By Preston Wilder
Are you a child? Probably not. Kids don’t read film reviews nowadays (I suspect they never did), they ask their friends and watch the trailer on YouTube – so, since we’re all adults here, let’s ignore the fact that two of this week’s new releases are aimed at youngsters, and let’s look at them from an adult perspective. Enter Pete’s Dragon, a slow-paced, soulful movie that completely re-imagines a Disney not-quite-classic from the 70s, turning it into a folksy Spielbergian affair that may have kids fidgeting but will surely enthrall their chaperones.
Director David Lowery previously made the indie drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, notable for its lyrical shots of Nature, and he brings the same sensibility to this much more expensive project. (The film cost an estimated $65 million, a large chunk of that going to create its convincingly animal-like – as opposed to plastic pixel-like – dragon.) Sunlight flashes and fractures through tree branches, the setting being a small logging town surrounded by forest. Night-time interiors have a sepia look, and the filmmakers contrive glorious shots like the silhouetted dragon flapping gracefully in an ultramarine night sky. Most of the film takes place during 36 hours, adding to its intimate feel. The soundtrack throbs with grave, doleful songs (even Leonard Cohen!). The scene where Pete races through town in his hospital gown, dodging cars and pedestrians, could’ve been slapstick – but Lowery adds a melancholy indie dirge (“Nobody kno-o-ows how to say goodbye-e-e…”), and suddenly it’s a poignant scene about a lost boy.
Pete is our hero, played by 10-year-old Oakes Fegley, and he does indeed have a dragon, a friendly giant who rescues the boy after his parents are killed in a car crash (shown impressionistically, and quite sensitively). The dragon is doglike, and indeed there’s a long wordless sequence of Pete and his pet at play (flying, climbing trees, gazing at the stars as the sun sets) adding to the sense of lazy, idyllic rural life, like a film from an earlier time – though the dragon is goofy as well, briefly fascinated by a butterfly and apparently engrossed in chasing his own tail at one point. Pete’s Dragon is so visually eloquent, and its general vibe so beguiling, that it could probably be watched even by those with only a smattering of Greek – though the fact that it’s only being shown in a dubbed-into-Greek version, as if it were a cartoon for five-year-olds, is a disgrace. I assume it’s because it did badly in the US, not frantic enough for the kiddie market; it’s actually a film for all ages – though my only reservation, as an adult, is that I’d have liked it even more if the dragon had turned out to be all in the kid’s head, a figment of a lonely orphan’s battered imagination. But where’s the Disney in that?
Rafe (Griffin Gluck), the hero of Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, also tends to live inside his own head, drawing spaceships and sketching irreverent comics aimed at the authority figures in his life – though in fact, despite the title, his life doesn’t seem so awful. Adults are divided into sympathetic – including his supportive mum and the frankly annoying hippy teacher who says “super-awesome”, gives break-up advice, and explains free trade by reference to American and Canadian rappers – and cartoonishly tyrannical, like the rule-obsessed school principal who becomes Rafe’s nemesis. The film is a case of manic tween energy, fully deserving of the barb our hero aims at his smartass little sister: “See? This is why kids shouldn’t drink espresso!”.
Middle School panders, urging kids to be creative and think beyond the rules (“Rules aren’t for everyone” is Rafe’s motto as he sets about wreaking havoc) – which seems to me the opposite of what kids need to hear nowadays, then again I’m a grumpy adult. There’s puppy love with a socially-aware, Greenpeace-supporting girl, some mild trouble with a bully, suitably exuberant dialogue (“Somebody better update Wikipedia, ’cause we’re making history!”) – but things get weird as well, with an incongruously tragic back-story and a mind-bending twist last seen in the Austrian horror drama Goodnight Mommy. Um, spoiler?
This is really quite an edgy kids’ comedy, by the standards of the genre – though it coyly rears back from the f-word, and bowdlerises ‘Spirits’ by The Strumbellas (changing ‘guns’ to ‘dreams’) when that song appears on the soundtrack. Then again, if it didn’t have the occasional ‘12’-rated touch it’d be indistinguishable from the latest pubescent fluff – or indeed bumfluff – on the Disney Channel. If you were a child, you’d probably adore Middle School and be a little wary of Pete’s Dragon, finding it too folksy, too slow, too depressing. But you’re not, are you?
MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE
DIRECTED BY Steve Carr
STARRING Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Alexa Nisenson
US 2016 92 mins
DIRECTED BY David Lowery
STARRING Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford
DUBBED INTO GREEK.
US 2016 103 mins