Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There are a handful of classic Disney films that are just begging for a more modern Disney polish. PETE’S DRAGON is one of those movies. The film, which blended live-action with animation, told the tale (tail?) of an orphaned young boy, Pete, and his kind-hearted protector – a dragon named Elliot. It debuted to mixed reviews in 1977 and struggled to find its way into audience’s hearts. However, with Disney’s recent successes updating many of their older properties, the studio is about to finally achieve success with the title in 2016 with director David Lowery (AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS) at the helm. Embodying that classic sense of wonder and magic the company is known for, Lowery’s heartfelt homage looks breathtaking, compelling and, well, rather snuggley.
At the film’s recent first look footage presentation held at Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles, Lowery and star Bryce Dallas Howard shared a few things that we could anticipate seeing in the completed movie – and one magnificent behind-the-scenes story.
7. PETE’S DRAGON is only loosely based on the 1977 version, but will still please the original’s fans. Though Lowery’s re-imagining contains a strikingly different “brazzle dazzle” than the original, he believes it pays homage in all the right places whilst bringing a new audience into the fold. “What it is we’ve done here is to make [it] for a new generation. There are differences from the original film. One big similarity is that we still have Pete and we still have Elliot. 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 [his dragon] Elliot.’” Howard loved that it wasn’t a straight-forward studio remake. “Before I read the script, I had heard it wasn’t a straight-up remake. That was the ‘yes’ for me, because I love PETE’S DRAGON. In loving it, I didn’t want it to be a copycat thing. This story and the themes in the original film was what the charm of that movie was. What centers that film – and what made that film lasting – is the idea of friendship with an imaginary friend when you have no family. I want there to be beautiful films out there that have innocence and that are timeless and have really beautiful values without being didactic.”
6. New Zealand subs for the Pacific Northwest. Lowery said, “The movie is set in the Pacific Northwest – we never say where it is – in a small town. And we never say when it’s set – roughly in the late 70’s, maybe early 80’s. It doesn’t root itself in a specific time. For me, I’d like things to look as real as possible. We went to New Zealand because we could find the forest we need and the weather we needed. It’s a slightly more elevated, more magical version of the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand’s got plenty of magic on hand. Weta Digital was there and that was very convenient. We would get up at 4am everyday and drive two hours to shoot in the middle of the forest in these remote redwood groves because we wanted it to feel like the best version of being out in the woods and the best version of running through the forest. It was important to make the movie be more grounded. You have a twenty foot dragon to unground you.”
5. Robert Redford hitchhiked to set and rescued a horse. Lowery let it slip that the world-reknowned actor-director hitchhiked to set. “He hitchhiked to set one day. He got dropped off at the wrong place.” But it was Howard who countered with another tale. “He rescued a horse. The was a horse on the side of the road that he rescued. Like the second day of shooting.” Lowery elucidated, “We were driving two hours to the set every day. We’d all seen this horse standing by the side of the road. We were like, ‘Something’s wrong.’ He was like, ‘That horse should not be there.’ And he rescued it. It was an abusive owner situation.” Howard added, “Now the horse is set up in New Zealand and is going to be taken care of for the rest of its life.”
4. An indie director goes mainstream. Lowery is best known in the filmmaking world as a director of small, independent features like AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS and ST. NICK. He told us the mindset really isn’t that much different, working on a studio film. “The weird thing for me is that the tone didn’t feel all that different. All the movies I make, I can’t help but make them personal – try to make them my movies. It wasn’t until we’d finished the first draft that I realized this isn’t just a movie that I’m writing for Disney – it’s a movie I want to make. I realized, on a personal level, the scope of the movies I can make is much wider than I thought. It didn’t feel like a tonal jump whatsoever – there’s maybe a little less violence and adult themes. I always looked at my previous films as sort of fairy tales and this is a more literal one. It’s in the same zone thematically and tonally.”
3. Lowry envisioned PETE’S DRAGON as his take on classic “boy and his dog” stories. Except here, of course, it’s a boy and his dragon. He said, “We really want to sell the idea of friendship between a child and a creature like that. What it really comes down to is like your favorite pet as a child or the relationship you have with a dog – we really wanted to hit home the heart of that with a creature that’s twenty times the size of a normal household pet. I wanted it to be respectful of children and their feelings and be accurate in my memory of what it’s like. There is a great legacy of films about children – whether it’s E.T., or THE NEVERENDING STORY, or THE BLACK STALLION, or other films like PONETTE and THE RED BALLOON. I think it’s important to think about those kinds of movies. It’s the kind of thing kids respond to – same with Miyazaki stuff. I love things that let kids see the emotional side of themselves. I was hoping to touch on that.” Howard concurred, “It empowers children to have an understanding – it contexualizes their own story, belief system and emotional value.”
2. There will be music – but not twists on the original’s songs and score. Lowery remained rather tight-lipped about it saying there wouldn’t be any homages to the 1977 original iconic songs or score. “We do have a song in the movie which you’ll find out how it plays into the plot when you see it. I really wanted to avoid the winks and the nods – not because the original’s not great, but because I wanted this to exist in its own realm. There won’t be that moment where all the adults go, ‘Oh! Yeah!’ and the kids are like, ‘I don’t get it. What is it?’ That always takes me out of the movie. We talked about it – about having references – but ultimately thought it would be the pure tactic.”
1. A more cat-like winged dragon. When it came to the design of Elliot, the Lowery looked no further than his two adorable pet cats with whom he is obsessed. After seeing two clips featuring the dragon at play and rest, it’s easy to see the cuddly, cute resemblance. Elliot is furry – not scaly – green dragon with a chipped tooth and super soulful, playful spirit. Lowery mentioned that he chipped his tooth eating “some rocks. The very first hook I had when I was going in to meet the producers about the film was I wanted the dragon to be furry. That’s because I love my cats. They have their own instagram account ( @2orangeguys ). I want this to be the kind of dragon that you really want to give a hug to – that I wanna snuggle up with. I went through a design process of what design choices would break the idea of being a dragon. There are certain things we found that you can’t do; we started to do different things with the wings that felt like a chimera or other various mythical beasts – a sphinx. If we kept the wings, kept the tail, kept the ridges on his back, you can have fun with the design and it still feels like a dragon.”
PETE’S DRAGON opens on August 12.