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Pete’s Dragon

Walt Disney Studios (August 12 2016), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (November 29 2016), Blu-ray plus DVD, 103 mins plus supplements, 1080p high-definition widescreen 2.40:1, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Rated, Retail: $39.99

Storyboard:

Young lad Pete, lost in the forest at a young age, manages to exist for years on his own with the help of his big, friendly, sometimes invisible dragon Elliot. When a forest Ranger discovers the boy, others from a nearby town begin to wonder if those old stories about dragons in the woods might just turn out to be real…

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The Sweatbox Review:

The latest in the Disney Studio’s live-action reimagining of its classic library of films, the announcement that none other than Pete’s Dragon of all films was going to get a modern-day makeover was met by incredulity in some quarters and dispair by some others, mostly fans of the original 1977 musical which itself attempted to recapture the magic of the older, Walt-era fantasy films. First actually mooted in Walt’s day as a two-partner for his weekly anthology television series, Pete’s Dragon eventually emerged as a live-action/animation combination about a young kid on the run from his abusive family, aided by cartoon dragon Elliott and a bunch of happy, peppy showtunes.

The film wasn’t the huge post-Mary Poppins hit it was intended to be, and pretty much put the curb on popular singer Helen Reddy’s burgeoning movie career before it began, while being unfairly lumped into the list of more lackluster Disney productions of the 1970s. On the other side of the fence, you’ll find a whole generation who saw the film on original release and then lapped it up in repeated viewings as one of the first available Disney pictures to come to VHS tape back in the early 1980s. I’m one of them, and as an original Pete’s Dragon defender, I can still rattle off the lyrics to all the songs for you anytime.

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The choice to remake the film was met by much bewilderment: despite its fans, even they have to admit the film isn’t seen as one of Disney’s Crown Jewels, and so the Studio had a pretty free reign in the directions they could go with it. Out went the songs, the location…even title dragon Elliott loses a T on the end of his name. Very early on it was clear that this was going to be a very different take on the film we knew and many of us had grown up on – with no room for an end credit pop version of Candle On The Water here – and it was a brave move on Disney’s part, to take a less than well-regarded property and attempt to spin it into one of their modern-day live-action fairytale blockbusters. In a summer filled with apparently sure-fire hits, no-one quite knew what to expect from the mysterious Pete’s Dragon

Set “yesteryear” (although a cinema marquee sports a The Fox And The Hound poster, which I guess could be a reissue…), co-writer and director David Lowery sets out his stall right from the start, giving Pete a backstory that we could only guess at in the original film. Some have argued that the “harrowing” death of his parents – it’s not a spoiler, coming within the first couple of minutes – is too intense for a children’s film, and it may well be for younger, sensitive kids, but I would argue that Disney’s films have never shied away from the truth of life and death and I think the actual accident itself as we see it could easily have been a little more stark. That is isn’t, but still works as shock when it comes, is testament to Lowery’s soft but assured touch, where even the nastiest things are still “nice”, which is a beautiful thing in itself.

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Flash forward and we meet the now-thought long-lost Pete as a young lad, played impressively by the improbably named Oakes Fegley with just the right amount of feral attitude, little kid wonder and a charm that often, I guess intentionally, recalls Sean Marshall’s portrayal in the original. He’s been living in the forest with Elliot, his invisible dragon and source of many local myths in nearby Millhaven, substituting the Passamaquoddy of first time around. In some ways, I thought it might have been nice to retain some of the 1977 film’s character names, or at least name the lumberyard feature here for Passamaquoddy, but on the flipside I think Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks have been brave in cutting these cords completely: to their and the film’s credit, all that remains is the title, its logo treatment, and a boy and his big, green, occasionally invisible dragon.

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This being the case, Lowery isn’t particularly tied to having to tick any specific boxes or please old fans, although he still does by way of a handful of shots that evoke memories of the original (intentionally or not) and the fact that, although this new Pete’s Dragon does not resemble the old in many if any ways, he’s simply made an absolutely wonderfully warm motion picture that is good old-fashioned family entertainment at its very heart-warming best. But, while being something of a throwback, this doesn’t mean it isn’t contemporary, with Elliot himself being the most obvious proponent of this. Gone is the admittedly charming cartoon of Don Bluth’s original matted-in animation and in comes state-of-the-art CG effects from Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, with Elliot himself surprisingly but warmly “voiced” by none other than original Tales From The Crypt cryptkeeper himself, John Kassir.

