Pete’s Dragon (2016): A Celebration of the Wonder of Nature and Magic of Childhood

   The new “Pete’s Dragon” is one of my favorite films. This is a film that manages to capture the wonder of nature, wildlife and childhood and also the complex relationships that come with family. The soundtrack leads to a beautiful meditation on it all with some absolutely wonderful performances by Bryce Dallas Howard and the legendary Robert Redford. Non-spoiler thoughts, I recommend this film and think you should check it out. I grew up on the original film and this film so different, and in my opinion so much deeper and better.

 The film was directed by David Lowery who co-wrote the script with Toby Halbrooks and produced by James Whitaker.

    The story involves Pete who is presumed dead when his parents die in a crash in the forest. It is here the dragon Elliot finds him and raises him before he runs into Ranger Grace whose husband is a foreman of the Lumbermill that has impeded on the territory where Elliot and Pete are living. From here the story unfolds.

The Pros: The World – The world is rich! The forest is full of life, the small town is full of politics and there is a dragon. This is very much a surrealistic fantasy world.

The Soundtrack – Daniel Hart creates a  beautiful americana folk soundtrack that captures the brutal feel of the lumber mill, the isolation of the town and the magic of the forest. It is meditative and reflects the feelings in our characters’ heads. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to see what music he does next as I’ve always been a fan of folk and it was perfect for this film.

The Characters – The characters are a strong part of this film! From Karl Urban’s Gavin who feels powerless so wants to own and capture Elliot as he’s in a dying industry (he works on a lumber mill) and his brother doesn’t respect him. Howard’s Grace is someone who is trying to make things work with her own family and make peace with the fact that her husband’s job is destroying the forest she works in as well as her own doubt of her father Mr. Meachum whose arc is capturing the magic of his childhood (Redford does this wonderfully) and of course the child actors who play Pete and Natalie who become friends as it is Natalie who helps Pete realize he wants to be a part of the world again and no longer separate in the forest.

The Wonder and Terror of the Natural World – The natural world is front and center in this story and all the wonder and terror of it all. It is almost hitting a deer that leads to the death of Pete’s parents and Elliot almost kills his new parents when he turns on his attackers and rage and attempts to burn them. It is only through respect that humans can co-exist with nature and with the natural world, is what the film argues. It is very Miyazakiesque and it is part of what makes the film so beautiful.

Okay: Dealing with Grief  and Loss – The film dealt with this a little bit but not really as Elliot was Pete’s way of dealing so we never him truly face the fact that his parents are dead. There are a few moments he misses them, but we never have the chance to see him face his grief. There was shock but after that not much else besides him forming a bond with a new family. It was dealt with a little but not enough for me to put it as a pro. The one way it worked was that Pete was tied to the forest and is always trying to run back until he faces his grief to some degree, which helps him form bonds in the world and a new family, in turn leading him to leave the forest.

The Cons: Jack – Jack, Grace’s husband is a plot device and is only there to counter the antagonist Gavin (his brother) who is hunting and captures Elliot. He never felt fully fleshed out and I didn’t know why he and Grace were together.

    This was an amazing film that is the only one of the Disney remakes that I consider great. “The Jungle Book” remake was awful and even though I’ve heard good things about “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast,” I am still worried. A good story can pull upon past stories, but it shouldn’t be a retelling, if I wanted a retelling I’d just read or watch that same story again. This film gets away from that and it is part of the reason it is a favorite film now. This is a film where magic happens and truly captures the beauty that can surround us.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10 Would be higher if Pete dealing with his grief had played a bigger role and Jack had been a character not a plot device.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – An Amazing Spy Thriller That Changes the Marvel Universe

Captain America Winter Soldier

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is one of the best movies I saw in theatre this year. The only one that beat or was comparable was the “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” In my Disney Marvel Franchise Adventure this film is top of my list to write about, along with “The Avengers,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” once I see it.

There are a lot of reasons I like this film, but for the non-spoiler version that is as vague as possible: The security state is critiqued, we see the price of war and the it asks us the question of freedom versus security and what makes an organization good or noble.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is a sequel to both “The Avengers,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” tying it to both and furthering the continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The story picks up with Captain America working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as an agent, but quickly finding out that he doesn’t know what is going on when Nick Fury is attacked by unknown agents and the Winter Soldier arrives the scene who is a famous assassin who Black Widow knows about only through rumors largely but who she witnessed in action in one of her missions. From here Captain America and Black Widow go undercover to find out what is going on as S.H.I.E.L.D. sees them as possibly guilty for the attack on Fury. They also get help from Falcon, a veteran who is part of an airborne division where he had prototype wings that he used in combat. From here the story unfolds as the conspiracy is unraveled.

Spoilers Ahead

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Tone – “Don’t trust anybody.” Is what Nick Fury tells Captain America at one point, and that level of unknown and fear pervades the film. We get hints of it in the beginning with Widow’s side mission and after that it continues on throughout the rest of the film continuing to grow with the face of that unknown in the Winter Soldier and the actions against the protagonists.

