'Pete's Dragon' Preview: A Wink-Less Remake Starring A Big, Furry Dragon And Two Authentic Kids

"The weird thing, for me, is that the reason I felt this was the right movie to make was because the tone didn't feel that different [compared to my past work]. Sometimes I would joke that we're just remaking Ain't Them Bodies Saints with a dragon instead of Casey Affleck," director David Lowery says, comparing his upcoming fairy tale, Pete's Dragon, to his meditative and somber 2013 drama. "All the movies I make I can't help but to make them incredibly personal, try to make them mine. That's just the way I do it." The co-writer/director didn't expect to follow up his acclaimed tone poem with a Disney remake, but once he and Toby Halbrooks finished the first draft of the script, he thought, "Of course this is the next movie I'm going to make."

Below, check out our Pete's Dragon preview.

Disney recently held a preview event of Pete's Dragon, which follows up their massively successful remakes of The Jungle Book and Cinderella. Pete's Dragon is perhaps the studio's loosest remake to date. Though it's based on the 1977 musical, gone are the songs and the fishing town of Passamaquoddy. Set in the Pacific Northwest, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the forest for over six years. How a child survives for that long alone, as Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) says, doesn't add up. Mr. Meacham's daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), discovers her father's grand tales about dragons may not have been made up after all, because Pete's best friend, Elliot, happens to be a 20-foot-tall dragon.

Here's a quick rundown of the clips:

  • Mr. Meacham tells a group of interested kids about the "new haven dragon" and his encounter with one of the animals. The kids hold onto his every word, while Grace appears slightly less enthralled but charmed by the story she's heard a thousand times.
  • The second clip highlights Pete and Elliot's friendship. They play around and go flying. It's as if the camera is trying to keep up with Pete and Elliot in this scene.
  • Mr. Meacham, Grace, and Natalie (Oona Laurence) greet Elliot for the first time. Mr. Meacham, Grace, and Natalie are in awe, and this encounter shows how expressive Elliot is. He's shy and cautious in this scene, the complete opposite of the big, happy-go-lucky dragon we saw in the previous clip.
  • The last clip should go unspoiled, since it's from around the third act, but it features the antagonist of the film, Gavin (Karl Urban), who's cutting down the forest. His brother, Jack, is played by Wes Bentley.

The dragon no longer has its colorful shades of pink, but that's not the only departure from the original film. What Lowery's remake does draw from the musical is Pete's love for Elliot. "Before I read the script, I heard it was not a straight up remake," Howard told us after we watched the clips. "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. We see a lot of those. Some of them are great, some of them don't work. I felt the [main] 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 what centered that film and 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."

That not-so-imaginary friend is a massive, friendly dragon, full of emotion. The clips each focus on a different feeling of Elliot's — happiness, skepticism, and fear. Whether he's joyful or fearful, he comes across as a gigantic dog you want to embrace, which is Lowery's intention. "I want this to be the kind of dragon you want to give a hug to," Lowery explains. "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 choices would break him being a dragon. There were certain things we found we can't do. When we started playing with the wings, the wings started to feel like a chimera or other various mythical beasts or snakes. 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." The furry dragon bears little resemblance to Ken Anderson's original design, but this version of Elliot has the same sense of innocence, in both its childlike facial expressions and clumsy movements.

Here's Lowery's original sketch of Elliot compared to the final design:

Pete's Dragon

Elliot's best friend, Pete, is played by Oakes Fegley, who gave a very authentic performance in Fort Bliss. Finding the right actor to portray the young wild child took its time, as you might expect. "I'm going to give all the credit in the world to our casting director, Debra Zane, who did that wonderful thing you all hear about — a worldwide casting search," Lowery says. "She saw thousands and thousands of kids. They were all great. Every kid was great in their own way. She found a couple hundred, like 500 kids. She was in the same ballpark of what I was looking for. I don't want to speak poorly of child actors — who are incredibly talented and are capable of doing great things — but I wanted someone a little ungarnished, not perfect, and didn't have that trained quality. I often find that a 10-year-old that can cry on cue is an amazing skill I am envious of, but it's not what I'm looking for. All of my films have had kids in them. I love working with kids. I love creating a context for them to be themselves, and just sitting back and letting them do that."

Fegley's casting was one of those "classic things," where the young actor walked into a room and the director knew he was right for the role. Howard, like Lowery, praises Fegley and his young co-star Oona Laurence. "They're not actor-y, the kind of things that get build after a lifetime of being asked, 'Do you want any water? Do you need anything? Oh, we're so glad you showed up for work today,'" she says with a laugh. "Those kinds of things that can ruin a person hasn't occurred, they haven't absorbed it, or this is just how they are. It was a chance to work with these amazing human beings in this amazing time in their life, and it got captured."

That time of their lives got captured for over 70 days — a shoot Lowery frequently wrote about at his blog – in New Zealand, a location Lowery and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Lone Ranger) milk for all its beauty. In the clips, every environment is tangible and worn. "For me, I like things that are real, and I'm always going to gravitate towards that," Lowery says. "When we were planning this, I was like, 'We're going to have a giant CG dragon, but let's make everything else real. Let's have as a little greenscreen as possible. I just want to make this movie real. We went to New Zealand. It's set in the Pacific Northwest, but it's a slightly elevated, more magical version of the Pacific Northwest. New Zealand has plenty of magic, the forest we needed, the weather we needed, and WETA Digital was there, which was very convenient."

Even the time period is intended to create a believable reality. No title card specifies the exact year the film takes place, but the footage suggests Pete's Dragon is set in the late '70s or early '80s. "I feel when you have a movie with a fantastical concept you're going to accept it more easily with the veil of time hanging over it," Lowery says. "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 the movies I return to and 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 didn't want this film to feel contemporary. If someone pulls out an iPhone, all of a sudden you're like, 'Oh, 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."

As for the film's ties to the original, don't expect any winks or nods (but do expect fire breathing). Lowery isn't a fan of remakes that nudge the audience. "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 many homages]," he says. "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 that love the original to see this and say, 'This is a great new film about a boy named Pete and Elliot.' If kids haven't seen the original, this will be the first time they've seen it. There won't be that moment where parents go, 'Oh yeah,' and kids go, 'I didn't get it.' We kind of avoided that. We talked about having references, but ultimately felt...I've seen a lot of remakes that do that, and it always takes me out of the movie, that little wink."

The director is inspired by the likes of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Black StallionThe Red Balloon, and other classic pictures. With Pete's Dragon, Lowery wants his "big adventure film" to present a depiction of childhood that's as honest and as personal as the ones those films present. "I wanted to be respectful of children and their feelings and be accurate to my memory of what it was like," he says. "Also, [I wanted to be] accurate to my memory of what I wanted to do. I would build these tree forts in my backyard with rope slings, and in my memory, they're gigantic and awesome. In reality, they were kind of dinky and not that great. As a seven-year-old, it's the best thing ever. I wanted to present that version — you saw Pete's treehouse — the version I saw in my mind's eye. At the same time, when the characters are hurting or when they're feeling feelings, I wanted to be true to my memory. I don't have kids of my own, but I remember being a kid very thoroughly and was the oldest of nine kids, so I've been around them my whole life. I wanted to be true to that."

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Pete's Dragon opens in theaters August 12th.