I saw The BFG a few weeks ago, but did not review it–it happened at a time when I was without computer access. I saw Pete’s Dragon this morning. Narratively, the two movies are very similar. They’re both about orphans who become friends with very very large magical creatures. Both the Giant in The BFG and the Dragon in Pete’s Dragon are generous and kind, but both are badly mistreated by gangs of dolts, and both need help from grown-ups–either the Queen of England, or Robert Redford. And both films are beautiful. They’re both paced a little slowly for children’s movies, but only by the frenetic standard of so many noisy, busy ‘family’ films. They both take the time to appreciate loveliness. But they’re both playful when needs be, too. They’re both beautifully designed and lighted and shot. And both films feature terrific child actors.
BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, played by Mark Rylance, who seems to have become Steven Spielberg’s new favorite actor. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives in an orphanage, a lively place, but a desperately lonely one. The Giant sees her see him, and can’t bear it; Giants have to remain invisible. (Invisibility is a trait of Pete’s Dragon as well). He collects dreams, and that requires trips to the city, but only if he can stay unspotted. His home is absolutely splendid, with a Rube Goldberg ingenuity to it, and all sorts of odd pieces of equipment that enable his life’s work. He also has a wondrous way of talking, employing, not the right word, but its second cousin.
The Giant would never hurt little Sophie, and protects her as best he can. Because, you see, he’s a very big Giant by her standards, but an absolute runt by Giant standards. And his fellow Giants are loutish, stupid brutes. Ruby decides she needs to protect her big friend, and needs help to accomplish it. Well, where would an orphaned English girl turn for help? To the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), of course. (When the Giant meets the Queen, he says “your madjester, I am your most humbug servant.” She’s charmed).
I think for some smaller children, The BFG might be a little hard to follow, not because the story’s all that complicated, but just because it’s an unfamiliar sort of tale. We’re used to wisecracking anthropomorphic animals–we expect to see chase scenes. This has neither. You have to pay attention. But it’s so eccentrically lovely, so lyrical and sweet-tempered, it’s worth the effort.
Pete’s Dragon did not interest me at all, until too many friends told me how good it was. I saw it today, and was entranced. Pete, as a precociously reading three-year-old, sits in back as his father navigates a narrow forest road. Pete reads his favorite book, Elliott Gets Lost, about a wayward puppy. He sees the word ‘brave,’ and asks his mother about it, and she tells him she thinks he’s the bravest boy in the world. And then, swerving to avoid a deer, their car overturns, and Pete’s Mom and Dad are killed. (That scene, so awful, was beautifully but heartbreakingly filmed–not violent, but lyrical, and all the more affecting for it). Pete wanders into the woods. Wolves gather. And then are frightened away. By a massive green dragon. Who befriends, and saves, and raises young Pete.
Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley), is a wild child, blissfully happy and well cared for by Elliot, the Dragon. (Of course, he named it Elliot). And we get the most beautiful montage, showing Pete running through the forest, leaping from trees, completely confident that Elliot will catch him. It was my favorite scene in the movie, and one that did not advance the plot in any way, but was just purely joyful. Then we cut to Robert Redford, playing a woodworking codger named Meacham, who entertains children with his stories about an encounter he had in the woods with a big green dragon. His daughter, Grace, it turns out, is a forest ranger. She’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and she’s in constant conflict with a company of loggers, who ignore her proscriptions over which parts of the forest can be clear-cut. And that gets tricky, because her fiancee, Jack (Wes Bentley), runs the logging firm, and his main foreman is his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), is an adventurous nine-year old. And she’s the one who spots Pete.
So Pete is brought back to civilization, his history explored, and plans are made to turn him over to Social Services. And Pete’s miserable. He misses Elliot. He can’t figure out why he can’t just keep living in the forest with his dragon.
Gavin is the villain of the piece, I suppose, and his loggers serve as his gang. But there’s never a moment in the film when we don’t completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s not malevolent, just a normal human–a little selfish, a little uncaring. Not a bad person, though, of course, Pete hates him.
The movie does turn, in its last twenty minutes or so, rather Disney. There’s a comic car chase. There are moments of sentimentality, not unearned, but a trifle saccharine. But most of the movie is exquisite. Elliot’s forest is just a normal Northwestern US forest (though in fact, it was filmed in New Zealand). But director David Lowery has an eye; he lets us see the forest the way Pete sees it. He takes the time, to linger on a forest stream, to let Elliot play with a butterfly.
I’m an old guy; my children are in their twenties and thirties, and we have no grandchildren. But I’m so grateful for movies like these two, for family-oriented movies with some lyricism and sense of magic. I know that The BFG is considered kind of a flop, but it’s a Spielberg film; it will be remembered, and reevaluated in time. Pete’s Dragon is in theaters now, and is doing well. I well remember how difficult it could be to find good, appropriate films for children. Here are two excellent ones.