PETE’S DRAGON – Daniel Hart
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Pete’s Dragon is a new Disney remake of its own original 1977 film, a musical which starred Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, and an entirely cartoon dragon, and which was nominated for an Oscar for its iconic original song, “Candle on the Water.” The new version, written and directed by David Lowery, is a very different, less comical take on the story. It follows the adventures of a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley), whose parents are killed in a car accident on a road trip, but who escapes without injury and flees into the woods. Pete spends the next six years living in the wild, where he is looked after by a huge, green, friendly dragon, a local legend in the area, whom Pete names Elliott. However, Pete’s idyllic life in the forest is interrupted when he is discovered by the young daughter of a forestry service ranger and taken back into civilization; meanwhile Elliott, who misses his young friend, ventures out of the woods and into town, where his existence risks being revealed to the townsfolk. It’s a lovely, sentimental, heartwarming film about childhood friendships, families, and respect of nature; it co-stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, and Robert Redford, and has been lauded by critics as a warm and appealing family film.
The score for Pete’s Dragon is by the young Texas-born violinist and composer Daniel Hart, who has spent most of the last decade as a touring musician with groups like St. Vincent, Other Lives, Broken Social Scene, and his own band, Dark Rooms. Hart will likely be an unfamiliar name to many; his only previous scores of real significance were the gritty indie crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the sci-fi comedy Comet, and the indie romantic comedy Tumbledown. He was a fairly late replacement on Pete’s Dragon for the score’s original composer, Howard Shore, and likely was hired due to his connection with director Lowery, having previously scored several films for him, including the 2009 drama St. Nick, the 2011 short film Pioneer, and the aforementioned Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. With that said, this score should place Hart firmly on the radar of anyone who enjoys classic, theme-filled orchestral scores with plenty of energy and emotion, because Pete’s Dragon is one of the best scores of that type to emerge this year.
Written for a full 94 piece orchestra, along with specialty regional instruments including a banjo and mandolin, Hart’s score is a lush, neo-romantic delight. It has that wonderfully open, free sound associated with childhood adventure and flight, as well as some authentic country orchestrations that speak to the rural setting of the film, and add a bit of regional flavor to the large orchestra. Anyone familiar with the score for the original 1977 film, which was written by Irwin Kostal, Al Kasha, and Joel Hirschhorn, will immediately realize that the score for the new Pete’s Dragon is a very different beast, pardon the pun. I’s a much more serious work, with no in-story songs, and a more profound strain of emotional relevance running through it. Some may be disappointed that there are no allusions to Candle on the Water in the score – a cover version, by the country rock band Okkervil River, only appears on the album, not in the movie itself – but personally I felt that drawing as few parallels to the original score as possible was the right way to go. It’s a different film, with a different sensibility altogether.
There are several thematic ideas that flow through the score, but the main thematic presence that most people will take away from Pete’s Dragon is the one associated with Pete and Elliott’s relationship; a huge, soaring, highly emotional piece, it first appears during “Are You Gonna Eat Me?”, where the first tentative steps of a friendship are sown through a four-note motif on slow strings augmented by mandolin and a cooing choir, initially tense but which becomes more wondrous and magical as it develops. It fully emerges into the audience’s consciousness in the subsequent “Reverie,” where it is afforded a spine-tingling statement for full orchestra and chorus, replete with cymbal clashes, harp glissandi, and dancing flutes, as Pete soars over the vast forest on the back of his green-skinned friend. Their theme appears several times in the body of the score, most notably in gentle and heartfelt arrangements for more prominent woodwinds and magical chimes in both “North Star” and “Bedtime Compass,” as a dramatic, searchingly emotional version in “It’ll Be Just Like It Used to Be,” and as a thematic counterpoint to some of the action material. One part of the melody does have a vague similarity to James Horner’s “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail, but I’m sure this is completely coincidental.
A second theme is based off the melody of one of the score’s songs, “The Dragon Song,” which is performed twice on the album by singer-songwriter and actor Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie Prince Billie. The song has a Celtic touch, as well as a nod of the head to classic sea shanties, with lyrics that tell the tale of a legendary creature living deep in the woods – a creature which, of course, turns out to be Elliott. In addition to the performance in the two songs, Hart’s melody also graces a couple of cues, notably the first few moments of “Brown Bunny,” and later in “Gavin Knows What He’s Doing.” There’s also a sort of motif relating to the ‘anticipation of finding the dragon,’ a mysterious bending synth texture which is heard both in “Are You Gonna Eat Me?”, and again in “Gavin Knows What He’s Doing,” as two different characters get their first glimpses of Elliott, albeit with vastly different results.
The beautiful sylvan forest where Elliott lives is captured by more down-home country orchestrations and lively rhythms, featuring banjos, guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and hand-claps, alongside the rest of the orchestra. Cues like “Brown Bunny” and the first part of “Reverie” are playful and irreverent, while subsequent tracks like “Tree Fort” and “Timber” build on the ideas while introducing new textures, including a lovely solo cello element in the former. By way of comparison, parts of these cues remind me very much of the lovely bluegrass-inspired music Mark Isham wrote for the film Nell back in 1995, which is a good thing indeed. It may not be a stretch to use this type of music to depict this environment, and some may even see it as a cliché, but Hart’s honesty and sincerity in these cues make them work.
