From Indie to Disney: David Lowery and Pete’s Dragon

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ainthemIf you have read a review of a major blockbuster film, or even many indies, the most common thread of discussion is the health of film as both an industry and artistic medium. There is an obvious split between two groups of thought on the matter. One is convinced that film dead, with studios too afraid to take risks and placing all of their eggs in the comic book and reboot basket, with only the fringes of independent cinema having any real quality. Another group saying that the studios haven’t taken risks since Heaven’s Gate in 1980 but independent cinema has never been stronger because no one is expecting to make money and anyone can make a film.

An interesting twist in this story has been the surge of successful Independent directors being ‘brought up to the Major Leagues’ and tasked with directing big budget blockbusters. Darren Arronofsky made Black Swan with a budget of only $13 million but it grossed around $300 million worldwide so naturally Paramount gave him $125 million to make the biblical film Noah (it grossed over $360 million). Colin Trevorrow made the mildly successful Safety Not Guaranteed for only $750,000 and was then given the $150 million dollar sequel Jurassic World (which grossed $1.6 billion). James Gunn gave us the $15 million dollar indie Slither and then helmed the very popular and successful Guardians of the Galaxy which had a budget of $200 million (It grossed over $770 million). You can see a trend forming here. These examples alone brought in nearly a billion dollars in profits for their respective studios. This conversation then will inevitably lead to the question of whether or not this influx of money hurts the quality of these films. Jurassic World was widely praised by the mainstream, but many cinephiles thought it was a far weaker effort than of the original. Noah, despite making solid profits, was mainly anchored by those interested in the biblical story but was far less watched by the indie community and received modest reviews.

Thus we arrive at David Lowery who wrote and directed the independent film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which was very popular amongst the indie crowd, most notably the devout following of Terence Malick, but also received generally favorable reviews. This dreamy, poetic film is a beautiful journey through the love between a young couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who are forced apart when they begin to dabble in crime. Casey Affleck takes the fall for Rooney Mara when she shoots a police officer in the shoulder during a standoff and this sets of the action of the story. I specifically mentioned Terence Malick because those reviews that weren’t very kind were mainly disappointed by what felt like, to them, too much of an homage to Malick. It certainly has the poetic voice-overs, the golden hour aesthetic and quiet scenes of reflection, however I personally didn’t feel like the tribute to Malick was egregious or heavy handed.

Even though Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was not a box office success it clearly showed a great skill behind the camera and a delicate approach to a story. This must have been the thought process behind bringing in Lowery to co-write and direct the remake of the classic 1977 musical Pete’s Dragon. This was one of my favorite films growing up, and I still shamelessly listen to ‘Candle on the Water’ from time to time. Any time a film is going to be rebooted there is always trepidation because many films are just perfect on their own. Some films however are meant to be rebooted and given a modern flair. The first example that comes to mind is Little Women whose 1994 remake of the 1949 film was a huge improvement thanks in part to the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson and score by Thomas Newman. You’ll never catch me among the camp of people who are up in arms as soon as a franchise is touched (Ghostbusters I’m looking at you) because it’s usually for the wrong reasons like casting all women or not having all of the original stars (again Ghostbusters, looking at you). I’m all for any film being remade as long as there is the proper attention to detail.

With Pete’s Dragon Lowery has managed to take an original film that is beloved and create something entirely new and fresh. His version of the film has no musical numbers, does not feature a scary story about a wretched foster family, and the dragon is not a bumbling goofy character. Instead it features an actually believable origin story for Pete and relatable story about finding yourself in an unfamiliar world and the importance of family. I worried that the film might come off as too cerebral to be appealing to the much younger crowd. However a mix of laughs and action sequences seemed to distract the children in the theater I was in from anything they might not have understood. This was a film I would love to show my children, and one that I would recommend to any of my peers as well. It had the feeling of an instant classic and a film that should stand the test of time. This is definitely a story with a happy ending from the production side, and I think that the reason has a lot to do with the fact the director really cared most about creating a high quality film and didn’t care so much for the box office success. The film made $30 million more than it’s budget so it certainly was a financial success but didn’t jump into the realm of Jurassic World or Guardians of the Galaxy.  Perhaps that is the sweet spot where there is a type of film that can have modest financial success in the big budget arena but not stray from the core values that can be essential in the Independent film industry. Is film dead? I simply don’t think so, but I do think it’s clear that when the goal of a work of art is to make money it is doomed to be a commodity and cannot live up to the heart of it’s indie counterparts.