6 Things To Know About Disney's PETE'S DRAGON Remake

“I look back at childhood as an adventure,” director David Lowery says. In his latest film, what he calls “a Pete’s Dragon for a new generation,” he’s aiming to recapture that sense of wonder for audiences who may not have ever seen the 1977 movie. Last week, Disney invited me to the studio’s El Capitan Theatre in the heart of Hollywood to check out an early presentation of the new remake, including a look at some new footage and a conversation with Lowery and star Bryce Dallas Howard.

The director showed us a few quick scenes from the film that gave us a wide sample of the kinds of things he does in the film, from establishing the character of Howard’s pragmatic forest ranger and her more precocious father (an old storyteller, played by Robert Redford with a twinkle in his eye); to a big truck chase sequence teased in the trailers; to joyous scenes of Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon Elliot playing, soaring through the sky, and hanging out together in the woods. The visuals look outstanding — the dragon riding is miles ahead of what we’ve seen from Dany on Game of Thrones so far — and there’s also a soulful tone here that should be an interesting break from the bombast of typical summer movie fare.

Read on for six things we learned about the new movie that you should know before you see it.

Bryce Dallas Howard Wanted This Job Because It Wasn’t A Straight-Up Remake

Howard, coming off Jurassic World in which she also starred opposite some large CG lizard creatures, said she actively chased this role as soon as she found out Lowery’s take on the material.

“Before I read the script, I had heard it was not a straight-up remake, and that was [why I said yes]. Because I love [the original] Pete’s Dragon — I have the little board book for my kids and I read it to them constantly — and with me loving it, I didn’t want it to just be a copycat. We’ve seen a lot of those, some of them are great, some of them don’t work, but I felt like the story and the themes within the original film was what the charm of that movie was…I think what has centered that film and what has made that film last was the central idea of friendship with an imaginary friend when you have no family. And then, voila, it’s not such an imaginary friend. So when I heard it wasn’t a straight-up remake, I was like, ‘yes, I’d love to be a part of that.’ Also, I can’t help it — I’m a parent and I want there to be beautiful films out there that have innocence, are timeless, and have really beautiful values without being didactic.”

The Setting Was Key For The Film’s Success

Lowery, who co-wrote the script with Toby Halbrooks, talked about how the idea of setting the movie in modern day never appealed to him. He’s always aiming for a timeless feel in his films, and it seemed like he found an excellent way to achieve that:

“The movie is set somewhere vaguely in the Pacific Northwest. We never quite say where it is, we never quite say when it is. Sometime vaguely in the past. If any of you have seen my other movies, you know I really love to do the whole ‘timeless’ thing, and this movie definitely plays into that.
I feel when you have a movie that has a fantastical concept in it, you can accept it more easily if it has the veil of time being over it. To set something in the past, you’re a little more accepting of the idea that there might be magic there that you might have overlooked in your own past. I also find that the movies I return to and the ones I love the most — there are films about a specific time and place, if you want to see a historical epic, great, I’m glad they’re so specific — but there are other films that endure because they don’t root themselves in a specific time and they don’t say ‘this is a film about here and now.’ 
I didn’t want this film to feel contemporary, because I felt if it was contemporary, if someone pulls out an iPhone, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘OK, that’s an iPhone 4. This was made in 2010.’ And then you put that against a dragon and you kind of get this weird disparity that doesn’t quite work. So by setting it in the past and not making a big deal out of it — we never put a title card that says this is what year it is. That was part of the look of the film, the production design that we did. You pull some cars from the early ‘80s, pull some cars from the ’70s, kind of make everything congeal into this cohesive whole that doesn’t have a literal date on it but feels just yesterday.”

The era wasn’t the only important factor — finding the perfect place to shoot their forest sequences was a big deal. Turns out New Zealand had exactly what the production was looking for. Lowery explained:

“I just like things to be real, that’s just me, I’m always going to gravitate toward that. So when we were planning this, I was like, ‘Look, if we’re going to have a CG dragon, let’s make everything else real and use as little green screen as possible.’ So we went to New Zealand because it’s set in a slightly elevated, more magical version of the Pacific Northwest, and New Zealand has plenty of magic, had the forest we needed, had the weather we needed, and Weta Digital was there, which was very convenient.”

They’d go as far as to drive two hours into secluded forest every day to truly capture “the best version of being out in the woods.” It certainly shows; the footage we saw had a quiet, ethereal feel to being outside, and it truly did feel like we were seeing a place that hadn’t ever been inhabited by humanity.

