Blu-ray Review: Pete's Dragon (2016)

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Director David Lowery has crafted a gentle, understated, and often lyrical family gem with Pete's Dragon, a re-imagining of Disney's 1977 film of the same name. No matter how you might feel about the original (with it's now-archaic blend of live action and hand-drawn animation), this new Pete's stands on its own two feet. The new one is quite different in tone—and thankfully it's not a musical. Director Lowery (who co-wrote with Toby Halbrooks) has invested every single moment of his film with a surprisingly mature, elegiac quality that makes it a very rare family-oriented film indeed. Though laced with low-key humor, this Pete's doesn't trade on the silliness found in the majority of kid-friendly fare. This is closer to Jon Favreau's outstanding Jungle Book remake, but in some ways Pete's actually has the upper hand (again, no musical numbers—Favreau's retention of some songs was arguably his film's only misstep).

Pete's Dragon earns its PG rating right off the bat, during the pre-credits sequence. Five-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) rides in the backseat of his parents' car, reading a book about a dog named Elliot. His mother proclaims him "the bravest boy" she's ever known. Typical parental doting, but Pete is about to earn that title. Swerving to miss a deer in the road, Pete's father flips their car. The terrible accident results in the immediate death of both of Pete's parents (heavy stuff, handled delicately by Lowery). Pete wander off into the woods in a daze. He's saved from some aggressive-looking wolves by a gigantic, mysterious, graceful creature. This dragon becomes a guardian to Pete, who names him Elliot after the character in his book. 
rsz_petes_dragon_feat.jpg The beating heart of Pete's is the combination of a soulful performance by Oakes Fegley, who takes over as the 11-year-old Pete, with the digital animation and human voicing (by John Kassir, aka the Crypt Keeper from Tales From the Crypt) of Elliot. Fegley is unaffected as the orphaned Pete, utterly believable as a sort of cross between Mowgli and a young Tarzan. And Elliot the dragon is conceived a huge, winged dog. The bond between child and dragon (much like the bond between a child and beloved pet) is heartfelt, never resorting to cloying cutesiness.

As the logging town surrounding the forest in which Pete and Elliot live encroaches, the plot beats aren't entirely novel. There's a sympathetic ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) who wants to help reintegrate Pete into society. Her father (Robert Redford) once had a brief encounter with the dragon, so naturally he trusts Pete and everything the boy says about the gentle giant.
petes dragon robert redford.jpg As Pete tentatively adapts to living with humans again, having been taken in by Grace's family, he befriends the daughter of Grace's boyfriend (Wes Bentley), Natalie (Oona Lawrence, the highlight of Bad Moms). But Natalie's Uncle Gavin (Karl Urban, Bones in the Star Trek reboot series) seeks to exploit the commercial potential of Elliot. The plot doesn't really surprise in any way—at least not for older, veteran movie fans. But it's told in a direct, unfussy manner that should handily keep younger viewers in suspense. Again, it's the tender relationship between Pete and Elliot (who silently reveals himself to be an orphan, too) that sells Pete's Dragon.

Disney's Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, with a highly dynamic DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix that highlights an exceptional score by Daniel Hart. Special features include an audio commentary (by writer-director David Lowery, writer Toby Halbrooks, and young stars Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence), deleted scenes, a gag reel, a pair of music videos (The Lumineers, Lindsey Stirling), and a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Perhaps because of how earnest, tasteful, and generally old-fashioned Pete's Dragon is, it was mostly overlooked at the box office last summer. Don't miss it, now that it's available on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere.


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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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