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There’s a sweet innocence and slight naiveté to both Lowery’s film and Elliot himself, who was largely hidden in the film’s pre-release marketing. In the film itself, Lowery doesn’t shy away from showing him front and center right from the start, pleasingly just getting on with the job of having Pete and Elliot’s relationship bonded early on, and not attempting to hide the dragon from our view and making us suffer a prolonged wait for a reveal. Essentially a great big puppy dog (with some lovely behavioral touches) that happens to be able to fly, here Elliot soars with Pete above the trees, in an otherwise conventional moment that reminded me of Cody’s flight with the golden eagle in The Rescuers Down Under but is no less lifted with great spirit by Daniel Hart’s sweeping score, featuring a lovely melody for Elliot, mixed in with a couple of folksy songs that provide a foundation for the film’s locations and help tell the story.

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If one wanted to find any fault with this setup, it’s that surely someone, especially in a town with a wise old man proclaiming he’s seen something up in these hills, would have caught the distinctive silhouette of Elliot flying in the sky, before Pete is inadvertently discovered on the edge of an encroaching lumber operation by friendly forest ranger Bryce Dallas Howard, showing much more of a maternal mother side here than she did in last year’s Jurassic World, and her daughter Natalie (young Oona Lawrence, sparky but authentically childlike, which is the big appeal in both kids’ performances here). Joining them is screen legend Robert Redford, essentially playing the Mickey Rooney role from the original, but here imbued with a more mythical approach as the only one to have seen the dragon many years before.

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Redford brings a true grounding to the film, as only he could, providing a solid, serious but still infectious and honest center that further enhances what we are seeing as “real”, with the rest of the cast playing things straight even when there is a lighthearted comical moment, such as when “bad guy” Karl Urban – someone who mostly just misunderstands – bumps into Elliot with his lumberjack pals. Urban is great here, as the shrewd lumber chief who sees the value in capturing the legendary dragon before he sees the bigger picture – see, even the more misguided people of Millhaven turn out to have heart. This comes after a thrilling final chase where – and if there’s one thing I would have done differently in the ending – it could have been nice to save Elliot’s final reveal for when all hope was lost and he really needed to step in a help Pete one last time.

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However, this is a very minor quibble in an otherwise exceptional film, which could actually be my pick of the year, certainly amongst the long and strong run of Disney pictures of 2016. When I saw Pete’s Dragon theatrically earlier this year, the one other film that came to mind that felt as if it had the same tone and meaning was ET The Extra-Terrestrial, ironic in a summer that saw Steven Spielberg reteam with that film’s screenwriter for the hugely lackluster misfire The BFG. That Pete’s Dragon somewhat shared The BFG‘s more appropriate box-office fate is unfortunate, since it is a much better film and deserved of finding a wider audience. Fortunately, Pete’s Dragon, as understated a film as it is (though no less fantastical), didn’t require a huge budget, and though takings were lower than a Maleficent or this year’s The Jungle Book, it has still proven to be a moderate hit to reward Disney’s faith in the project.

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And it’s a film that I think will find more audiences in the future, as they discover it through home video or streaming and the like, because any of those that have seen it do end up praising it. Warm, exciting, funny, charming and totally wonderful, this new Pete’s Dragon is, to use that too often thrown about phrase, a classic film in waiting. I must admit to being very apprehensive when Elliot was revealed in the film’s posters as a furry dragon of a not terribly cute design, but he works perfectly in this movie and remains its beating heart. Although totally different to the 1977 film, that old Disney magic shines through, in a children’s film of rare quality that adults will engage in too. I adored the original Pete’s Dragon growing up, but as Helen Reddy sang, “there’s room for everyone in this world” and, to paraphrase another song from that film, “I love this too”. So will you.

Is This Thing Loaded?

