Pete's Dragon Review

Less a pure remake than a reinvention, the 2016 live-action Pete's Dragon takes clear inspiration from its 1977 predecessor but floats and weaves in ways wholly unexpected. This is particularly the case as it comes on the heels of a host of live-action versions of Disney classics which were more than content to aim for broad, safe appeal. Perhaps it's because the source material here is somewhat less beloved than, say, the animated classics Cinderella or The Jungle Book, but David Lowery's take on the story of an orphaned boy and the large dragon he's befriended never feels beholden to the earlier film. Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks, rather brilliantly, seem to have used parts of the '77 version to make their own children's movie, one which embraces its warmth and nostalgia without falling under the weight of the past.

Things begin unassumingly enough with a boy and his parents in a car. Everything, from the family's clothes to the car to the mother's hair, indicates we're around the late '70s in terms of time period. The boy's reading a book about a character named Elliot. When he asks what an adventure is, his dad replies they're one on at that very moment. Suddenly an animal dashes in front of the car, triggering chaos, and the boy eventually retreats into the woods. The film advances a few years to return to the boy, now dirtied and with long hair. He's found an Elliot of his own - a large, green (and furry) dragon with the ability to turn himself invisible. It's this magical creature - the film's title character - who gives the picture much of its heart and wonder.

Further plot details involve Bryce Dallas Howard, as an environmentally-friendly ranger, clinging to the young boy Pete after he's brought to civilization and Robert Redford doing kooky old man duties as Howard's father (who also claimed to have previously seen the dragon). Initially Pete comes off as another variation of The Jungle Book's Mowgli but that's largely a smokescreen. He's instead an orphaned boy not quite dealing with what was a tremendous loss. The child embraces the dragon as a surrogate parent of sorts who can protect him. The dangers we see to the creature are upsetting on a number of levels, not the least of which because of the aggregate suffering undergone by Pete.

It's to the film's credit that the ideas of the requisite villain and accompanying conflict are actually downplayed, only appearing as a necessary tool of resolution in the third act. I've expressed in quite a number of reviews how much I despise the laziness of pitting the protagonists against a villainous character in Disney and family movies but it never becomes bothersome in Pete's Dragon. That's probably because the film doesn't feel dependent on this conflict. It's more of a dot-connector which is overcome somewhat easily by having Redford's character be the liberal codger saving the day. The feeling of peril that comes with Elliot being captured remains extremely visceral, if inevitable, but we don't get the same sense of contrivance as sometimes comes into play in these types of films. The conflict never drives the film nor does it approach its heart.

Lowery previously wrote and directed the earnest and impressive 2013 film Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a romantic crime drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara that was like a marriage of Malick and the Bonnie and Clyde story yet still in a wholly original voice. He was hardly the first person one might think of to direct a potential summer blockbuster financed by Walt Disney Studios. Yet, one gets the feeling, supported by interviews, that Lowery was pretty much given free rein on the project. He says in a disc supplement that he co-wrote a screenplay for the movie after completing Ain't Them Bodies Saints and there was virtually no meddling from the studio. If so, that's a remarkable amount of freedom. It also makes sense when viewing the picture. This never conforms to expectations of its genre and budget. It's a loose, throwback affair, seemingly in Lowery's romantic style echoing the cinema of the New Hollywood of the 1970s.

Though possibly perceived as something of a disappointment at the box office in the U.S., Pete's Dragon actually raked in just over $142 million worldwide on a $65 million budget. That seems like a success, enough so that Lowery has been tagged to once again do double duty alongside Halbrooks on a new Peter Pan film. If a similar happy medium that combines Lowery's unique artistic sensibilities alongside unusual yet still commercially viable storytelling can be reached then it's a boon for the family film watchers. The things Lowery brings to the table here - including a soundtrack that shuns the typical Disney pop princesses for cuts by The Lumineers, Leonard Cohen, Peggy Lee, Will Oldham, and St. Vincent - are beyond refreshing. He's clearly a promising filmmaker who's able to alternate between these commercial projects and smaller works like next year's quickly shot A Ghost Story, reuniting Affleck and Mara. It's a welcome alternative from the people updating other Disney classics in a far less interesting manner.

The Discs

Pete's Dragon

comes to Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD plus Digital HD via Buena Vista Home Entertainment. This U.S. release is region-free.

Image quality is strong, if perhaps less breathtakingly impressive than we sometimes see with new releases. The 2.39:1 aspect ratio looks excellent and clean, but the film tends to favor darker shades when out of the daylight. Detail is nonetheless excellent, with the dragon's fur looking just realistic enough to avoid distraction.

Audio is available in English 7.1 DTS-HDMA, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital language tracks. The primary track offers a pleasant listening experience absent the flurry of loud cues that too often get used in modern films. It's a rather staid soundtrack on the whole, and it fits the overall mood of the picture. There are subtitles here in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish and French.

Special features are highlighted by an audio commentary with director/co-writer David Lowery, co-writer Toby Halbrooks, and the young actors Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence. There's also a fairly neat featurette with Lowery going through part of the filmmaking process firsthand in "Notes to Self: A Director's Diary" (7:31).

"Making Magic" (2:12) focuses mainly (and briefly) on the dragon creature, such as the challenges in filming it prior to post-production animation. "Disappearing Moments" (9:11) is a lengthy montage of deleted, alternate and extended scenes. Bloopers (1:28) are, as the name suggests, little bits of mistakes and fun outtakes.

Music videos for The Lumineers' song "Nobody Knows" (3:12) and "Something Wild" (3:45) by Lindsey Sterling (featuring Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness) are also on the BD. Lastly, there's a short promo (1:56) for New Zealand, where the film was shot.

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7 out of 10

A flat-out creative success from director David Lowery, this version of Pete's Dragon is absolutely refreshing.


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