Pete’s Dragon (2016)

PeteDirector: David Lwery

Screenwriters: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban

Disney’s gluttonous onslaught of reimagined live-action reboots hits a new milestone with Pete’s Dragon, a remake of the 1977 film of the same name. Just four months after the release of the monumentally successful Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon represents the first time the studio has released two remakes of its classic films in one calendar year! Still, as easy as it is to view these remakes as a withered corpse of lost inspiration dressed up as a gift to a new generation, I must put my snarkiness aside and admit that Pete’s Dragon is another solid entry on the remake roster.

Pete’s Dragon tells the story of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who while lost in the forest discovers and befriends a mythical dragon whom Pete names Elliot. Pete and Elliot live and thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for six years before Pete stumbles upon lumberjacks cutting deep into the woods near where he and Elliot live. When Pete is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence) the young daughter of one of the workers, she chases him into the forest and during the chase nearly falls from a tree and screams causing her father Jack (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) to arrive on the scene. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) accidentally knocks Pete unconscious leading them to take him to the hospital and in turn, abandon Elliot in the woods alone. Now apart for the first time in years, Elliot an enormous, green, furry fire-breathing dragon leaves the woods in search of his lost friend. Meanwhile Pete is invited to stay with Jack and Grace and discovers that Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have seen a dragon once long ago. Trouble brews as Elliot is spotted by Gavin who sees nothing but dollar signs if he can somehow capture himself a dragon!

Pete’s Dragon was directed by David Lowery, whose most notable film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) couldn’t be more thematically distant from this film. However, Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make family films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999, Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from 2015, or more recently Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. These films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors, and Lowery benefits from this, creating a beautiful film and a grounded fable with good performances. Also, the dragon is nicely realized here. In 1977 the limits of technology forced the dragon to be a hand-drawn cartoon inserted into a live-action film. Here the dragon is created with cutting edge CGI to make it feel more immersed allowing the narrative to not use the dragon as a distracting novelty, but a realistic presence resulting in a richer cinematic experience.

So given all of the classic films produced by Disney studios over the years, you have to wonder, why Pete’s Dragon? Is it the dated aspect of the original film? Could it be the popularity of Game of Thrones and its dragonesque motifs? Maybe it’s because it was a good candidate for Disney to show us another child victimized by the sudden and tragic death of parental figures after Cinderella (2015) and Jungle Book (2016)? Quite honestly, Pete’s Dragon may be the best candidate to benefit from a remake thus far. Lowery is the first to truly deviate from the source film’s major story points. Pete’s Dragon has more in common with King Kong or Free Willy than it does with the 1977 original, which was basically a goofy musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…with a dragon. Lowery casts a deep, fantasy-laden tone here; the film is more a sum of its parts than the original film’s more segmented feel. Additionally, the 1977 film is more obscure than Cinderella or The Jungle Book, and it received far more polarizing reviews than either of these films, making it ripe for a makeover. Still, while Pete’s Dragon was perhaps most worthy of a remake treatment, it is still a pretty safe movie in any regard. Plot points come fast and predictably, emotional turning points are crowbarred in manipulatively, and Bryce Dallas Howard once again wears unflattering clothing while facing off with enormous presumably extinct reptilian creatures. Any way you look at it, the previous remakes have been based on older and/or obscure Disney films. Next up, we have Beauty and the Beast in early 2017, which is neither old nor obscure, so the pressure’s on. B

Pete’s Dragon is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

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“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

The Finest Hours

DFinestirector: Craig Gillespie

Screenwriter: Scott Silver

Cast: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, and Holliday Grainger

Disney has a way of producing some of the most formulaic live-action films that you just can’t avoid liking.  Films like McFarland, USA, Tomorrowland, Cinderella, and now The Finest Hours are primary examples of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Finest Hours tells the story of a courageous Coast Guard team who risk their lives to save the crew of a wrecked oil tanker off the coast of Cape Cod during a historic blizzard in 1952.  Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a shy but dependable coastguardsman looking for redemption after a failed rescue some years earlier, which resulted in the death of his friend and fellow coastguardsman.  After an oil tanker is torn apart by hurricane force winds, Webber is ordered by his commander (Eric Bana) to organize a crew and navigate out to the last known location of the tanker.  With weather conditions preventing any large vessels from heading out to sea, Webber and his crew, which includes Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Ervin Maske (John Magaro), and Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), head out in a small 12-man rescue boat to brave the seas and attempt the rescue.

