Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley
Director: David Lowery
Synopsis: A young boy, thought missing, turns up in the forest 6 years later. Helped along by a special friend; a giant furry dragon named Elliott
This is a surprise! A remake of a lesser 70s Disney cartoon directed by indie darling David Lowery and featuring a giant furry dragon could have been a young director reaching big and failing (a pattern sadly seen too often) but against all the odds winds up being one of the best of the year.
Swooping us straight into a brilliantly staged and utterly heartbreaking opening car crash which manages to convey huge emotions with sound, focus and simplicity. It is a forebear of what’s to come. Beautiful cinematography, melancholic soul searching and pure wonder wrapped up in a tinge of darkness, but as this is about a furry green dragon only a soupcon of dark material.
After the emotional upheaval of that crash we dive forward six years to a scene of Pete and Elliott sweeping through the forest, reminiscent of similar moments in this years other unlikely remake success The Jungle Book, and also into the inhabitants of small town Millhaven. There we meet Redford and Howard as father and daughter. He speaks of a great beast he once fought off and she bats him down with a burrowed frown and talk of tall tales. Immediately you sense where this is going.
If the film offers no surprises in its story it does so elsewhere. Oakes Fegley gives a performance full of life, but without calling attention to it. His face is immensely expressive and on the basis of this I expect him to rise to major prominence in the future. Across the board performances are strong. Howard is warm and charming, Redford is his usual twinkly self and Karl Urban makes what should be the token villain part, real and thoughtful. His character relatable as someone who desires to be noticed in a town hidden from the world outside.
Lowery brings a timeless feel to proceedings, with the actual time setting never explicitly mentioned, and utilises simple shots to give a weight and warmth to the locations. Using heavy effects for the first time he makes Elliott tangible and lovable, despite the fact he is green and furry (an odd touch to start with ). Scenes with him interacting with the human cast are nothing short of captivating with a number of winning crowd pleasing moments.
It’s hard to find fault with a film so committed to optimism and wonder, that does not dumb down to its intended audience but rather treats them with respect that they can understand the more maturing ideas. In some respects the film can be almost too lyrical at times to truly appeal broadly. Dialogue often unused, priding theme and mood to drive the emotion. However that’s a minor flaw in a film which somehow has made it through the studio system with a directors voice standing firm. Disney are one of the only major studios that seem to pride quality over a quick franchise buck. (That’s a debate to be discussed in a future ramble)
Lowery is tackling a remake of Peter Pan next and on this evidence that film is in safe hands. If he can bring his ability to coach great child performances, stunning effects and grounded emotion to that timeless tale then we can expect something very special indeed. A remake that defies the odds. Wouldn’t that be a surprise.
Verdict: A soaring, soulful family film. Treats it’s audience with respect, and in this world of idiotic Suicide Squads that spell everything out, something to truly celebrate.