By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.
Charming, playful and awe-inspiring, My Pet Dinosaur (2017), the second full-length feature from writer-director Matt Drummond, brilliantly evokes the essence of the early efforts of Steven Spielberg. This ninety-seven-minute triumph, distributed through Empress Road Pictures, has the heart and innocence of E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Such is manifest in its vastly compassionate and kind, child-mirroring perspective. Drummond’s latest masterpiece also shares a notable similarity to the afore-mentioned behemoth of popular culture. This is present in its general plot. The major difference of this being the exchange of an abandoned, otherworldly entity for a spontaneously growing, Styracosaur resembling fossil reptile named “Magnus”. There is also a continued comparison visible between these two photoplays. This resides in the varied small-town characterizations, structure and overall atmosphere of each presentation. Yet, Drummond’s exertion has the thrills, magic, adventure and respect for science that made Spielberg’s groundbreaking adaptation of Michael Crichton’s same titled 1990 novel, Jurassic Park (1993), an unparalleled movie-going experience. There are also elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) sprinkled throughout the proceedings. This is evident in the exciting and beautifully crafted final forty-minutes. They call to mind the last act of the latter stated opus splendidly. It is also inherent in the ongoing belief of space invaders in the region.
One of the funniest moments in the offering also occurs in this section. It involves Magnus taking down a military drone. Such is ingeniously framed to look comparable to a giant U.F.O. There is also a similar gag involving an underwater menace, which is glimpsed earlier in the labor, which is just as victorious. Such signifies a mere example of the successful and clever use of humor which runs through the photoplay. Much of this is also overheard in the witty banter among our lead, Jake Emory (in an exceptional turn from Jordan Dulieu), and his likable and courageous band of friends. Among them are the ever-hungry Max Merriman (Sam Winspear-Schillings) and the young alien enthusiast Charles Altman (Tom Rooney). There is also the highly-intelligent Dylan Finkelstein (in a stellar performance by Jack Mars). His general demeanor is equitable to an adolescent version of Egon Spengler (1984’s Ghostbusters and 1989’s Ghostbusters II). This only enhanced my nostalgia-infused enjoyment of the fabrication. Their chemistry, especially in the many sequences where they are all present together, is infectious. It helps Drummond’s emotionally layered, yet joyous and endlessly entertaining, affair become ever more transcendent. In turn, it will assuredly resonate with audiences of all ages. The result of these high-caliber attributes is the greatest cinematic love letter of this genus since J.J. Abrams’ breathtaking, 1979 set Super 8 (2011).
Drummond centers his action in the fictional district of Brightwood. Prone to making trouble to break up the monotony of his surroundings, Jake finds himself dealing with the passing of his father. Such causes a rift in his relationship with his mother, Jennifer (in a credible and well-wrought depiction from Beth Champion). With Jake’s older brother, Mike (in a terrific representation from Harrison Saunders), this familial problem is even more aggressive and verbalized. Yet, when a science project goes awry, the potential for these aforesaid difficulties to turn worse is amplified. This is as Magnus, who is initially shown at twenty minutes into the production, is accidentally created in Jake’s bedroom. Swearing to secretly keep the small, puppy-like creature in his room and study him, his promise to keep Magnus’ presence unknown to others quickly falters. As Magnus accrues in size, pandemonium reigns down on Jake’s once peaceful neighborhood. This is as a combative governmental squad, headed by Cornel Roderick (in an intense and commanding exhibition from Rowland Holmes), quickly takes over the area. As Officer Alan Farraday (in a riveting portrayal from Scott Irwin) fights this team for authority, tales of monstrous animals seize the area. It is a truth Jake and his school partner, Abbey Tansy (in an engaging and proficient enactment from Annabel Wolfe), are forced to face for themselves. This is all in an act of keeping Magnus safe.
Such a story is the perfect recipe for an exhilarating, robust arrangement such as the one Drummond cooks up here. He excels at this from the cryptic and visually alluring opening, which would be at home in any of the previously addressed Spielberg pictures, until the sweet and uplifting conclusion. Drummond, via his marvelously honed scripting skills and guidance of the project, handles the material in a manner that is occasionally tense, but never frightening. There is a necessary maturity to the more dramatic segments. Still, a sense of adolescent wonder, joy and even anguish is ever-present. This is observable in the treatment of the various types of relationships in the narrative. This makes for a certainly well-rounded and satisfying account. Such also issues a tone that only punctuates the Spielbergian feel.
Also, assisting matters is Drummond and Hive Studios International’s impressive and lively effects. They make Magnus lovable, curious and adorable throughout the endeavor. This can be spied in a memorable configuration near the half hour mark. It involves Magnus comically roaming his new owner’s home when no one else is around. The outcome of this is simply adorable. It is utilized with abounding slapstick. Even when Magnus reaches adult size in the second half, and is notably more massive and powerful, this unthreatening sensation remains true. This is also a courtesy of Drummond and Bradley Betts’ seamless animation. Chris Wright’s music is, akin to the images they accompany on-screen, ceaselessly daring, sentimental and magical. There is a certainly appropriate John Williams-esque sensibility derived in the scoring. Additionally, the sound and camera and electrical department offer mesmerizing work. Tina Boody’s make-up contribution is fantastic. This general magnificence is also augmented in the sleek and immersive cinematography. It is also summoned in the previously unmentioned roles. For instance, David Roberts is terrific in his brief bit as Doctor. The same can be stated of Joanne Samuel as Doris Mercher. Tiriel Mora as Trevor Brown and Christopher Gibardi as Dr. Fred Tansy are also spectacular. Congruently, Stephen Davis is astonishing as Will Spencer. He is one half of a pair of intrepid local fishermen whose screen time is consistently comic gold.
My Pet Dinosaur is the perfect companion piece to Drummond’s astounding, Jules Verne reminiscent debut, Dinosaur Island (2014). Both presentations are wide in scope. Still, they are surprisingly intimate. They also showcase a strong focal point on their incredibly developed protagonists. There is also a palpable affinity for the subjects as well as the subject matter. These qualities make each respective undergoing increasingly illuminating. Correspondingly, they are genuinely good-natured and deftly constructed. These are the types of sincere and quietly moving children friendly ventures that infuse great lessons of life. This is while appealing to the often courageous spirit of youth. We rarely get these types of epic, blockbuster re-defining journeys anymore. Such provides more reasoning as to why Drummond is a talent to be watched. With My Pet Dinosaur, which was recorded partially in New South Wales, he has again provided audiences with an instant classic. This is the best family film of the year.
(PG). Contains some profanity.
In Australian Hoyts Cinemas theaters today. It will expand to New Zealand on May 27th.