Only people of a certain age are likely to remember Disney semi-animated, 1977 feature Pete's Dragon... and that can only work in the favor of David Lowery's live-action retelling. Truthfully, the two films have very little in common beyond the shared title, with the newest effort going for a folksy, family-friendly vibe (as opposed to the cartoon's trippy dippy approach toward blending animation with real people).
This isn't a review of Pete's Dragon, however. This is a critique of the movie's use of 3D. Seeing as how Disney wants to appeal to the family ticket with this new film, deciding whether to pay more for a 3D ticket means everything. So, before you venture off to Pete's Dragon this weekend, how is the movie's 3D element? Let's discuss in great detail.
Pete's Dragon is a live-action film that blends in CGI (when it's time to reveal Eliot, the dragon). Which means, right off the bat, it's not quite as ready for 3D as a traditional animated movie. Films that are 95% CGI -- like Disney's own The Jungle Book -- or films that are animated have a better chance at impressing with 3D. Live-action films struggle. Seeing as how this movie is about a dragon who befriends a lost child, and who has the ability to fly, it fits the concept of what a 3D movie could be. The execution, however, is another matter.
Almost immediately, you can tell that 3D in Pete's Dragon is/was an afterthought, because everything good about Pete's as a movie works AGAINST it as a 3D experience. The film is mostly set in the forest, with scenes that seem to take place at dusk. Mood lighting in environments that are the same color as your CGI dragon creature means that nothing pops in 3D. In addition, no elements of the dragon's existence -- or his ability to fly -- are incorporated into the 3D. Pete's Dragon is a sweet movie that's hampered by its 3D, and that's a huge disappointment.
Movies that are filmed using 3D cameras, that organically implement the 3D into the storytelling, usually take advantage of the Before the Window frame. This means things pop off the screen, and into your lap. Movies that add 3D in post-production usually do not. Pete's Dragon does not. And what stinks is that, with Eliot the dragon being a CGI creature who's often in flight, I was looking for a wing or a tail or a puff of smoke from the creature's digital nostrils to come off the screen and remind me that I was watching a 3D movie. Nothing.
Beyond the Window -- or the deepest backgrounds of a 3D scene -- are places where contemporary 3D often manages to shine. Filmmakers can use 3D technology to really bring their environments to life, creating an incredible depth of focus. This is harder to do with live-action cinematography, and Pete's Dragon doesn't do anything special with its backgrounds through its 3D. The forests are still shadowy and tough to focus on. Backgrounds in scenes where humans interact are mainly blurry, rendering the 3D as useless. The Beyond the Window is as disappointing as the Before the Window. Sensing a theme here?
David Lowery shoots Pete's Dragon in a specific way to capture a melancholic mood. His film is about the passage of youth, and how a young boy is clinging to his time -- and his "imaginary" friend -- because that's all he has known, and society is not going to force him to grow up and take that comfort away. He relies on a folksy soundtrack to sell that mood, and he photographs his lush forest environments with well-placed beams of sunlight that probably look gorgeous... unless you are looking at them through the tint of a set of 3D glasses. Seriously, the dullness of the 3D glasses annoyed the crap out of me while trying to focus on Lowery's Dragon visuals. The movie's "dawn and dusk" settings are hindered by 3D glasses, and the tech does nothing to make the movie pop. On a brightness scale, 3D ruined Pete's Dragon.
The "glasses off" test tells an audience member how much blur they are getting on an image, which translates into the amount of 3D that's provided when your glasses are put on. A high grade on "glasses off" means that the visuals are VERY blurry and out of focus once you remove your 3D glasses. The lower grades (like the one I gave Pete's Dragon) mean that there's virtually no blur on the image, because there's no 3D enhancement happening on the visuals. I watched chunks of Pete's Dragon without my glasses on -- especially when young Pete left the forest -- because in those scenes, it played like a normal 2D movie, and the glasses were totally unnecessary.
Credit where credit is due: Pete's Dragon never plays with your senses to the point where you will feel queasy while watching it. The movie, in general, is a slow shamble of a folk tale, and the action, when it happens, is smoothly paced and directed, so you're never soaring or plummeting. That's good, I suppose. It's the one area where the 3D was a bit of an asset.