While Pete’s Dragon may not have set the box-office alight, it certainly wasn’t a flop and became widely critically acclaimed, so it’s nice to see Disney sticking by its movie and continuing their recent string of decent bonus material offerings that seem to have returned to their disc packages of late. Co-writer and director David Lowery features prominently in the extras, and quite rightly so given the momentum he provided to the project in getting it made as the different kind of throwback film he envisioned, beginning with a Notes To Self: A Director’s Diary featurette that’s honest, candid and completely charming throughout its seven and a half minutes. Combining on-set footage with personal insights, there’s just a refreshingly different level of thought process at play here, which brings no wonder in how the film turned out as gentle and kind as it did.

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Making Magic, though brief at just two minutes, looks at how Elliot was imagined on set, by way of the usual tennis balls on sticks, a life-size head mockup, and the less usual inflatable dragon, all of them quite conspicuous in their bright green-screen coloring, with various tidbits of trivia interweaved with the cast and director’s thoughts on their imaginary co-star. I had wondered if we’d see any deleted scenes and Disappearing Moments answers the question, with Lowery introducing nine minutes’ worth of removed, alternate and extended sequences presented in a montage fashion. A couple more viewings of the film would make it clearer where these moments would slot into the feature narrative, with some understandably unfinished effects shots from when they were removed during the production, but it’s always interesting to peek at the process and choices ultimately made to serve the film best.

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Following on from the deleted scenes, a ninety-second Bloopers clip makes for a fun and jazzy montage of the cast goofing off during the shoot, with the kids looking especially happy and no doubt contributing positively to their performances. From the publicity end of things, a pair of music videos highlight two of the film’s soundtrack cues: Nobody Knows by the Lumineers, and the especially catchy Something Wild from Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon, both offering studio footage combined with film clips. Finally, providing both an insightful and entertaining look back on the movie, a feature Audio Commentary with Lowery, co-writer Halbrooks and kid stars Fegley and Lawrence is well worth listening to for its knowledge and spontaneity, with everyone contributing from their specific point of view and making for an interesting but lighthearted track with lots of laughs and real heart.

At the top of the disc, the (by now repetitive, when there’s a full trailer available) teaser for next year’s Beauty And The Beast live-actioner plays, with menu option Sneak Peeks adding spots for Disney’s Movie Rewards, Conservation Fund and vacation packages and Elena Of Avalor on Disney Channel.

Case Study:

Using the unique Walt Disney Studios branding, which suggests this might be the new way the company differentiates its live-action movies, a mildly embossed slipcover gives Pete’s Dragon a nice feel, replicating the sleeve underneath that features one of the final theatrical reveal posters of Elliot and Pete as its key image. Possibly in an attempt to shift some last minute Christmas copies, there’s a gift sticker on the front of the box, which I suggest you use to indeed pass on a copy of this hugely overlooked little movie.

Ink And Paint:

A wonderful family film that’s all too rare these days, Pete’s Dragon‘s earthy cinematography makes for a fine showcase presentation in any home theater. There are a few demo worthy moments in the film, but I’d suggest you just sit for the whole thing, for which this disc provides a lovely and understated transfer that’s almost perfect, save for a slight lack of contrast in some of the darker scenes, which seems inherent in the original photography.

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Scratch Tracks:

Pete’s Dragon is a film of subtlety and, as with the visuals, the film works better as a whole than as a series of demo sound moments, although the score in particular is sweeping and epic, bringing a sense of grandeur where and when needed. The disc doesn’t offer a bombastic, ringing in your ears mix, but that’s not what this movie is about although it can still soar with the best of them, bursting with a quiet technical quality that’s now all too rare and restrained.

Final Cut:

“Wonderful” is simply the word that keeps springing to mind when considering this new Pete’s Dragon. From its understated opening to its exciting climax, this is a film of committed performances, with the title dragon sporting some lovely little expressions here and there that keep him firmly in the animal camp but with true personality at the same time. I could have done with maybe more on the making of the film in Disney’s disc supplements, but what’s here does cover the basics nicely and the commentary is the real standout as far as shedding light on the production goes, with the four participants engaging in much good-matured banter and information. Despite its summer release and leafy setting, Pete’s Dragon is the kind of movie that genuinely has something for everybody. I strongly urge you to check it out: it’s not at all what you’ll be expecting!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD


 

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