The Movie (4.5/5)
First off, let me start by saying that I have never seen the original Pete’s Dragon. In all of my years, I have just never found that time and place in which I saw myself ready to throw down hard earned wages for it. I’m a huge animation junkie, but something about it just didn’t jump out and grab me. And yet, I went and saw the live action reboot of Pete’s Dragon on the Sunday of its opening weekend, in a half filled theater of sleepy families trying to salvage the last hours of a hot and dreary August weekend. I’m not entirely sure what drew me in – I knew very little beyond who was involved with the picture, and that St. Vincent had tweeted something about in advance of its release. Maybe I just needed a palette cleanse after being bombarded with immature and distasteful stoner humor from the weekend’s other major release, Sausage Party. Either way, I’m glad I went. Pete’s Dragon was the secret prize hidden at the bottom of the box of disappointing cereal that was major studio releases in August.
Pete’s Dragon follows the story of a young boy named Pete, who after losing his parents to a tragic car accident while traveling through the Pacific Northwest. Stranded and alone, he is taken in by a dragon who resides there, whom Pete names Elliot after a favorite storybook of his. He spends the next six years with Elliot living in the forest, while the foresting industry takes hold in the region, slowly encroaching on the park they reside in. Pete and his dragon are discovered by a park ranger’s daughter traveling through the woods, sparking a massive hunt for the dragon, fueled by fear and arrogance. Pete must convince the park ranger, Grace, and her family to help him save Elliot, while at the same time acclimating to normal life and all of the trials and tribulations that come with it.
Directed by David Lowery, best known for his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon is a tour de force in terms of pacing, amusing dialogue, and establishing a sense of wonder and excitement in its attempt to depict a massive dragon lumbering through a small Northwestern logging town. It takes the best parts of the Jurassic Park movies, and effectively submerges it into the Disney mindset, telling the story of Pete in a way that establishes his immense size without making him into a monstrosity. He moves with grace, and careful consideration for the world around him, acting as a watchful protector. Even in the face of human aggression and anger, he does his best to maintain his composure, only lashing out when he’s absolutely been pushed to the edge. Often times, large creatures depicted in film such as Pete are turned into raging bodies of collateral damage, so it was refreshing to see a movie about a monster where the monster isn’t really a monster after all.
On top of the great characterization of Elliot, Pete’s Dragon’s human cast excels, with terrific performances from Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, Karl Urban as, and especially the child leads, Oakes Fegley as Pete, and Oona Lawrence as Natalie. Their performances each play to their strengths pretty well for the adult cast, with Howard embracing her maternal side as she looks over not only Natalie and Pete, but the forests of the Northwest, and Urban finally getting to branch out as the villain we’ve always known all along that he was right for. Not fully unhinged and sinister, but just right for the style of movie Disney has brought to the screen here. Oakes Fegley absolutely steals the show, playing brilliantly into the, “child searching for his parent,” kind of role he’s been given, inspiring the best kinds of triumph and heartbreak as the movie moves along at a comfortable pace. His co-star, Oona Lawrence plays off of him as a perfect foil, giving us a grounded perspective to contrast to Pete’s fairy tale life. Wes Bentley shows up to play the average skeptical father figure stuck between idealism and reality as the lumber mill owner, and Robert Redford turns in a great performance in the minor role of Grace’s father, Mr. Meacham, who always believed in dragons.
These great performances are propped up by a great script full of warmth and humor crafted by Lowery and his writing partner Toby Halbrooks, a bouncy and appropriately soaring score written by Daniel Hart and cinematography by Bojan Bazelli that lends a nostalgic warmth to the look of the film’s many wide shots that put the Northwest on display in grand style.
Pete’s Dragon is a lighthearted, but engaging family friendly adventure, propped up by great performances and crafted in a way that inspires nostalgia and wonder. It doesn’t drift too far into any one subject, touching on loss, environmentalism, greed, and spectacle in all the right ways without becoming heavy handed. It is well worth your time.