Black Widow – Johansson does it again. We get to learn more about her past and why she doesn’t trust anyone, and we get to see her in the mentor role, since Captain America is Super Hero that has never had to do undercover work. She is the secondary protagonist besides Falcon and is the best that we have ever seen her. She even makes a pretty hard choice at the end that I will discuss later in the review.

Falcon – Can’t wait for this guy to take Chris Evans place after he leaves…which I hope they do now that Falcon is Captain America in the comics. Falcon is a veteran who helps veterans, and because he isn’t a super soldier depends on his training as a soldier with a prototype weapon and adaptability to help Widow and Captain find out how far the conspiracy goes. He is there only friend at the end at one point. Anthony Mackie is fantastic.

Nick Fury – Is the mentor in this and has some great reveals about his past and why he doesn’t trust and is so brutal. This is the movie that gives us Fury as a fully realized character, and it is awesome! From his friendship to Pierce and to Captain America and the choices he makes. Samuel L. Jackson owns this role.

S.H.I.E.L.D. – I shown to be a complex government organization that ends up being compromised. The first warning signs are the Helocarriers that have been programmed to deal with threats. It is Captain America who first questions this but is shutdown by Nick Fury through his story of growing up rough and how his grandfather always was armed to protect himself…and that the government needs to do the same (a reaction to Loki’s attack on New York). Alexander Pierce (one of the heads of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the main guy advocating for this protection and offensive might. I’ll go into what happens with them later.

Fury’s Death – Fury has an awesome fight with The Winter Soldier and unknown agents and eventually takes them out after a pretty big fight and goes into hiding with Captain America. He delivers his warning and is shot…

Arnim Zola – This guy is back! We saw the government take him in after World War 2 and he worked for them but also used it to plant the seed of H.Y.D.R.A. there as well as making himself into a program to control and use S.H.I.E.L.D.’s data. He turns S.H.I.E.L.D. into an arm of H.Y.D.R.A. He is also one of the creators of the Winter Soldier. We see him face Black Widow and Captain America from an old style computer that he eventually sacrifices to try and kill the two of them. We learn that he was loyal to H.Y.D.R.A. all along which was a question after the first film given he betrays The Red Skull. I hope we returns later on and that some part of his program is still active. He was a lot of fun and a great threat.

H.Y.D.R.A. – Using the Winter Soldier they “kill” Nick Fury and try to kill Black Widow, Falcon and Captain America…regardless they win to some degree in this. They destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. by becoming S.H.I.E.L.D. it is brilliant and show how idealism can get hijacked by the corrupt as well as the danger of concentrated power in anything with military might.

The Winter Soldier – Is “Bucky,” Captain America’s old friend who has been brainwashed and given a metal arm by H.Y.D.R.A. he is a huge threat and pumped full of the super soldier serum. He is like the terminator throughout the film but gets some great moments with Captain America as he fights to find who he once was and get control over himself again.

Fury and Captain America – There is a great conversation here when we learn he Fury faked his own death to go underground…and rather than it being cheap, like it has kind of become with Marvel…it has consequences. It is when Black Widow and Nick Fury fight to bring down S.H.I.E.L.D. it is the death of this organization that changes everything in this universe.

The Confrontation – This is where everything comes to a head. The Winter Soldier has been rebrainwashed and is being used to kill the heroes, the Helocarriers are taking off and haven’t been implanted with Fury’s virus. This is some of the best action I’ve seen (much better than “Avengers” or “Iron Man 3,” and “Thor 2,”) and in it all it has a point in it too.

Alexander Pierce – As the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. Robert Redford gives us a fascinating character who sees ends justifying the means because of how Fury disobeyed orders. He saw that on the large scale which lead to his corruption. He is clearly bad but you can at least sympathize with this very flawed villain who is all the corruption of the security state justifying itself. Fury gets the kill on this guy when he tries to kill the Council.

Captain America – He grows a lot in this film. From having to make hard choices in regards to killing, to trusting Black Widow fully and becoming an agent undercover…to all his interactions with the Winter Soldier. Chris Evans nails it all and is a pleasure to watch.

The Reveal – Baron Von Strucker has 2 mutated children (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) and plans to feed Fury, Widow and Captain America false info. to keep them away from key H.Y.D.R.A. facilities. Giving us a hint of things to come.

Bucky returns to the museum we saw Captain America at in the beginning, showing him in his quest to find out who he is.

I highly recommend this film. There really weren’t any cons for me. It is what I want out of a Super Hero movie. It knows what it is about, has a consistent tone, the characters actually grow and the action actually means something. Captain America actually became an interesting character too and I hope Falcon will have the chance to be him after Chris Evans leaves.

Final Score is 10 / 10. The greatest thus far.