Pete’s Dragon

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

Director: David Lowery

Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks


After The BFG, this is the second blockbuster I’ve seen this summer that has evoked within me memories of Spielberg’s E.T. People like to complain that they don’t make movies like that anymore but the truth is that they do. They may not get made often enough or may get overshadowed by something more popular like Minions, but they’re still there for people to watch. Like The BFG, this movie targets itself towards young children but also offers something for the teenagers and adults who remember what it was like to be that age. Like in E.T. the plot in Pete’s Dragon is secondary to the central relationship being focused on. The film is childish in its playfulness and whimsicality but also adult in its tranquillity and stillness. Although they may not get made or seen often, the claim that Hollywood’s children’s movies have lost this thoughtful and wondrous quality is just wrong.

Six years ago, a little boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) got lost in the forest and was found and rescued by a great but friendly dragon with the ability to turn invisible. Pete names the dragon Elliott (sound familiar?) and goes on to live with him in the forest. When an older Pete spots a lumberjack crew chopping down some trees near his home, he is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of the foreman Jack (Wes Bentley). After he gets caught, Jack’s girlfriend, the park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes Pete in and tries to learn who he is and where he came from. When Grace learns about Elliott, she finds herself believing the story her father Meacham (Robert Redford) used to tell her about the time he came across a dragon in the forest. Pete agrees to lead them to Elliott, unaware that Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), a hunter, has also encountered this dragon and plans to catch him.

One of the things Pete’s Dragon accomplishes so well is that it captures the subtle yet immediately identifiable sense of what it feels like to be a child. The forest and the dragon that inhabits it not only look enormous, they feel enormous the way that everything does when you’re little. It captures that childish sense of adventure in both its wonder and scariness, a sensation that Pete’s parents remark on right before the car crash that would leave him an orphan. Bravery, says his father, is what he needs to see an adventure through and that is what a lost, scared and forlorn Pete finds in Elliott. It is significant that we meet the dragon immediately at the beginning because it means that imagination and fantasy are allowed to reign supreme. How trite would this movie have been if it had opted for ambiguity surrounding the dragon’s existence assisted by misunderstandings and dismissals by joylessly unimaginative grown-ups? This is a movie that appreciates the depths and possibilities of children’s dreams and imaginings and fully embraces them.

In this film Pete names Elliott after the dog in the book he’s reading and their relationship plays out in a classic A Boy and His Dog fashion. The dragon is simply teeming with life and personality and shows himself to be caring, loyal and protective of Pete. He is a smart and perceptive creature capable of reason and thought, allowing their friendship to be a mutual one on an emotional level. Elliott needs Pete every bit as much as Pete needs him. At no point does Elliott talk in this movie, meaning that the movie must convey his character solely through his expressions and personality, something that it does marvellously. A lot of the film’s heart is carried through by the humans as well with their subtle yet affective performances, save its two-dimensional baddie. Howard’s portrayal of a sweet and down-to-earth woman witnessing a phenomenon beyond anything she could have imagined is a moving one. Redford, being the old pro that he is, acts everybody else under the table as he manages to bring a childlike innocence to his role without it seeming silly or even quirky.

There is no shortage of smart and thoughtful children’s movies being made today and not all of them belong to Pixar. Pete’s Dragon, like The BFG before it, is a charming and enchanting movie that I found to be delightful. It takes itself and its audience seriously, but not too seriously. The film is sincere, restrained and heartfelt but it is also bright, exciting, funny and childish. While there are many kid’s movies that make the misstep of always being on the move and constantly making noise for fear of losing the children’s attention, Pete’s Dragon is a movie that allows itself to stand still, take a moment, and just breathe. Perhaps the approach isn’t as nuanced as it is in a typical Studio Ghibli feature, but it is welcome regardless. If it is to be believed that these movies are indeed a dying breed, then I truly hope that audiences will embrace and cherish this film and all the others like it.

★★★★

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Truth

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood

Director: James Vanderbilt

Writer: James Vanderbilt


The questions of fact vs. fiction, honesty vs. bias, and journalistic integrity are very hot topics in today’s political and social climate. In an age where opinions are often mistaken for facts or facts are viewed as opinions, where unchecked citizen journalism continues to be problematic, and where people feel compelled to ignore evidence and undermine the reliability of stories they don’t agree with, it is enough to make you wonder whether the truth even matters anymore. I found the casting of Robert Redford to be an interesting choice due to his role in All the President’s Men, a film about the pursuit for truth led by two journalists that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. It is a film that celebrates the honest and principled art of journalism as exemplified by Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are contemporaries of Dan Rather. Although Truth is not nearly as strong a film as its predecessor, its message is clear. The age of noble journalism has long since departed.

The film covers the real life story of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the producer of the CBS news programme 60 Minutes, and the scandal that destroyed her career during the 2004 presidential election. She enlists the help of the famed veteran news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and her handpicked research team including Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) to report a story on President George W. Bush as he seeks re-election. The story they run accuses Bush of exploiting powerful connections and political advantages during his military service in order to avoid being drafted for Vietnam in the early 70s. Once they report the story however, their evidence is brought to question leading to an inquiry. As the procedures, intentions and principles of these journalists are condemned and their reputations are ruined, the larger issue at stake gets lost until the point when the entire purpose of their original story becomes irrelevant.

While watching this film I couldn’t help but compare it to a superior film about journalism that came out this year, Spotlight. This might be unfair since the two films are in a way telling two different kinds of stories. While Truth tells of an incident when the ideals of journalism were defeated by bullying tactics, misshapen public perception and the bottom line, Spotlight is an instance where it actually succeeded in spite of them. However when I compared the two as narratives some of the weaknesses in Truth became readily apparent to me. While Spotlight allowed each of its main characters to be fully realised as crucial members of the team in creating their story, many of the journalists in Truth amount to little more than talking heads. Grace’s character serves as a vessel for some of the impassioned speeches that seemed to be trying to hard while Moss’ character only exists to ask questions for the benefit of exposition. Those who follow this story can quite easily work out the major themes being explored but, unlike Spotlight, Truth feels the need to hammer the point in as hard as it can. It is an important and a relevant point but it isn’t one that needs to be preached in order to be conveyed.

The redeeming qualities of this film are Blanchett and Redford in the leading roles. While Mapes is clearly a smart and capable producer with clear principles and a passion for what she does, she is not portrayed as a paragon of truth. As the investigation into the story proceeds, the film acknowledges that mistakes were made and corners were cut because Mapes believed so strongly in the story’s importance. They even raise the question of whether her politics clouded her judgement as a producer. Blanchett is, as usual, stellar as her character is thrown under the bus by her superiors and is forced to defend her actions to a panel that doesn’t even care about the truth of the story. Redford meanwhile brings the right amount of gravitas and class to the role of an accomplished and beloved news anchor facing the regrettable end of a distinguished career.

While Truth is not a great film, it does raise important points. The subject of the inquiry is the mishandling of the allegedly fabricated documents proclaiming that Bush never actually served his time in the military. As the doubt over these documents is exploited to undermine the entire story as well as the journalists who led it and the concerns of the network’s parent company lead the top executives to adopt a policy of appeasement and scapegoating, the one question that is never brought up is whether the story is actually true. The film invites the audience to debate the very purpose of journalism and how far the pursuit of truth and the greater picture has been corrupted. That the film came out just in time for another election year is no coincidence.

★★★