Pete's Dragon

(2016) *** Pg
103 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: David Lowery. Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley.


Oh, for the evidence of the following scene: 


Cigar smoke rises from a central chair, mingling with the dust that dances in the projection beam cutting its way to a screen where we see the 1977 Disney part-animated musical Pete's Dragon coming to a cheery, tuneful close. The man in the chair sits bolt upright, his cigar dangling then dropping from his lip. His eyes sparkle with inspiration.


Get me David Lowery!

The independent-minded writer-director of R-rated romantic crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints, hardly seems like the obvious choice to adapt some of Disney's cheesiest material, but obviously that was entirely the point. The gambit pays off in a visually and emotionally textured "reimagining" of the original film's fairy-tale-meets-Vaudeville exercise into an environmental fable, anchored by the emotional heft of an orphan-boy-and-his-"dog" story.

As scripted by Lowery and co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks (who will reteam for 2018's live-action Peter Pan remake), Pete's Dragon begins in 1977, when five-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) loses his parents during a drive through the woods of the Pacific Northwest (played by New Zealand locales). His last gasp of civilized life, other than the traumatic loss of his parents, resides in his favorite book, a "boy and his dog" story which he's been re-reading during the car ride: "Elliot Gets Lost." A leap of magic realism saves Pete from death in the wild: rescue by a lovingly protective dragon the boy christens "Elliot."

Elliot, as it turns out, is the "Millhaven Dragon" that is the stuff of urban legend around these parts. As the story jumps forward six years, we meet elderly Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), thought of as the town eccentric due to his story of having encountered the dragon; Meacham's forest-ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard); lumber mill owner and Grace's boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley); and Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). The latter trio discover the now-feral Pete (Oakes Fegley) living in the woods now being cut by a team of lumberjacks, foremost among them Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Urban's character represents the adult world at its most mercenary and fearful, although the closed-minded character admirably falls short of the usual moustache-twirling villainy.

Like his 1977 hand-drawn incarnation, the 2016 CGI-animated Elliot can disappear at will, as well as breathe fire, but Lowery shies from the spectacular demands of the blockbuster. He's more attracted to the possibilities of silences and stillness, with long passages of relative quiet and non-verbal communication, and others that immerse us in environmental sound effects. Lowery is interested here in the effect of nature on people and people on nature, and this environmental theme obviously appealed to Redford (who aces a juicy if sentimental monologue). Especially in the early passages of Pete's Dragon, Lowery's understated style suggests comparisons to The Black Stallion, high praise indeed for a 2016 Disney release.

And so, if Lowery has shifted gears into Hollywood in an unpredictable way, he has done so very much on his own terms, while still providing Disney with a marketable story built on themes of family and adoption, a Spielbergian bond of inseparable friendship, and the harmony of humanity with flora and fauna. The film isn't very deep, but it is very serious-minded, even touching on PTSD. It's around this point that audiences familiar with the 1977 Pete's Dragon will likely have an out-of-body experience laughing to themselves over the comparison of its flimsy, ridiculous, goofy, cartoony, happy-go-lucky, musical-theatery schlock to, well, a story that can convincingly touch on PTSD. But there's room enough for both Pete's Dragons in this big old world.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 11/29/2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Disney gives Pete's Dragon its home-video debut in a nifty Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition. Picture quality impresses, with a subtly faithful rendering that retains a filmic look, true color, and strong detail and texture. Nitpickers will note fleeting, minor digital flaws (quick appearances of aliasing and banding), but on the whole, this is an impressive digital image that captures the film's intentionally "overcast" Pacific Northwest look. A top-notch lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix also tends to the subtle, and a gentle quality to the characters' speech can sometimes make processing what's said a bit more of a strain than usual. That said, this is another faithful rendering of the source material, with some potent sound-effects work bolstering the action sequences, and a richness to the presentation of the score.

Bonus features kick off with an audio commentary by director/co-writer David Lowery, co-writer Toby Halbrooks, and actors Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence. It's a stroke of genius to pair these two adults with the film's child leads, as the track will satisfy everyone: adults will find the creators' perspective on the film's conception and production, and kids have a happy "in" to learning more about the process from the kids'-eyes-views of Fegley and Laurence. The foursome keep the tone light and entertaining, and the chat never lulls.

Though as a making-of, it's hardly comprehensive, "Notes to Self: A Director's Diary" (7:31, HD) intriguingly offers Lowery's initial thinking paired to production art and film clips to encapsulate the film's development from idea to execution.

"Making Magic" (2:12, HD) looks at the CGI creation of Elliot.

"'Disappearing' Moments" (9:12, HD) finds Lowery presenting a suite of deleted, alternate, and extended scenes.

Rounding out the disc are "Bloopers" (1:28, HD), "Music Video 'Nobody Knows' by The Lumineers" (3:12, HD), "Music Video 'Something Wild' by Lindsey Stirling Featuring Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness" (3:45, HD), and the apparently tourist-board-mandated promo "Welcome to New Zealand" (1:56, HD) with cast and crew big-upping the nation that stands in for the Pacific Northwest on screen.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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