Disney is reimagining a ’70s fave with extra soul and state of the art FX. Tara Bennett meets
Some say the ’70s was Disney’s forgotten decade, overshadowed by the golden eras either side of it. But the House of Mouse had a prolific, inventive run of movies back then, from ambitious SF epic The Black Hole to a liveaction musical featuring an animated dragon...
While Pete’s Dragon was a modest success at the time, it never received the critical acclaim that met Mary Poppins, another live actionanimated hybrid. Nor does it have the cross-generational nostalgia of that Julie Andrews classic. So in 2010 Disney targeted this boy-and-his-dragon tale as part of the back-catalogue that might be ripe for reinvention. They stripped the musical aspect from its DNA and asked writers to pitch them new takes. Indie director/writer David Lowery, best known for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was one who heeded the call.
A long-time Disney fan, Lowery tells SFX he saw the original film when he was six – but he hasn’t re-watched it, even to this day. “It’s not one of the crown jewels of their library,” Lowery says of the 1977 version. “It’s beloved by many people, but it’s not so beloved that you can’t take it and run. I saw it as an opportunity to tell a new story.”
The producers agreed. “The mandate from the studio was, ‘We want to make a movie called Pete’s Dragon. It has to have a boy named Pete in it… and a dragon. That’s it. They had
I hope people who love the original love it, but if they don’t, I understand
been thinking about it for a while, but they didn’t have a goal to have it in theatres by 2016. They were more of the opinion that if the right story came along, and the right storytelling, it would be worth doing.”
Lowery spent a year writing the script with collaborator Toby Halbrooks, aiming to create a timeless story with Pete and the dragon’s friendship at the centre. Set in the Pacific Northwest in the early ’80s, Lowery’s script finds four-year-old Pete becoming separated from his family on a camping trip and spending the next six years in the woods with Elliott, his dragon companion and protector. At 10, he’s discovered by a park ranger named Grace, who takes Pete back to civilisation.
“It’s about finding your home and where you belong, which is what all of my movies are about,” Lowery confesses with a smile. “Coming from a strong family, that’s always been important to me. Over the course of three movies, I’ve realised they are all about that, and it’s the heart of this one too.”
Disney loved the script. “I think they were surprised by how much we brought to it, and they were so surprised they made the movie,” Lowery laughs.
making it personal
They also offered him the opportunity to direct, forcing Lowery to make a very personal decision. “The last thing I wanted was to go and make a studio movie where I didn’t get to make my own movie,” he tells SFX, frankly. “I didn’t want to just be that guy who has one indie film and then goes and makes anonymous, mainstream summer movies for the rest of his career. It’s not what I seek to do. So I spent a year writing the script thinking someone else would make it. But I can’t help make everything I write very much me, so over the course of the year it kind of turned into my movie. I was developing another movie at the same time [that I planned] to direct. I reached a Sophie’s Choice moment where I could have made that one, which was much smaller and independent, but the truth was this one felt more meaningful to me.”
Lowery says he has no regrets about choosing to wrangle a dragon. “Doing this one was unpredictable and it pushed me creatively. Despite the fact that it was much bigger and a different audience and with a studio, it still felt like the movie, as a filmmaker, I wanted to make.”
Shooting on location in New Zealand, Lowery used local visual FX house Weta Digital to create Elliott the dragon, a fully computer-animated character. Lowery’s take subtly references 1977’s 2D animated Elliott but it was the director’s beloved cats that influenced the new design the most.
“There’s a scene where Elliott wakes up in a cave, and every behaviour is based explicitly on my cat waking up,” Lowery laughs. “Overall, Elliott needed to feel like an animal, in the sense that he needed to be cuddly, warm and appealing, or fierce when he’s protective, but with a level of intelligence beyond a dog or a cat. And he needed to have a sense of empathy that was deep and equivocal to Pete’s. He’s like a very, very smart dolphin.”
This dragon has a tradition-busting layer of fur and Lowery had other specific design needs, too. “The shape of his head was really important to me. It had to be oversized and his jaw really big so there would be a clumsiness about him, and he would compensate by being very delicate and gentle. He can get furious and roar, but he’s a very gentle dragon.”
Lowery handed his initial sketches over to the design team, who refined the final look that was then passed to Weta to craft in three-dimensions. “They took the designs and figured
out how to make him work as a real creature. There were changes – the arms got smaller and the wings needed to get bigger for him to actually be airborne.”
While Lowery’s proud of Elliott as a technical achievement, he’s even more thrilled about the performance Weta created to play against human co-star Oakes Fegley. “The thing I wanted to give kids [in this movie] is not being afraid to get sad and profound with the emotional journey Pete goes on,” Lowery explains. “I remember having very complex feelings as a kid, and movies are a vehicle for audiences of all ages to contextualise emotions. So we wanted to make sure we brought more life into Elliott, and we see him make decisions and see him having feelings as well.
“Elliott needed to be able to relate with Pete on a very meaningful level,” Lowery continues. “He can’t talk but I think that’s good. I think you get a lot out of non-verbal communication. Since he can’t talk, Pete doesn’t feel the need to talk to him, but you feel this incredibly deep connection because there are no words to get in the way. They are equal, so there’s no sense that Pete takes care of Elliott, or Elliott takes care of Pete.”
Satisfied with the interaction between a child actor and a CGI dragon, Lowery could then lean on the rest of his human cast, including Robert Redford, Karl Urban and Bryce Dallas Howard, to land the film’s emotional journey. Lowery particularly praises Howard’s take on Grace. “I’ve loved Bryce since The Village,” he enthuses. “But when she started having her own children, she gained this warmth that’s very maternal and beautiful. Because Pete, by all accounts, is having a pretty awesome time living in the woods with a dragon, you have to give him something to actually make him want to come to town. Because he’s the age he is, it’s family and home, and above all, a mother. Bryce was able to represent that quality so beautifully. Grace and Pete is a defining relationship of the film.”
Lowery tells SFX he’s proud of the throwback vibe they’ve achieved. The film’s period setting purposely keeps today’s technology out of the story and allows children to slip into the magic of believing with Pete. “I really hope kids aren’t too cynical these days,” he says of the film’s impending reception. “I hope people who love the original love it, but if they don’t, I understand. At the same time, it’s not going to ruin the old movie for them because it’s so different. Hopefully, they’ll love this one too. And for kids who have never seen the old one, they will grow up with this one.”
Playing “fetch” with this guy is a whole lot of fun…
Now that’s a life guard.