Say what you want about summer 2016 being disappointing where movies are concerned, but come Christmas, I'll be able to get each of my four young nieces a new release and have stuff left over for birthdays. I'd like it if more of them had girls as their main protagonists, but Finding Dory, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The BFG, Ghostbusters, Phantom Boy, The Little Prince, Pete's Dragon, and Kubo and the Two Strings is a pretty nice few months of stuff I'd give to kids, even if I'm taking a couple of things on faith and maybe stretching with Ghostbusters, but, look, it's a movie where a bunch of ladies get together to do science without much in the way of sex, swearing, or particularly nasty violence, so I'm obviously going to recommend it to my nieces.
It doesn't look like some of these are doing that well, though, which is a real shame - Pete's Dragon and Kubo deserve more, and Wilderpeople has sort of stuck around boutique places more than having been a hit. Still, the latter part of the summer especially has been quality stuff, and, I swear, if some of the crappy things I saw preview for do better, I'll... Well, shake my head sadly. Don't make me do that.
Pete's Dragon (2016)
* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 August 2016 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD DCP)
A few years ago, a friend argued that a certain movie was not as good as it could be because it let the audience see its creatures right away rather than hiding them for a big reveal later, even though it wasn't about discovery. I was reminded of that when this new version of Pete's Dragon showed the dragon in the second or third scene, thinking that the kids that this movie was made for wouldn't have internalized those expectations based upon what used to be prohibitively expensive. That thought soon fled my mind, though - while the modern ability to put something fantastic on screen with relatively little restriction is a big part of what makes this film a delight, its big heart and the filmmakers' steady hands do even more to make this one of the best family films to come out in a year that has had plenty.
That first glimpse of the dragon comes after we're introduced to a five-year-old and his parents driving to a new home, though an accident leaves the boy on his own. Six years later, we hear a tale of a dragon from old man Meacham (Robert Redford), though his forest-ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has never seen such a thing in the woods. Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley), one of the brothers who owns the local sawmill, which causes some friction as Gavin (Karl Urban) tends to extend their logging operations a bit further than allowed. It's during one of these disputes that Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds Pete (Oakes Fegley), who tries to run when the adults take him to the hospital. He wants to get back to the only friend he has had for the past six years, and the dragon he calls Elliott is worried about what happened to his boy.
It's important that we not only see the dragon early, but hear of him from the perspective of Grace's quite sane-seeming father as opposed to some outcast who comes across as a nut or drink or the like. This take on the material, co-written and directed by David Lowery, does not seek to find adult sophistication through ambiguity and unreliable narrators, even if it does allow for a healthy skepticism. We get to know Elliott as a character, and he's a funny, likable creature often akin to a gigantic and loyal dog, but Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, without hurting Elliott's individual playfulness and concern for Pete, quietly make him a symbol for wonder and awe. Meacham speaks of a sort of magic when describing his own youthful encounter with a dragon that is akin to spirituality but which is a more genuine sense of awe, not too different from the way everybody looks at Pete for having survived so long while so young. Gavin maybe can't see it that way at first, and it ties in to a quiet environmental message, where simple near-term practically is often more short-sighed and hollow than actively evil.
Full review on EFC.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2016 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)
You know that thing when, even though everyone seems to like a movie, you're just never in the right mood, and to be totally honest you didn't really love the director's last movie that the same everybody went nuts for, but eventually it's only got 3 days left? That is pretty much what I was looking at Monday night - I hadn't really been putting this off, but there always seemed to be something I wanted to see a little more that day, and this had the look of a movie that could have a crazy Lobster-like run. It did pretty well on that count.
And it deserved to. It's a nifty little movie about two people who have a hard time getting on with others losing the person who made accepting each of them for what they were look easy and having to find some common ground on the run from a system that doesn't know how to deal with them. It's a tricky thing filmmaker Taika Waititi pulls off, balancing how kids like Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) are not bad seeds but actually full of the same enthusiasm as more fortunate people while still maintaining some weight. It's an extremely empathetic film that nevertheless is able to find all of its characters at least a little ridiculous and build crazy adventures out of that.
Mostly, though, it is able to build a great pairing in Julian Dennison and Sam Neill. The latter being terrific should not surprise anyone; he's almost always excellent, even if he only occasionally gets material worthy of him, and it's fun to watch him never actually lose Hec's gruffness even as the guy finds himself growing fond of the kid - this adventure is going to reinforce some of his less sterling qualities, especially when it comes to dealing with people other than Ricky. Julian Dennison, meanwhile, is a riot, making Ricky a confused but ultimately good-hearted kid, an appealing hero even when he is being the sort of dumb that could easily cause someone to lose patience. There's a game supporting cast - Rima Te Wiata is utterly antitank as the very funny glue that puts this family together in the first place - but it's Dennison and Neill that form one of the year's most appealing odd couples.
Kubo and the Two Strings
* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2016 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, RealD DCP)
If Laika's first four movies - Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and now Kubo and the Two Strings - are not considered such a strong group as to give the company the same sort of trust and reputation as Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks, it can't be by very much, at least when you narrow the audience to dedicated fans of animation as a medium. They don't seem to have quite reached the same place with a broader audience, and looking at that list, I see part of the reason why: They love their meticulously crafted monsters and scaring children, and when you look this different, it might be good business to come up with something a little cuddlier to start.
Still, by doing what they do, they make thrilling adventures that nobody else can match. Kubo is no exception; after a brief prologue and opening that establishes a lot about the title character's personality and how his magic works, the film sends him to an even more fantastic land, giving him both new allies - a grumpy Monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a forgetful samurai beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey) - and incredible new challenges to overcome. It's an intense quest with high stakes, although one tempered a bit by some entertaining banter between the trio, and the filmmakers are looking to pop eyeballs with their stop-motion creatures - in one case quite literally. Though it may get a little scary for some of the younger kids, their older siblings and parents will spend a lot of time with jaws on the floor because not only is the design and animation amazing (including what is as almost certainly native-shot 3D), but it's backed up by terrific cutting and choreography, and there's never a fight that doesn't pack an emotional punch at some point.
The animation is amazing, a point which really can't be made often enough, especially when you ponder just what sort of careful work was involved in a couple of characters just giving each other a puzzled look that sums them up perfectly. Intriguingly, some of its best moments are when it's not silky-smooth; it reminds the viewer of the specific techniques being used and that this is not photorealistic, but it ties in with with how storytelling is power in this film by allowing the audience to see it happening. It's obvious in some ways, but less so in others - myth is a form of storytelling here, and as such it counteracts the limits on what storytelling can't do. On top of that, though, there's a really nice thread on not knowing what you can or can't do until you try.
More than just about any movie to come out this year, it will be great when it comes out on video (even if I may hold off giving it to a niece for a year because of the intensity), but it won't be nearly as great as it is given your full field of vision in a dark theater with 3D glasses. Do not miss it in that format if you've got the chance, because it's one of the great ways to spend a couple hours in the movies this year.