Pete’s Dragon

Film Review | By Christian Tesfaye - special to Fortune

Pete's Dragon may sound like a kid's film, and well that's because it is. But, like all great Disney films, it also has the ability to appeal to the kid in all of us. With a long sequence of drab films having been screened in Addis Ababa over recent months, Pete's Dragon is a rare treat, which can entertain all the family - 7 out of 10 stars.

Just as the Western world’s summer ends, the Southern Hemisphere’s begins. On account of Global Warming, though, summer has lost its age old joviality. No longer does the season remind one of outdoor games and calm breezes, but rather choking dust and smothering heat. It is now a time when entertainment is most welcome, so as to take our minds off the dispiriting, languor inducing, merciless climate. Since the beginning of 2016, Matti Cinema has been host to some of the most insufferable movies ever released anywhere on God’s green Earth. But the mall didn’t disappoint this past week, importing a rather charming Disney movie called Pete’s Dragon. Maybe (and I hope it isn’t just wishful thinking on my part) it is the Mall’s New Year’s resolution – to bring good, exciting films to the Ethiopian people that don’t insult anyone’s intelligence.

Robert Redford is the old man narrating the fairylike story of a strange boy and his dragon who live deep in the forest. On a trip to somewhere, a fatal car crash kills a married couple. Their son, Pete, survives the fatal accident. Alone and terrified in the forest, he meets another lonely creature. But this one rules the forest and is a dragon.

Six years go by and Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of acclaimed director Ron Howard), not for the first time, steps into the forest to unexpectedly find Pete. She is the daughter of the narrator, Redford’s character, and has never believed her father’s story that he once saw a dragon in the forest. Sometimes he doesn’t believe his own story either! She brings Pete home to stay with her, her fiancé and his daughter until he is to be turned into social services. But she can’t quite believe that a boy of 11 survived in the forest for six years all by himself. So she dares him to show her the dragon he says is his friend. In the meantime, her fiancé’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), attempts to catch the dragon.

Pete’s Dragon has a very familiar plot. We could say it is How To Train Your Dragon in live action, E.T. with a dragon for an alien or The Jungle Book starring a white kid. But the film has probably more in common, especially in terms of its small American town setting, with Brad Bird’s classic The Iron Giant. And if it does manage to dodge this particular accusation of derivativeness, it is still at the end of the day, a remake of an old Disney 2D musical live-action animated movie. But the film is so obscure that no one but the studio executives, who resurrected the material, could have remembered it. The film might as well be an original, albeit with a bit of a clichéd plot.

But if not completely novel in its concept, the film is constructed coherently. For instance, when the dragon is discovered early in the film, it is because men have come looking for trees to chop up. And if this was only a mere plot device, and not an overarching argument for environmental protection, it is still better than lazily having someone walking in on the boy and his dragon. As Pete’s Dragon continues to weave its humanistic story, themes of mortality, loneliness, friendship and family are explored in a timid manner.

The movie benefits from a relatively moderate budget. Pete’s Dragon is really a drama about a kid and his pet, where the pet happens to be a dragon, instead of a fantasy film where the main subject is an otherworldly creature. There isn’t much action, and the plot moves along at a remarkably (remarkable for a commercial movie) slow pace. The puppy-like dragon in itself is much less than awe inspiring in appearance, and remarkably self-restrained in character – at no point in the film does it fling cars or demolish houses. We may have the director, David Lowery to thank for this. It is strange that he made this film, as his other films are far less innocent, but not so strange when we take into consideration that he is heavily inspired by the pacing, setting and feel of Terrence Malick’s movies.

Like all Disney movies, the film is annoyingly PG. The media conglomerate is the only remaining big Hollywood studio that still maintains a brand. Films by Disney are like no other, and are made expressly for children, or the child in all of us. In the movie’s opening scene, where the fatal car crash takes place, we are not allowed to see his dead parents and Pete comes out of the vehicle without even a scratch on his face. Later in the film, the dragon never comes close to really harming anyone, and the humans never injure it in a way that draws blood.

It is peculiar that the film takes place in the 1980’s. I am not sure if it means that today’s children aren’t innocent enough, or that in this age of smartphones a gigantic dragon cannot possibly go unnoticed. Early in the film, Pete and the fiancé’s daughter become close friends, but they remain plutonic throughout the rest of the film. There is no prospect of a love affair. And I wonder if the same could be said for film’s set in recent times – that they could solely be about friendship, and not romance, between two children of the opposite sex.

Pete’s Dragon is not flawless, and its plot is too convenient to the advantage of the protagonist. But the shortcomings are forgivable, especially when there are so many melancholic aspects of life the film tries to address. And the addition of the great actor Redford, who in his heyday was twice as popular as Leonardo DiCaprio, adds certain credence to the film’s solemnity. Nonetheless, if the events of the film occurred in real life, and a dragon that could camouflage itself was discovered, I would probably vote to have its brain harvested for scientific purposes. Perhaps it could help us cure cancer!


By Christian Tesfaye
special to Fortune

Published on Sep 20,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 855]



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