Female Filmmakers · Review

Some Cold Takes: Pete’s Dragon; Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates; Swallows and Amazons

Pete’s Dragon

You haven’t seen Pete’s Dragon. That’s fine, it’s not a personal failing, nobody has seen it. The film wasn’t released so much as lubed up to slide gracefully from cinema to home video to the annals of time, while registering as little in the public consciousness as possible. Which is a shame, the film is magic.

Loosely, and i mean <i>loosely</i>, adapted from the 1977 Disney musical, the film tells the story of Pete, lost child, wildling, raised in the woods by the titular dragon until a small town’s lumber industry threatens to encroach on their life. In short, all it shares with the original is a name. Which is fine, nobody remembers the original anyway.

As a habitual city dweller it’s been a while since I’ve been in the forests. Forests so deep and so thick one loses the horizon and sky. Director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) obviously spent more time in them than I, he knows how they make you small, he knows how they make you a child again. And the film does that effortlessly. From the start the frames drip with wonder, Pete dwarfed in the frame by the majesty of nature, and the dragon.

And what a dragon! Elliot, named for the lost dog in a book of Pete’s, is magnificent. Weta has done wonderful work yet again, creating a being which feels truly alive. It’s not that it looks particularly real, enormous green beings tend not to, it’s how it acts, how expressive it manages to be. The animators consistently walk a fine tightrope. It is an animal, not a dumb animal, but animal nonetheless and the sheer range it portrays through it’s clumsy body and it’s stupid, silly face is a joy.

The rest of the cast are great too. Oakes Fegely’s gives a nuanced performance as Pete, marrying independent savage and little lost boy. Interestingly, unlike this year’s other wildling film, The Jungle Book, categorised by it’s rejection of civilisation, Pete approaches the human world with the same curiosity and acceptance with which he does his home. The adults acquit themselves well too, bringing depth to roles that in different hands could be one-note stereotypes.

The film was never going to make serious money. It’s paced and shot like an art film, contemplative and moody. It relies perhaps a little too heavily on some plot beats that, though well executed, we are all familiar with. But if you can look up to the screen and lose yourself in the trees once again you’ll find the magic there.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates aims for all the chortles of your average Seth MacFarlane joint. Even when a movie sets the bar low it is always a shame when it fails to pass it. Based on the lives (the movie’s phrase, not mine) of Mike and Dave Stangle, two LADS who advertised on Craigslist for dates to their sister’s wedding only to accidentally end up taking the most inappropriate dates imaginable. Who’d have thought?

One wishes this was based on true events in the same way trashy horror movies are. The chaos that these girls drum up is so banal that what feels like it should be your average shock comedy ends up falling completely flat. A quad biking accident, a sexy massage, an unplanned trip. Surely the writers could come up with better than that, their Bad Neighbours 2 script certainly could. Or were they so beholden to reality that they couldn’t be as outlandish as they wanted?

It seems an odd approach when the characters presented to us bear so little resemblance to actual humans. The girls want their free trip to Hawaii but beyond that struggle to find meaning. The boys want to stop the chaos but somehow fall into infighting as there must be a narrative reason for their ineptitude. The plot then is eventually passed off to the sister and her fiance, two characters with hardly enough development to carry the dramatic weight of the entire third act.

The performers, talented though they are, cannot save the mess. Each are playing to their strengths admirably: Plaza the schemer, Kendrick the quirky, Efron the slow-witted, DeVine the clown. But they are never afforded chance, as they do at their best, to transcend these archetypes.

Ultimately the poor plotting, the far-too-often leaden jokes and the airless cinematography leave the entire production feeling as cheap and tacky as the all inclusive Hawaiian vacation our leads crave.

Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons tries to immerse the audience in the epic world of childhood imagination, it never quite manages to. The brunt of the problem lies with a script that fails to effectively establish stakes, explore character motivations or create consistent emotional arcs. Thankfully it is directed and, for the most part, performed deftly enough for these problems to fade into the background.

The film tells the story of the Walker family, a city clan, spending a pre-World War II summer in the lake district. The adventures they make on their dinghy, Swallow; their battles with the piratical crew of the Amazon; and, new to this version, how these interact with the world of Russian espionage. In short: tangentially. This addition is the weakest part of this version of the film. It never really amounts to much, always running adjacent to actions of our leads. It feels the team here felt the story needed to be more epic, from the score through to the cinematography it never quite gels.

The most greatest casualty of this is unfortunately the nature of the Swallows and the Amazons themselves. We never get a solid read on their relationship, there is a sense that both parties are playing their assigned roles in an unspoken game. However, the entire affair is presented with such stony-faced seriousness as to become ridiculous. Serious play is serious but, here, it isn’t all that playful. Unfortunately the weakest link in this regard is actually our lead, his performance inconsistent from scene to scene. While not totally his fault, the character comes across as an unlikable asshole.

It’s functional, and hell, after a very slow burn it does kick into gear in the final twenty minutes. Maybe I’m cold-hearted, it never managed to sell me the fantasy. I’m happy on dry land.

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