“This is why they’re so boring … they throw it over to ILM or whoever does it and the guys pre-visualise it for you. Because the shots are so expensive. And they’ve got it all in their computers. So what are you going to get? Many visual clichés. Something blowing and it coming right by the camera. All these little things they have in their computers.”
That quote comes from Brian De Palma (in recent doco De Palma), as the director drags the visual-effects-heavy action films that followed in the wake of his 1996 Mission Impossible. But his argument is just as applicable to films like Pete’s Dragon. Disney’s latest “brand extension” is a remake of its largely-forgotten 1977 animated film of the same name. (Confession: I thought I was entirely unaware of the film’s existence up until very recently, but turns out I have seen it and literally forgot all about it.) Working with an uncharacteristically slight narrative – orphaned boy befriends dragon in the woods, logging community tries to capture said dragon – Disney’s remake requires a sense of wonder to succeed. But despite the best efforts of director David Lowery, Pete’s Dragon’s reliance on visual clichés renders it a sub-Spielberg disappointment.
The film’s visual aesthetic pitches directly at the empty nostalgia of a sepia Instagram filter, relying heavily on golden sunlight streaming through dusty morning air and the like. Granted, most of this is very pretty; unfortunately, if you attend a 3D screening – as I did – the vibrancy of the autumnal colour palette is distinctly muddied. 3D tends to be suited to bright, primary colours – think Avatar – or grim, DC-esque shadows; natural light and polarised glasses are not friends.
What isn’t at all obscured by those fiddly glasses is the quality of the visual effects on display. I recall watching early Pixar making-ofs where computer animators patiently explained the extreme difficulty getting hair or fur to look at all realistic with the technology at their disposal. One scene with the titular dragon – who’s basically a giant golden retriever spray painted green and granted a pair of wings – is more than enough to disabuse audiences of the notion that those restrictions still apply. An early scene with prepubescent Pete (Oakes Fegley) and the dragon frolicking through the woods and in giant puddles of water is, if nothing else, an impressive showcase for how swiftly CGI’s capabilities have expanded.
That scene is enchanting and whimsical – things the rest of the film desperately calls out for. Instead, we’re given scene after scene of those visual clichés De Palma lamented. An aerial shot of the tranquilised dragon striving for freedom only to lose momentum just as it reaches the camera. A camera positioned directly above the dragon’s “head” as it looms large above Pete’s adoptive family (Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Oona Laurence). All the effort coding the truly wondrous creation that is Pete’s Dragon is smothered by shoving the character model into sequences we’ve seen time and time again.
These are minor quibbles. Certainly, the same criticisms could be directed at any number of other CGI-heavy films parading their way through today’s theatres. But the simplicity of Pete’s Dragon’s story and themes alike leaves it desperately reliant on fostering a sense of childlike wonder that it can’t hold onto.
The ambiguously-dated lumber town setting, for instance, seems like the perfect platform for staging an environmental reflection as – or more – sophisticated than the film’s Pixar counterparts. There’s so much that could have been with the inherent tension between the central husband and wife, for example. Bentley’s sawmill foreman and Dallas Howard’s park ranger have what would seem to be entirely different objectives. An environmental perspective that provides space for economic realities could’ve considered that their goals are really shared – to protect and provide for their community in sustainable ways.
Instead, Karl Urban – playing Bentley’s character’s brother – stands in as the forestry boogieman (Though, to be fair, he’s given enough shading to keep him from being a complete villain). There’s an attempt at nuance in the battle between Urban and Robert Redford – making a comparatively brief appearance as Dallas Howard’s dad and a dyed-in-the-wool dragon-devotee – but the film’s suggestion that no-one can own nature (maaaan) is somewhat undercut by its entire premise: that the dragon is Pete’s Dragon.
Uneven environmentalist themes are part and parcel of modern children’s entertainment, though, and forgiven easily enough if positioned within a genuinely wondrous world. But Pete’s Dragon surface-level prettiness is sabotaged by a reliance on cliché and a visual incoherency that, ultimately, extends into emotional incoherency. On multiple occasions, Lowery cuts to an actor with a single tear rolling down their face, but is never able to capture the emotion behind. That’s Pete’s Dragon in a nutshell: a stream of glycerine standing in for real tears.