Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Runner-Ups: The Writing of "Pete's Dragon" (2016)

Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every other Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks (Screenplay), Malcolm Marmorstein (Based on Screenplay), Setono I. Miller, S.S. Field (Story)
Film: Pete's Dragon (2016)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (2016):
-Barry Jenkins & Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight) *WINNER
-Eric Heisserer (Arrival)
-August Wilson (Fences)
-Theodore Melfi & Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures)
-Luke Davies (Lion)

*NOTE: I apologize for taking two months off from the promised column of The Runner-Ups. While I will be looking to start Failed Oscar Campaigns in September, I hope to right some wrongs and, for this year only, make the column weekly while trying to highlight filmmakers who deserved Oscars but didn't get them. Thank you for your understanding and I hope to be more professional in the future.

There's one simple fact: the average live action Disney remake of the modern era is kinda bad, or at best not as wonderful as the originals that they're based on. I will admit that I am charmed by Cinderella, but films like The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, and Maleficent aren't top tier. They're cynical cash grabs meant to remind you that they're based on great movies. There's nothing wrong with buying into nostalgia - especially for a company as prominent as Disney - but their approach may be a little frustrating, if just because curiosity is the way that they dupe you. Even in rare cases, this trend exceeds expectations and produces a genuine masterpiece of a film. It may be a stretch to call it a "live action" adaptation, but director David Lowery's Pete's Dragon is one of the few updates that does everything right, save for adding "It's a Brazzle Dazzle Day" to the soundtrack.

What exactly gives the film any distinction? For starters, it doesn't feel burdened by a now iconic story. While I do love the music of the original, I can't say that there was an attachment to the original Pete's Dragon. It was fun and hokey, but not necessarily essential. In some ways, Lowery's take is the idealized version of what something can be if it is a "dark and gritty reboot." In theory, it's not Zack Snyder-esque in its darkness or grittiness. However, it does lay on the elements that are emotional a little thicker. The film opens with Pete (Oakes Fegley) losing his family in a car crash. Ironically, 2016 was full of stories involving abandoned kids (see also: The Jungle Book, The BFG, and Finding Dory), but Lowery found the heart in reconstructing a family in ways that are both inspired and fun.

Even if the film isn't as campy or whimsical, it definitely has a more constructed heart. It helps that the dragon is one of the best CG animals in years, and his performance plays off like that of a dog. You can't help but love the dynamic, and to witness persecution for being different is a familiar element for any person. This may not be the silliest or most fun family film ever, but there's plenty of peril and adventure that works on top of feeling investment in Pete's story. Everyone has felt out of place at one point or another. His journey into a new family is definitely one met with culture clash, and one that is enriched because of personal details. Some adults (specifically Robert Redford's Meacham) have a wonder that makes the supernatural feel more real. It becomes a story about loving others in spite of their differences. Not bad for a remake of a film that features Mickey Rooney starting a bar fight while singing "I Swear I Saw a Dragon."

It does help that Lowery is one of those indie directors who had time to build a career before getting a bigger project, especially one that's almost expectations-free as Pete's Dragon. His previous film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, has more in common to Terrence Malick than it does to conventional plotting. It's the type of logic that makes you even more impressed that he found a way to use conventional narrative to convey the spectrum of emotions, let alone with a CG creature who definitely has some of the more emotional moments in the third act of the film. Speaking as he went back to directing indie films with the successful A Ghost Story, I do suspect that he'll not wear out his welcome and continue to find ways to balance art with commerce. Pete's Dragon is a film that expertly balances emotion with action, and makes you believe in the wonder of dragons and other natures beyond our own.

To a certain extent, this is the greatest live action family film in years. While Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Laika have all fought the hard fight for animation domination, the live action realm feels increasingly futile, if just because it begins to feel like actors standing in front of green screens without any achievement in set design. There's something natural and familiar to Pete's Dragon that makes it soar. Yes, it has special effects like The Jungle Book. However, it has a realism to it and a story that doesn't feel predicated on pleasing fans of the original. It makes Pete into a more interesting character, and in the process adds depth to his surrounding characters. Sure, it lacks a "Candle on the Water." That is one of the few minuses. However, it's still one of those films where kids can see themselves on screen and think "I want to ride a dragon."

Part of me is still disappointed that Pete's Dragon didn't collect any nominations last year. In all honesty, it is technically impressive and its story is above expectations. In a perfect world, this would be the standard bearer for Disney live action remakes. It doesn't paste the story into a new setting. It updates it and adds elements that enhance the story without soiling the legacy. Whereas Beauty and the Beast suffered by never embracing the new enough without embracing its roots in blatant manners, Pete's Dragon updates the story with a sense of wonder and awe that is tonally different from what came before, and maybe even shares zero connection to what came before besides a handful of details. Still, it's a great movie that somehow used its indie filmmaker's eye to enhance a story and make what could've been inessential into one of the best family movies of the year. 

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