A classic film that captures the feeling of what it means to be young.
The re imagining of Disney’s cherished family film Pete’s Dragon introduces the endearing tale of a young boy and his friendship with a green dragon to a whole new generation of filmgoers.
“There are so many people who grew up with the original 1977 film, and the idea of that movie became a leaping-off point for us,” says producer Jim Whitaker (The Finest Hours), “We knew that this very simple idea about a boy and his dragon still had the potential to become a really special film.”
For years, old wood carver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) has delighted children in the sleepy town of Millhaven with his tales of the fierce dragon that resides deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. To his daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger in these very woods, his stories are little more than tall tales…until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley). Pete is a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home to speak of, who claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon named Elliot, and from his descriptions, Elliot seems remarkably similar to the fabled dragon from Mr. Meacham’s stories.
As Grace slowly begins to earn Pete’s trust, opening his eyes to the possibility that there is a world beyond his forest, his presence causes Grace to take a look at her own life, including her relationship with Jack (Wes Bentley), who owns the local lumber mill. Jack wants to support Grace’s endeavors to study and protect the surrounding woods but needs to focus on keeping his company profitable at the same time, and it is driving a wedge between them.
When Pete’s idyllic life with Elliot in the forest is in danger, Grace, along with the help of Jack’s 11-year-old daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), sets out to uncover the truth about this dragon and determine where Pete came from…and where he belongs.
Whitaker and the studio began looking for possible screenwriters to come up with a fresh take on the story and were considering writer/director David Lowery, whose powerful short film, Pioneer, screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, garnering him accolades for his skills as a storyteller.
When Lowery’s feature film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, an intense drama set in Texas in the ‘70s premiered at Sundance in 2013 and was enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike, they began to see him as a possible director as well.
While Lowery may not have seemed the obvious choice to write and direct a new vision of a beloved Disney film, there are actually some similarities between his first feature and Pete’s Dragon.
Both stories deal with a sense of belonging, and in Pete’s case, a sense of family. Adds Whitaker, “There’s also a purity to both films and the wonderment of seeing things through the eyes of a child, and we thought David would be able to create a new, simple, yet pure, take on the story.”
As a child, Lowery was a fan of the classic Disney films (Pinocchio was the first film he saw in a theater), as they appealed to his sense of adventure. But Disney was not looking for the new Pete’s Dragon to have any direct association with the original, other than the title and basic premise; They were looking for someone to come up with a totally original story and new characters.
Lowery and his writing partner, Toby Halbrooks, have always been drawn to projects that have a certain naiveté and innocence about them, and they were excited by the possibilities.
Pete’s Dragon turned out to be perfectly tailored to their sensibilities as writers.
“I loved the idea of making a movie that deals with imagination and has a degree of fantasy,” Lowery says, “And there was no need to even think about reinventing the wheel when that wheel functioned so perfectly well.”
“There’s a process to developing a movie where you go through a series of drafts, but honestly, from the first draft, actually the first 20 pages, we knew the movie was there,” says Whitaker.
“David was after a sense of, what he calls, ‘magical realism,’ and that came through because he allowed magic to seep into the script in unexpected ways.”
Many of Disney’s classic films like Dumbo and Bambi convey important issues to children and help prepare them with the tools and guidance to deal with those issues in their own lives.
“Our story asks a fundamental question: where does one belong, “Lowery says.
With a finished screenplay in hand, Lowery began to set his sights on directing, and what he envisioned was a classic movie that would capture the feeling of what it meant to be young. “When you’re 10 years old everything you do seems like an epic adventure,” he says. “You don’t have to be riding on the back of a dragon…just the simple act of climbing a tree is exhilarating for kids.”
Bryce Dallas Howard thinks of the original Pete’s Dragon as a fundamental part of her childhood.
“It was one of my favorite films as a child,” Howard says. “One of my earliest memories of watching a movie is watching ‘Pete’s Dragon.’ There’s something singular about that film…I don’t know what it is, but it immediately touches the inner child in me.”
After meeting with Lowery, she was heartened to learn that this Pete’s Dragon would be not so much a remake, but a film which would complement the original. “I loved the tone of the script, and David was not looking to step on people’s memories of the first film, but wanted to create a film that could stand side by side with the original,” she says.
Howard continues, “It is a smart, family film but it’s also a compelling adventure, too, and I believe audiences are craving a family film that’s smart and emotionally engaging. The best Disney films are cathartic and feature characters that start with nothing and end up receiving more than they could ever have hoped for, and they provide children with opportunities to process difficult feelings, which this film does as well.”
“What David really understood about the film, is that it had these sophisticated themes running throughout but also had a storyline, which, at its essence, wasn’t necessarily all fun and laughter and music,” Howard says. “But from that kind of realism and from that very real loss that Pete has experienced can come healing, as well as a journey and an adventure that does have fun and does have beauty and friendship and family in it.”
For the crucial role of Pete, the young boy found in the woods who was separated from his parents six years ago, the filmmakers were looking to cast a boy with natural acting abilities who could let his guard down and just be a kid.
12-year-old Oakes Fegley from Pennsylvania already had a number of credits under his belt, including recurring roles on the TV series Boardwalk Empire and Person of Interest and in the feature film This Is Where I Leave You, but that’s not what appealed to Lowery.
“I’m a big believer that there’s a time and place and a type of film when you want a child who can actually perform Shakespeare or cry on command,” he says. “But the types of films I like to make are really more about letting kids be kids, so I was looking for kids who didn’t have any pretenses or who liked to show off or try to impress me, but who could just be themselves.”
“Pete is really curious and he likes to ask a lot of questions, like me, and even though he doesn’t have the intelligence of a normal 10-year-old boy, he is smart in other ways,” explains Fegley. “He knows how to survive in the forest but has no idea how to live in the civilized world.”
As a result of Lowery’s association with the Sundance Film Festival and Institute on his first two films, he had been working with founder Robert Redford to develop several film projects and mentioned the role of Mr. Meacham to him.
“The dragon is a symbolic creature from mythology and mythology was a big deal for me as a kid growing up, so I’m a big believer in its importance,” says Redford. “I grew up in a working class environment where there were not a lot of options for entertainment, so you had to kind of create your own. And it was about a greater world and greater characters and greater creatures than I knew, so therefore, it was very, very attractive to me.”
Redford continues, “I’m a storyteller, and I believe in storytelling, so I told my kids stories. I think it’s really invaluable. In fact, I think ‘once upon a time’ is one of the greatest phrases imaginable. When you’re a kid and you hear ‘once upon a time,’ it’s ‘ah, I’m going to get something now.’”
“I think the story crafted here is very human and quite interesting,” says Redford. “It is an intimate story of a father, a daughter and a boy who has survived an accident and gone into the woods, and it has a lot of magic, but at its core, it’s a very emotional, human story.”
When Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” hits theaters in August, 2016, it is sure to charm and thrill audiences, creating a whole new generation of life-long fans.
It is an epic adventure with a child as the protagonist that features an awesome, green dragon, and in the words of Oona Laurence, “What kid wouldn’t want that?”
But at the same time it’s a story about personal growth, finding one’s place in the world and the power of friendship. “Elliot was very lonely before he met Pete, which is why he takes Pete in and protects him and takes care of him,” says Oakes Fegley. “To me, that is such a cool story.”
Writer/director David Lowery says, “We did our best to stay true to these core themes throughout the entire production and to let every scene speak to them to the greatest degree possible. I look back on childhood as an adventure, and I wanted to capture that on screen in the smallest—but also the biggest—way.”