Early last week, I was invited with a group of other journalists to see some exclusive never-before-seen footage from Disney’s upcoming live-action reimagining of Pete’s Dragon, which not only included clips and a new trailer for the film, but also an insightful Q&A with director David Lowery and star Bryce Dallas Howard. In total, we were shown about four clips from the movie, as Lowery said, in the hopes that they would be able to accurately sum up the movie’s tone and feel.
One of the first things that was brought up at the beginning of the presentation as well, was the movie’s timeless setting and feel, with Lowery opting not to set the movie during any specific time or place, and only giving audiences a sense that it is taking place sometime in the past, possibly in the late 70s or early 80s, without ever specifying exactly when. Something that the director said he prefers to do with all of his movies, saying that setting a story like this during a specific time and in a specific place, can often hurt the movie more than it can help it:
“I just feel that you have a movie with a fantastical concept you’re going to accept it more easily if it has the veil of time hanging over it. To set something in the past, you’re a little more accepting of the idea there might be magic there that you might have overlooked in your own past. I also find that the movies I return to and that I love the most are the ones that don’t feel dated. There are films about specific times or places that are great… 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 the here and now. I wanted this movie to feel like that. I didn’t want this film to feel contemporary. If someone pulls out an iPhone, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s an iPhone 4. This must’ve been made in 2010.’ You put that up against a dragon, and you got this weird disparity that doesn’t work.”
So while we might see trucks that look like they came from the 1980s, and the movie may feature environments more common in the Pacific Northwest, the movie will never tell us exactly when the film takes place, or where a little boy and a big green, furry dragon are even found. Simply because, we don’t need to.
One of the scenes that we were shown from the film as well, was Pete and Elliot’s introduction in the movie, as the boy and his dragon played and chased each other through the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Created by the artists at WETA Digital, I’m just going to say right away that Elliot is a visual marvel as well, not only flying and jumping around the forests and landscapes seamlessly, but also camouflaging himself at one point, in a game of hide and seek from Elliot. In a year that also features The Jungle Book, a technical masterclass in visual effects, Elliot’s effects might not garner as much attention, but his playful design and impressive integration with the human characters and environments was a joy to behold nonetheless.
Going into the movie though, one of my biggest concerns was that David Lowery’s unique visual style, which has been demonstrated brilliantly in some of his previous outings, but specifically in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, would be lost in the transition from independent filmmaking to the big blockbuster world at Disney. While it’s by no means as visually poetic or innovative as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints though, I did notice his visual style and stamp peaking through and helping to form a number of the scenes in interesting ways, especially in the scene between Elliot and Pete in the forests.
And while he’s been seen briefly in the movie’s trailers, one of the clips we were shown also gave us some more insight into the movie’s main villain, Gavin, played by Karl Urban. While his motives seem purposefully vague for the time being as well, we did get to see one of the film’s main chase scenes involving Gavin and the film’s main heroes, which seemed to hint at his character’s place in the film’s small town and his reasons for hunting Elliot in the first place. There’s still not a lot known about his character right now, but he seems like a callback to some of the villains from the more classic Disney fairytale adaptations.
Coming off of the beloved live-action film from 1977 however, the idea of remaking Pete’s Dragon might seem like a risky one. Something that might not have felt necessary or smart. For Bryce Dallas Howard though, the remake was a bit of a passion project, after being interested in the film from the very beginning, and becoming even more excited by it, when she learned not how the update would connect to the original film, but how it would differ:
“I love Pete’s Dragon. I have the Little Golden Book for my kids, and I read it to them constantly. I think, in loving it, I didn’t want it just to be a copycat thing. I feel like we see a lot of those. Some of them are great, some of them don’t work. But I felt the story and themes within the original film was the charm of that movie. Otherwise, there a lot of weird things and things you wouldn’t expect in a classic Disney film, but I think what centered that film and what has made that film lasting is 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 yeah, when I heard it wasn’t a straight-up remake I was like, ‘Yes, I would love to be a part of that.’”
