unlike the animated movie, however, Elliot is completely CGI and interacts with the forest in ways that are almost unimaginable. He does everything from look like stone, to knocking over trees. While the concept may not be your typical dragon, the way the art department and digital crews made him interact with the environment is nothing short of genius.
Earlier, I mentioned this movie felt real. And that is because it has heart. The characters are not stilted; they are not wooden. They are living and breathing their roles. They make you believe in the magic of the natural world and that it is still possible to feel magic around you. It is never over the top, or over done. It never seems too “magical” to be real or too “real” to be anything but pure magic. It would have been very easy for them to turn the movie into an anti-logging ad but they kept it classy. The ending is the perfect blend of feel good and heart-wrenching because by that time, it is impossible to have not become emotionally invested in the characters. Now, I hate crying. I hate admitting I cry while watching movies. If I ever cry in a movie, I am pretty much guaranteed to never watch it again. This has become a notable exception. I’m also pretty sure I was not the only one teary-eyed by the end. It’s that kind of a movie. It’s just a good, old-fashioned, feel-good, down home, magical experience.
Adults: Absolute must. As long as you are willing to believe in the magic. If you can’t find magic in ordinary events, or can’t understand why someone would want to believe, than this probably isn’t the movie for you. But if you want a little magic back in your life, than this is a movie that delivers it.
Kids: You will love Elliot. Guaranteed. And if you believe hard enough, maybe you can find an Elliot somewhere in your own backyard. With parental permission. Please don’t wander through the woods on my say-so and without the knowledge of an adult. That’s a terrifying thought.
Movie Rant of the week!
It’s Wednesday night. It’s also conveniently the first day of school. I selected my time well. The theater would be mine! The small children have to be in bed and everyone else is at Wednesday night church. I chose my seat with care. Top tier, 2nd row from the top, dead center of the screen. It was beautiful. I was first. I was the only one in there. I was Queen! And then two more show up, and then two more. In a theater that holds roughly 175-200 or more people, there were five of us. I could live with that. Except for one tiny little detail. In that decent sized theater, every single one of them was within 3 seats of me in any given direction. I admit I like my bubble of space. And I had it. But in an almost completely empty theater, my bubble should be bigger than three seats. They even joked about it as they sat down. Someone please explain to me the need of other human beings to huddle when there is plenty of space to be had? Two. Hundred. Seats. Every. Single. Time. If there is more than two people in a theater, they will inevitably end up sitting near each other even though there is plenty of space (unless, apparently, you are me). Thoughts?