Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ain't them dragons saints

In a year containing a bewildering number of reboots and remakes -- people say that every year, but 2016 really takes the cake -- the last movie I expected to distinguish itself from the pack was Pete's Dragon.

In fact, when I saw the trailer for it earlier this year, at first I mistook it for The Jungle Book. Or Tarzan. Or next year's Jungle Book movie.

The presence of Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard in the cast made me momentarily curious, but they are by no means a guarantee of success -- or originality. I mean, I liked this movie more than a lot of people, but Howard was the star of Jurassic World, the rebootiest of reboots.

Then there's the fact that the original Pete's Dragon is not very good. Even as a kid I never liked it. Even as a kid I remember the animated dragon looking really cheap next to the real kid. And it felt like some kind of a weird misfire, even by the not-very-discerning standards of a really young person.

Well, I won't be able to judge myself for three more weeks -- Pete's Dragon comes out here on September 15th, timed for the next round of school holidays -- but all the sudden I'm really excited about it. People I trust are falling all over themselves praising it. Against all odds, it has poked its head above the din and asserted its right to exist.

And I'm wondering if we can credit that to David Lowery, the unlikeliest person to be involved in this whole thing.

If you don't immediately recognize that name, Lowery directed a movie a couple years ago called Ain't Them Bodies Saints. It was a bit of a Bonnie & Clyde story of two hicks swooningly in love who commit a robbery and get in a shootout with the cops, followed by one's jailing and subsequent epic quest to get back to his love.

The movie boasts an incredible amount of lyricism, but to say it connected with all audiences would not be accurate. Even among its target audience of indie film fans, it had a mixed reaction. I know one guy who listed it as the best movie he saw that year, but I know others who sort of shrugged -- myself included. It was both definitely beautiful and definitely alienating, and that's as it was designed to be. You didn't get the sense that David Lowery cared all that much about being particularly accessible.

Which makes his involvement with Pete's Dragon all the stranger. It's not just that this is a mainstream movie that needs to be accessible under threat of death -- the death of the director's career, anyway -- but that it's in a genre that seems so utterly different from Ain't Them Bodies Saints. We have a lot of examples in Hollywood these days of "How did this director get this project?" -- like, "How did the director of What We Do in the Shadows get chosen for the next Thor movie?" -- but even within that overriding climate, the choice of Lowery for this movie seems strange.

And then he just doesn't look like the director of a remake of a Disney movie:

He looks like the director of Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

But I suppose this is why producers hire directors who seems so far removed from the "logical" choice. The "logical" choice gives you a competent film that doesn't contain any obvious gaffes. It's low risk, low reward. An unexpected choice is the bigger risk, but if his or her unique sensibilities make the finished product fly, it's a much bigger win.

So I'm starting to think maybe this is a Spike Jonze/Where the Wild Things Are situation. We didn't necessarily see Jonze as the obvious candidate to adapt Maurice Sendak's book, though his track record certainly made him a more likely contender than Lowery. But once his vision was revealed and we saw the final product, we knew that the safe choice would have given us a bland movie. The risky choice gave us a masterpiece. From what I've heard, Pete's Dragon might be that kind of masterpiece.

I suppose the interwebs might tell me why David Lowery was a more obvious choice for Pete's Dragon than I'm giving him credit for. But a cursory search did not provide me the answer, and maybe I'd prefer not to know anyway. Maybe I'd prefer just to remain in the mystery of how just the right director is matched with just the right material to give us a felictious final product that we never would have imagined would be great.

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