Hart works the country orchestrations into several of the action cues, including the aforementioned “Gavin Knows What He’s Doing,” “Takedown,” and “Follow That Dragon.” Some of the action material in these cues is actually quite vivid, featuring more aggressive, surging string writing, heavy percussion rhythms, powerful brass calls, and a darker and more menacing choir, as well as the mandolins, guitars, and other country instrumentals. The way Hart blends these ideas with statements of the Pete & Elliott Friendship theme is intelligent and dramatically sound, especially the brass performance in “Follow That Dragon,” which is fun and exciting but has more than a hint of danger. Keeping the musical depiction of the relationship between the boy and his dragon at the center of the score allows the audience to connect with them more deeply, even when it’s working on an entirely subliminal level.
The score’s most dramatic sequence is “Elliot at the Bridge,” during which Hart allows Elliott’s hitherto under-played capacity for power and anger to spill over into his score with an enormous deconstructed version of the main theme on brass, aggressive snare drum riffs, and rolling crescendos that underscore the life-and-death stakes of the scene. This segues into the score’s true emotional high point, “Abyss,” a moment of despairing sadness which – thankfully – quickly turns into a staggeringly beautiful full performance of the main theme, again accented by timpani rolls, cymbal clashes, and flute trills, and which has an overwhelming sense of relief and catharsis.
The finale comprises “Go North,” which has a sad finality in the emotional string writing and some reflective variations on the country fiddle solos; “Saying Goodbye,” an extended cue for poignant string textures which gradually incorporates statements of the main theme as it builds to an emotional finale for magical sounding strings, guitars, and choir; and eventually “The Bravest Boy I’ve Ever Met,” which is warmly nostalgic and swells to a celebratory final performance of the main theme, full of swooping strings, chimes, prominent timpani, and spine-tingling cymbal clashes. Watching the film, in a darkened theater, I don’t mind admitting that the combination of this stirring music, young Oakes Fegley’s performance, and the emotional culmination of the film that precedes it, resulted in a large number of goosebumps, and maybe even a tear or two.
Disney’s generous album is padded out by a few additional songs, including efforts from violinist Lindsey Stirling, The Lumineers, Leonard Cohen, and Bosque Brown, as well as Hart’s regular collaborators St. Vincent, but it is the score which rightly takes center stage. It’s so refreshing, in this day and age, to hear a film score that is not afraid of emotion and melody, and which has not been diluted and marginalized to such an extent that it no longer has something important to say. All credit should go to director Lowery and the film’s producers for allowing Daniel Hart to write a score which unashamedly wears its heart on its big, green, furry sleeve; the film is so much better because of it. I might be a little guilty of over-praising Pete’s Dragon for the same reasons, but frankly I don’t care. We need more scores like this from mainstream Hollywood films, in order to reverse the depressing trend of musical moribundness we have witnessed over the past decade or so. Daniel Hart might be a relatively new name in film scoring circles, but the thematic boldness, the orchestral confidence, and the emotion and heart in this score will surely ensure that he doesn’t remain anonymous for long.
Buy the Pete’s Dragon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Dragon Song (written by Daniel Hart and Will Oldham, performed by Bonnie Prince Billy) (2:28)
- Something Wild (written and performed by Lindsey Stirling feat. Andrew McMahon) (3:43)
- Nobody Knows (written by Andrew Tinker and Toby Halbrooks, performed by The Lumineers) (3:08)
- Something on Your Mind (written by Dino Valenti, performed by St. Vincent) (2:59)
- So Long, Marianne (written and performed by Leonard Cohen) (5:38)
- Gina Anne (written by Mara Lee Miller, performed by Bosque Brown) (2:40)
- An Adventure (3:04)
- Are You Gonna Eat Me? (2:31)
- Brown Bunny (1:01)
- Reverie (2:52)
- Tree Fort (1:03)
- North Star (1:25)
- Bedtime Compass (2:15)
- Timber (1:19)
- Breathe (2:27)
- Gavin Knows What He’s Doing (3:42)
- You Are Not Alone (1:58)
- Elliot Gets Lost (4:26)
- Takedown (1:44)
- It’ll Be Just Like It Used to Be (2:03)
- Follow That Dragon (3:01)
- Elliot at the Bridge (2:19)
- Abyss (1:35)
- Go North (1:44)
- Saying Goodbye (5:03)
- The Bravest Boy I’ve Ever Met (2:46)
- The Dragon Song Revisited (written by Daniel Hart and Will Oldham, performed by Bonnie Prince Billy) (2:34)
- Candle on the Water (written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, performed by Okkervil River) (4:01)
Running Time: 75 minutes 45 seconds
Walt Disney Records (2016)
Music composed by Daniel Hart. Conducted by Kevin Kaska. Orchestrations by Kevin Kaska. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson and Brad Haehnel. Edited by Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz. Album produced by Daniel Hart.