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Pete's Dragon by Daniel Hart (Review)

posted Sep 2, 2016, 1:29 PM by Kaya Savas

Back in 2013, Film.Music.Media named Daniel Hart’s score to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as the best score of that year. It was truly a wonderful introduction to Daniel as a composer and storyteller. Daniel is good friends with director David Lowery who directed both Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. Many people remember that Howard Shore was originally attached to this project, but in a rare twist Disney pushing an Oscar-winning composer was overturned for the director to bring his friend and collaborator onboard. It was truly special because both Lowery and Hart are novices in filmmaking, they don’t have a huge track record. But that doesn't mean they aren’t skilled, because skilled they are. Pete’s Dragon may show signs of being guided by studio direction, but the end result is a subtle and beautifully poignant score with a lush emotional finale that doesn’t feel cut from the same cloth as other movies with a similar plot.

A child and their pet, it’s a plot that has been seen a countless times in films. But we continue to tell this story because of how relatable and how special that experience is. We can all relate to feeling alone, feeling like the outsider, and forming a bond with something that is not human. You can make a never-ending list of films with this general plot such as My Dog Skip, Dragonheart, The Iron Giant, How To Train Your Dragon, The Water Horse, E.T., Big Hero 6, Dunston Checks In, Gremlins, Bolt, The Good Dinosaur and that’s just the movies I can think of while typing. Anyway, Daniel was able to infuse a very character-focused score into this movie. You can feel his folk roots deep in the musical DNA of the score, and it really allows us to feel like this score is unique to the story instead of feeling like a generic copy/paste of what’s been done before. 

The score reminded me very much of John Barry in a way, so you felt this deep emotional resonance even after the journey was over. Barry’s scores always had this deep emotional warmth like embers smoldering in a fire, yet the music was also slightly melancholic suggesting that beauty was born from pain almost. That approach made his music seem emotionally big and deeply connected without having to be over the top. Hart managed to capture that magical approach here with his melodic sensibilities. Pete’s Dragon’s theme is so simple yet so perfect in how it immediately opens up the characters and the relationships to us. The final act is quite rousing and Daniel’s themes resonate throughout the score wonderfully. It’s a great structure as the score starts rather small and poignant as we build the relationships and get our emotional groundwork. Then the music introduces a sense of longing and loss which sets up the finale beautifully. In the final act we get a wonderful emotional conclusion that flourishes with so much immense heart and beauty that leads to a bittersweet finale echoing the emotional bonds. If there is a shortcoming it's that the score feels the tiniest bit flat in certain areas, which was to make room for the use of the songs that you'll find on the album. The songs are great and will help sell the album even though they do feel handpicked and of David Lowery's style as a director, but they did take up much valuable space in the narrative of the film that would have been better serviced by score.

Pete’s Dragon sadly bombed at the box office, which is a shame because Disney looks like they gave director David Lowery and composer Daniel Hart a good bit of creative freedom here. When Film.Music.Media honored Daniel Hart’s score to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with best score of the year for 2013 it was because his voice as a storyteller was unfiltered and the music accompanied the film perfectly. That still holds true here. Sure the score and film follow certain archetypes of this genre and story, but it still manages to feel unique and special even under the Disney brand. Hopefully Disney doesn't use the weak box office return as blame to reshuffle anything for David Lowery’s live-action adaptation of Peter Pan. Hopefully Hart continues this creative journey with his friend and director. Special things happen when these two work together as is evident in this heartwarming story and score about a boy and his dragon. A story we’ve heard before, yet it still manages to fill our hearts with warmth. In a generic year for major studio pictures and scores, Pete’s Dragon is a welcome shining light.