For those of you out there that are wondering about Elliot’s unique design as well, specifically in the character’s fur (something we never see with dragons), it turns out that the fur was actually something that Lowery himself pushed for, in his attempts to present audiences with a new variation of a dragon that they hadn’t seen before. The idea for fur, Lowery credits even, came from his love of his cats (who you can follow on Instagram here), and was something that not only helped to make the character more lovable, but also helped to make the character for Lowery himself:
“I want this to be the kind of dragon you want to give a hug to. The best way to do that is to make him furry. There’s no reason why dragons can’t be furry. I went through the design process, figuring out what design choice would break him being a dragon. There were certain things we found that we couldn’t do like the wings. Like when we started to try to do things differently with the wings, it started to feel like a chimera or other various mythical beasts, like a sphynx sometimes. If we kept the wings, the tail, and the ridges on the back, you kind of get to have fun with the rest of the design–and it still feels like a dragon. The fur was just an integral part of the design. That made the character.”
For a movie that features a large, green CGI dragon as well, you might be surprised by how much of the movie’s locations and effects are practical and real. Especially in a current era of the film industry where worlds created entirely from green screens and blue screens are becoming more and more commonplace it seems like. According to Lowery though, the presence of Elliot in the film was what made the rest of the movie be practical, in an attempt to avoid stuffing the movie with too many CGI effects and helping to create a realistic base around Elliot and the rest of the movie’s more fantastical moments:
“For me, I just like things to be real that’s just me, and I’m always going to be like that, and gravitate towards that. So when we were planning this, I knew that we’re going to have a giant CG dragon, but I wanted to make everything else real. Let’s have as a little green screen as possible. I just want to make this completely real. So we went to New Zealand because it’s set in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a slightly elevated, more magical version of the Pacific Northwest. So New Zealand’s plenty of magic on hand, the forests we needed, the weather we needed, and WETA Digital was there, which was very convenient. But we would get up at 4AM every day to shoot in the forest because we wanted it to feel like the best version of being out in the woods… But that was really important to make the movie feel as grounded as possible because again, you do have this 20 foot tall dragon to unground you every step of the way if you’re not careful.”
As for the film’s status as a remake or reimagining, Lowery revealed that unlike The Jungle Book earlier this year, which included several nods and songs from the original animated movie, Pete’s Dragon will not include many, if any, nods to its predecessor. While this might disappoint some fans as well, Lowery explained his reasoning behind it, hoping to present a new version of a familiar story that wouldn’t be cluttered with any winks or nods to another film, that might takes kids or adults out of the film:
“We do have a song in the movie, which you’ll find out how it plays into the plot when you see it, but we don’t [have any nods or winks]. I wanted to avoid the winks and the nods. Not because the original isn’t great, but because I wanted this to 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 parents go, ‘Oh yeah,’ and kids go, ‘Wait? What? I don’t get it, what is it?’ So we kind of avoided that. We talked about having references, but ultimately felt like I’ve seen a lot of remakes that do that, and it always takes me out of the movie because of that little wink. So there isn’t.”
After my somewhat nonchalant reaction to the movie’s first teaser trailer (thanks in no small part, I think, to the hype that had been surrounding The Jungle Book at the time) I find myself notably more excited for Pete’s Dragon than I was before. After seeing the new footage, including the latest trailer a week early, it seems like David Lowery and co. are striving for a sense of timeless magic in Pete’s Dragon that few other kids movies manage to grasp ahold of nowadays. In a world of mostly cynical blockbuster films at this point, where heroes fight each other and the apocalypse comes at least five times every summer in more familiar ways each time too, maybe it’ll be a furry, green dragon that’ll remind audiences of how fun it can be to feel like a kid again.
Pete’s Dragon is set to hit theatres on August 12th.
Make sure to keep checking back for more updates — right here on GeekNation.
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