The Dragon Had To Be Furry

Lowery spoke about how important it was to treat Elliot as a legitimate character, one who can emote and isn’t just a CG beast lumbering through the woods. The dragon is one half of the film’s most important relationship, so he had to be handled carefully in the design stage, and avoiding scaly dragons like the ones on Game of Thrones was a big priority for the filmmakers:

“One of the things we wanted to do with this movie was really sell the idea of friendship between a child and a creature, which really comes down to your favorite pet as a child or the relationship you have with a dog or something like that. The really close bond you have with an animal. We really wanted to try to hit home the heart of that, but with a creature that’s twenty times the size of a normal household pet…Even though he is a dragon — a magical creature that can turn invisible — we really wanted to treat him like a character, and really let that character come through.
The very first hook I had when I met the producers of this film, we didn’t even have a pitch yet, but I was like, ‘I want the dragon to be furry.’ And that’s because I love my cats and I was probably petting my cat and saying, ‘I wish this guy was twenty feet tall’ or something. (laughs) They really are based on my cats. They have their own Instagram account if anyone wants to follow them. They’re 2orangeguys on Instagram. I was like, ‘Look, if you put a Game of Thrones dragon in this, he’s going to be scaly, kind of cold, he’ll be cool, but I want this to be the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to and that I want to give a hug to and snuggle up with.’ There’s no reason dragons can’t be furry. I went through the design process of figuring out what design choices would break the idea of being a dragon. There are certain things we found we can’t do. When we tried to do different things with the wings, it started to feel like a chimera, or other various mythical beasts. A sphinx, sometimes. But if you kept the wings, kept the tail, kept the ridges on the back, you can kind of have fun with the rest of the design and it still feels like a dragon. The fur was an integral part to the design for me. That made the character.”

Lowery Used an Unorthodox Method to Confirm He Had The Perfect Pete

When it came to finding the right Pete, Lowery knew he wanted a child actor that didn’t have the polish of an actor you might find on stage or on a Disney Channel show. “I wanted someone who was a little unvarnished and not perfect, who didn’t have that sort of trained quality,” he said. “I often find that if a ten-year-old can cry on cue, that is an amazing skill that I am envious of, but usually that’s not what I’m looking for.” His casting director did a worldwide casting search, and when Oakes Fegley walked in the room, Lowery knew he’d found his star. But he cemented that decision in an unusual way: he asked Oakes to build something with the chairs in the room, and he just sat back and watched. If Lowery and Howard’s stories about the young actor are accurate, Oakes sounds like a totally relaxed, normal kid, not at all pretentious or corrupted by weird stage parents, so when he started stacking a trash can on top of some chairs and Lowery could see him working things out and adjusting little details, he knew for sure he’d found his Pete. “He had a sensitivity, but also a resilience where you believe he could survive in the conditions his character has survived in,” Lowery said. “He’s really tough and scrappy, but also so quiet and sensitive, the perfect balance.”

Lowery Was Heavily Influenced By Foreign Films

Movies that are about children can often talk down to them or even have disdain for them, but Lowery took a lot of inspiration from foreign films about how to make sure the movie treated kids with respect and talked to them as equals:

“There is a great legacy of films about children, whether they are films like E.T., The NeverEnding Story, The Black Stallion, or other films like Ponette, the French film about the girl who lost her parents is really important to me. The Red Balloon is a wonderful story capturing the imagination of childhood in a very specific way. I could list off all the foreign films that I love that do a good job of that, but I think it’s important to think of those movies because I know a lot of teachers who show The Red Balloon in their classes to kindergartners because it’s the kind of thing kids respond to. Same with Miyazaki stuff, which I think is important to show kids. Obviously there’s a ton of great entertainment for children, but I love things that let kids see the emotional side of themselves.”

You Won’t See (or Hear) References To The Original Film

When asked whether we’d hear an homage to the music of the ’77 film, Lowery gave perhaps the most refreshing answer of the day:

“No. We do have a song in the movie and you’ll find out how it plays into the plot when you see it, but we don’t [have any homages to the first movie]. I really wanted to sort of avoid the winks and the nods, not because the original is not great, but because I wanted this to really exist in its own realm. The best thing is for audiences who love the original to see this and say, ‘This is a great new film about a boy named Pete, and Elliot.’ And if kids haven’t seen the original, this will be the first time they’ve seen it. And there won’t be that moment where all of the adults go, ‘Oh, yeah,’ and the kids look over and go, ‘What? I don’t get it. What is it?’ So we avoided that. We talked about it, we talked about having references, but ultimately felt it was the purer tactic. I’ve seen a lot of remakes that do that and it always takes me out of a movie because it’s a little wink.”

As someone who thinks references like that can be distracting and often obnoxious, I find it incredibly promising that Lowery has the confidence in his movie to try to have it stand on its own as much as possible. Even with seeing the extra footage we saw, it’s still tough to tell whether this movie is going to be a new classic, a whiffed remake attempt, or somewhere in between, but at least it won’t be a deep dive into nostalgia for another film. (Nostalgia for childhood? Yes. For another movie? No.)

In any case, Lowery’s enthusiasm is certainly evident, and regardless of how the film turns out, his heart is clearly in the right place here. His vision for the film sounds great, so I’m hoping he’s able to translate that vision to audiences in an enjoyable way. “I want you to get a sense of the scope and action and fun and adventure this movie has,” he beamed before showing off a new clip, “because ultimately it really is an adventure.” The adventure begins when Pete’s Dragon flies into theaters on August 12, 2016.

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