Although a perfectly acceptable way to kill time with your kids and an occasionally sweet tale, David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake (C-) adds very little to the Disney canon or to movies about kids and their is-he-or-isn’t-he-real fantasy friends. Shucking the musical sequences and cornball whimsy and melodrama of the 1977 original (not to mention the charming Don Bluth animation), the new Pete’s plunges its titular protagonist into a straight drama about a boy whose parents die in a car wreck in the Pacific Northwest, leaving him to be befriended and raised by the reclusive mythical dragon Elliot with neon green fur. A kindly forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers and helps the orphan boy while an opportunist lumberjack played by Karl Urban tries to hunt and exploit the creature. Child actor Oakes Fegley does his best with an underwritten and moptopped role. From Howard’s glassy eyed acting, it would appear she was trained aboard The Polar Express. Even the dragon is only passable, a distant cousin of Falkor from The Neverending Story. The slight script, the dank film quality and the predictability of virtually every sequence don’t help matters. File this with the Jungle Book remake and BFG as family films that are a bit of an insufferable slog.
Steven Spielberg earns a C+ for The BFG (aka The Big Friendly Giant), and this family film is decidedly a GNAS (grower, not a shower), largely languid for nearly two thirds of its length and then unexpectedly rising like a wonder of Gulliver’s wanderlust to its rather lively and even mildly emotional climax. Child actor Ruby Barnhill is charming as a plucky orphan whose awkward custodial Brexit leads her into the hands of the titular tall man, a vegetarian loner charmingly played in unnecessary motion capture by Mark Rylance. Together their friendship blossoms and adventures ensue, complete with Roald Dahl-isms of gobbledegook dialogue that are alternatively delightful and laborious. After some tedious battles with nine unsavory carnivore giant villains and the dreariest depiction of dream-catching imaginable this side of James Cameron’s Pandora, the filmmakers endeavor to discover their stride late in the narrative. The bloated balloon of hideous production design, awkward effects and gloomy atmosphere is finally punctured in a comparatively brisk finale that almost redeems the film. There’s a really imaginative moment when the title character mixes up a dream from his nocturnal cannery, and the way it comes to life would make an inspired short film. This enterprise is closer to the Hook and Tintin side of Spielberg’s unusually uneven family film oeuvre, and one can’t help but remember that he and late screenwriter Melissa Mathison peaked in this genre 34 years ago with their collaboration on E.T. Unfortunately, despite flashes of grandeur, this lugubrious lark is far from his towering achievements.
Andrew Stanton’s animated aquatic sequel Finding Dory (B-) succeeds as a message movie about inclusion of characters with disabilities – showcasing a fish with short-term memory loss overcoming the odds – but stumbles in terms of its only mildly engaging protagonist, its flagging adherence to its own intrinsic logic and the lack of originality of its storyline. The film strives to deepen the Finding Nemo saga with Godfather II style flashbacks to back story while Dory searches for her parents but ends up closer to Evan Almighty territory with a minor character inexplicably nudged to the forefront. Despite noted objections, there are still imaginative touches involving the intricacies of a marine life refuge and an amputee octopus with clever camouflaging effects. We know we’re working in a talking animal universe, but there’s a jump-the-shark moment that might be termed invertebrate on the interstate or the mollusk motorcade and simply gets sloppy. Nemo and his dad are rendered rather ineffectual sidekicks while Ellen DeGeneres does what she can to squeeze out the waterworks of the film’s few poignant moments. The first film felt effortlessly entertaining, and this one more of a chore.
Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph (B+) is a highly creative and charming CGI fantasy about an 8-bit ’80s arcade game character who must become a hero of a different kind in today’s virtual age. Waves of nostalgia, knowing in-jokes and clever hazards help this sometimes overlong film please audiences of all ages.
Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3 (B) delves even deeper into the emo treasure box of this CGI animation universe, with elegiac and nostalgic results. This is the installment of the family franchise that plumbs themes of putting away childish things, playing on the heartstrings without yielding as much fun with the playthings. Woody, Buzz and friends are donated to a daycare when owner Andy is preparing for college, and more melancholy moments and farewells happen than in Return of the King. The farewell tour is about as final as a Cher concert (see Toy Story 4). There’s still plenty of comedy and cleverness, but this entry tries hard to be capital “I” Important.
John Lasseter’s Toy Story 2 (B) expands the emotional landscapes of Pixar’s playscapes. The animation is stronger and the story more expansive, but the novelty isn’t quite as nifty. The energetic ensemble faces displacement due to Woody’s discovery of his origins in a televised Western puppet show, and adventure ensues. Woody gets a countrified love interest in Jessie, accompanied by plaintiff music. This series has a habit of piling on new characters to mixed effect. All in all, it’s a fun sequel.
The classic toys that come to life in John Lasseter’s Toy Story (A-) are among the most endearing new creations developed for the screen. Pull-string cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and rival-turned-pal astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) preside over a pixel playroom of great characters including Mr. Potatohead, Slinky Dog and other favorites come to life. When there’s trouble in toyland, it’s time for teamwork, and the saccharine sweetness never gets too much to turn off adult audiences who are watching with kids. The Randy Newman ballads are a little treachly, but everything else is super-fresh, and Pixar Studios shows why it’s the high-tech hotshot on the scene with 110,064 frames of computer animation that translate into absolute enjoyment.