Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
There was something about "Pete's Dragon," a quality I couldn't identify at first, something that made it feel different from almost every other big summer movie, and its presence was so subtle that it took a while to figure out what it was: silence.
The silence of the forest.
"Pete's Dragon" is David Lowery's remake of the 1977 Walt Disney animated musical about a boy and his best friend: a dragon who can turn invisible. It is the second gentlest kids' film of this summer, after Steven Spielberg's "The BFG."—another film pitched at kids aged seven to ten (and adults who can still remember what it felt like to be that age), but one that failed at the box office, even though it touched some of the same emotional chords as Spielberg's masterpiece, "E.T." Lowery's film owes quite a bit to Spielberg generally, and "E.T" in particular (the dragon is named Elliott, the name of the hero of "E.T."; there's a Keys-type adult character who's on the side of the kids, and the more brash and excited parts of Daniel Hart's score channel John Williams). There are nods to Spielberg-inflected movies as well, including "The Iron Giant" (another boy-and-his-creature flick, set in the forest primeval). But it might ultimately have more in common with movies by Terrence Malick, a Transcendental hippie Christian poet who isn't afraid to put the plot on hold and wander around with a camera, letting us experience a rarefied vision of the natural world. The whirring insects, the owls hooting in the treetops.
Lowery, who brought the Malick in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," is in that mode again with "Pete's Dragon," though he tends to pull back from anything that might be accused of being too arty. The forest and its animals feel present, physical, in ways that you rarely experience in this post-analog era of movie-making. You hear birds chirp, streams running, wind creaking the boughs of trees. You get nice, long looks at faces, treetops and sunsets. And you appreciate the distinctive noises the dragon makes when he's re-positioning his scaly-furry belly on the forest floor, or unfurling his wings like a schooner's sails. They don't sound like cartoony monster noises. They're like a child's memory of a beloved dog that was really big, or seemed big because they were so little. Elliott is a magical creature, but more than that, he's a very large animal, smart and full of feeling. He doesn't move like so many CGI-rendered beasts in contemporary film. He moves like a medium-sized dragon would move if he actually existed, like the dinosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" films. And when he looks Pete in the eye, you sense a personality there. A consciousness. (This is a Top Five dragon movie, by the way—though my inner child insists that the "Dragonslayer" dragon is still the best.)