The Video (4.5/5)
Pete’s Dragon was shot digitally using the Arri Alexa XT digital camera in the 3.4K resolution mode using anamorphic lenses. The film was finished in 2K resolution for a final aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The movie on home video is presented in 1080p resolution, maintaining the theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Shot using anamorphic lenses, and color timed in a way that pushes toward the warmer end of the color spectrum, Pete’s Dragon is a beautiful viewing experience in 1080p. Wide shots of the Pacific Northwest shine, as beautiful green trees bristle off into the horizon, and the camera swoops around to show a world where dragons are real from the perspective of both harden adults, and fascinated children. The digital image in sharp, and reveals excellent detail in every shot, especially in close ups of the human cast. Elliot, who is rendered entirely in CGI, holds up well, composited into the image naturally, looking as life like as a massive dragon possibly can. The image, especially in low light exposures, can get a bit noisy, and there is a slight hint of aliasing in a few shots, but other than that Pete’s Dragon makes for a fantastic viewing experience.
The Audio (4/5)
Pete’s Dragon hits home with a 7.1 DTS-Master Audio soundtrack. For review purposes, it was listened to in a 5.1 surround sound listening environment.
Being a film about a dragon, Pete’s Dragon strikes with a rather appropriate amount of force. Every step Elliot takes, every branch he hits, and roar he makes is delivered with heft from the subwoofer, and appropriate utilization of the front speaker spread. Surround use is minimal but noticeable, as Elliot soars through the soundscape from the surrounds to the front speakers, and cars engage in chase during the film’s exciting climax. Dialogue and many of the film’s sound effects are restricted to the center channel, but it never really lessens the impact of the film’s sound design.
Special Features/Packaging (3.5/5)
Pete’s Dragon, released to home video by Walt Disney Home Entertainment, is packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with an embossed slipcover. The slipcover and case artwork feature identical artwork, except that the slipcover conveys a small amount of depth in the way the image in layered. The front artwork features a scene of Pete reaching out towards Elliot looking down at him from above, with a forests in the background. The back features a few shots from the film next to a picture of Pete riding Elliot through the cloud, next to a paragraph about the film, a list of extras, technical specs, and credits. A decent package from Disney.
NOTE: Package does not mention the inclusion of Portuguese language tracks or subtitles.
Onto the features:
Note to Self: A Director’s Diary – a 7 minute feature which is centered around the diary entries that director David Lowery wrote during production, combined with behind the scenes footage and interviews. A really great insight into how the movie came together from pre-production into the finished product.
Making Magic – a 2 minute feature that focuses on the massive efforts that went into creating Elliot’s image for the final movie, with various facts about the dragon shared on screen.
Disappearing Moments – a 9 minute selection of deleted or alternate scenes, presented in montage style.
Bloopers – 90 seconds of goofy outtakes from the film. Pretty amusing, but incredibly short.
Commentary – feature length commentary performed by director David Lowery, screenwriter Toby Halbrooks, and the two child stars from the film. Full of great insight and good stories, worth a listen if you want to dig deeper into the film.
Music Videos – videos for the songs, “Nobody Knows” by The Lumineers, and “Something Wild” by Lindsey Sterling. Standard promotional music video fare.
Welcome to New Zealand – a 2 minute feature in which members of the cast and crew describe why filming in New Zealand was the right choice. An ad for New Zealand tourism.
Pete’s Dragon has decent packaging, but its extras are great in number, and somewhat shallow on meaningful content, outside of the diary, deleted scenes, and commentary.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DTS-Master Audio 7.1 (English)
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English Descriptive)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, and Portuguese)
Runtime: 103 minutes
Pete’s Dragon moves fast, and plays for keeps as it draws you into the fantastic story of Pete and Elliot. With a light, fun script, great acting, and a wonderful integration of visual effects and live action footage to create a life like, amusing dragon character, it stands tall as not just one of the best studio features of the year, but 2016 features in general. It’s a true shame that it kind of fizzled out at the box office, especially considering the lackluster quality of its competition. Disney has brought it to Blu-ray with a near perfect visual and audio transfer, great packaging, and a middling collection of extras that may leave some wanting for more. Recommended.