What makes this film rise above the standard adventure/rescue fare is that while the plot I have revealed sounds relatively entertaining, I have not even gotten to the story involving the split oil tanker.  Director Craig Gillespie and writer Scott Silver’s decision to feature a balanced story between the rescue and the tanker crew was the film’s highlight.  Lead by engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the film’s most exciting and powerful scenes revolve around the tanker crew’s battle to stay afloat whilst waiting for rescue.  Affleck steals the film with a performance far better than a film like this would have you expect.

The Finest Hours does drag one anchor in its wake and that’s the romantic plot between Webber and his fiancé, Miriam (Holliday Grainger).  This film is based on true events and Bernie and Miriam’s story are part of those events, but their relationship feels very cool and isolated.  What could have been played out as a strong love story where passion for life plays as a thread throughout the entire film, is surprisingly snuffed out in the scenes between Pine and Grainger.  Furthermore, Eric Bana’s portrayal as Commander Cluff is very uneven and at the end I was left confused as to what to think of him.

Still, The Finest Hours is a perfectly enjoyable slice of historic adventure.  These types of films rarely reach for the stars, but they are just good enough to be worthy of an audience. The story at this film’s core is one that was destined to find its way to the silver screen, and in most instances, it is executed very well.  While Pine is serviceable as the film’s hero, it is Affleck who is the standout and practically makes this film worth seeing all on his own.  B

The Finest Hours is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.

Cinderella (2015)

CinderellaDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Screenwriter: Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, and Helena Bonham Carter

It’s been a long time since someone left a Disney Studio film and said, “Wow! The originality was what impressed me.” Remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Still, as the Walt Disney Pictures logo transitions into a real castle to open their latest film, Cinderella, we are reminded what a trademark this story truly is to the Disney brand. The castle featured in the animated 1950 film became the icon for the Disney Pictures logo as well as the premier structure of the Walt Disney World theme park. Thus, in the case of this particular remake, Disney deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Cinderella opens in true Disney fashion, with the death of a mother character. And of course, once the audience is adequately depressed, the film begins the long climb to that inevitable happy ending. Ella (Lily James) – the “Cinder” comes later, now motherless, grows up in a quaint farm house with her father. A series of events result in Ella’s father inviting a recently widowed woman and her two daughters to come live with them. The widow, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters soon reveal themselves to be of the selfish and unfriendly variety and when Ella’s father takes ill and dies on a business trip, she finds herself completely at the mercy of her wicked step mother and step sisters. What follows is a fairly traditional retelling of the 1950 animated version complete with talking mice, glass slippers, and a fairy godmother, played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter.

The exposition offers a good bit of characterization regarding Ella’s parents and upbringing. Furthermore, the trials of Lady Tremaine are explored a bit more making her “wickedness” more realistic. Still, this film does not really complicate a story of which most are already familiar. Many versions of this story exist dating back hundreds of years and range tonally from the children’s tale we have here all the way to the grotesque where the stepsisters actually resort to cutting off their own toes in order to fit into the glass slipper. Thus, when one decides to tell this story, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Branagh’s version is successful. From the very start we are shown a young protagonist who values kindness and courage, and the film does a very good job at accentuating this point and delivering a film that does not get lost in feminism or societal chaos, but rather explores the power of human decency and personal decorousness. While some of the characters may be a bit on the shallow or static side, the message is clear and well received.

Overall, Branagh’s film is well-suited to the subject matter but also does have a personal stamp and does not feel cookie cutter. Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999 or even Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from earlier this year, these films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors. Branagh’s background in Shakespeare is on display here as the film is somewhat structured like a five act play. Additionally, as the director of 2011’s Thor, Branagh has his ear to the pop culture pipeline. Watch for a slight nod to Downton Abbey, since Cinderella has two actresses from that show in its cast with Lily James and Sophie McShera. Cinderella is not groundbreaking, but it is entertaining, gloriously costumed, very well cast, and has a message that is hard not to admire. B

Cinderella is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.