Pete’s Dragon: Reimagining Disney Family Film

pete's_dragon_posterA reimagining of Disney’s cherished family film, Pete’s Dragon is directed by David Lowery from a screenplay by Lowery & Toby Halbrooks based on a screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.

Robert Redford plays old wood carver Mr. Meacham, who for decades 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.

His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger in these very woods, thinks that his stories are tall tales–until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley).  Pete is a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home, who claims to live in the woods with a giant green dragon named Elliott, who seems remarkably similar to the fabled dragon from 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 relaƟ onship 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 profi table at the same Ɵ me, 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

1977 Movie
In 1977, Walt Disney Studios released the live-action-animated musical “Pete’s Dragon,” the endearing tale of a young boy and his friendship with an animated green dragon, starring Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, Red Buttons and Shelley Winters.

Disney had been eager for some  time to introduce “Pete’s Dragon” to a whole new generation of filmgoers and brought on producer Jim Whitaker (“The Finest Hours,” “Friday Night Lights”), whose production company is based at the studio, to shepherd the project. “There are so many people who grew up with the original film, and the idea of that movie became a leaping-off  point for us,” says Whitaker. “We knew that this very simple idea about a boy and his dragon s ll had the poten al to become a really special fi lm.”
Whitaker and the studio began looking for possible screenwriters with a fresh take on the story and were considering writer/director David Lowery, whose powerful short fi lm, “Pioneer,” screened at the Sundance Film Fest in 2011, garnering him accolades for his skills as a storyteller.

pete's_dragon_5_howard_redfordWhen Lowery’s feature film, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” an intense drama set in Texas in the ‘70s starring Casey Afflleck, Ben Foster and Rooney Mara, premiered at Sundance in 2013 and was enthusiastically received by audiences and cri cs 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 fi lm, there are actually some similarities between his fi rst 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 fi lms 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 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 has 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 fi lms 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 ques on: where does one belong, “Lowery says.

With a finished screenplay in hand, Lowery began to set his sights on direc ng, 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.”

Casting
pete's_dragon_4_redfordBryce Dallas Howard’s journey with “Pete’s Dragon” is almost as magical as the fi lm itself. The actress, whose credits include “The Village,” “The Help” and last summer’s blockbuster “Jurassic World,” thinks of the original “Pete’s Dragon” as a fundamental part of her childhood.
“It was one of my favorite fi lms 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 fi lm…I don’t know what it is, but it immediately touches the inner child in me.”
When producer Jim Whitaker, whom Howard has known for a long  time and considers a very dear friend, called her to discuss the fi lm, it was almost too good to be true. Whitaker was thinking of her for the role of Grace, the forest ranger and daughter to Mr. Meacham who is initially skeptical as to Pete’s claim that his friend Elliot is a dragon, and wanted her to meet with director David Lowery.
Howard was already familiar with Lowery’s work, calling “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” a “fantastic movie, and a really nuanced, impressionistic, sophisticated film as well,” and was thrilled to hear he was a ached to the project. “Just thinking about what someone like David could bring to a story like this, elevated everything even more,” she says.  After meeting with Lowery, she was heartened to learn that this “Pete’s Dragon” would be not so much a remake, but a fi lm 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 fi rst fi lm, but wanted to create a fi lm that could stand side by side with the original,” she says.

pete's_dragon_3_howardHoward continues, “It is a smart, family fi lm but it’s also a compelling adventure, too, and I believe audiences are craving a family fi lm 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 fi lm does as well.”
“What David really understood about the fi lm, 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.”
Howard had numerous conversa ons with Lowery about how to give her part resonance, and together they realized that while Pete is embarking on a journey, Grace is on her own journey as well: a journey to fi nd who she was as a child and to reconnect with that  me in her life. “Pete is searching for a home but doesn’t know where it is exactly, and Grace’s friendship with Pete helps her to reconnect with her father and to begin to visualize herself with a family of her own,” she says, “And I just found that to be a really beau ful balance.”
For the crucial role of Pete, the young boy found in the woods who was separated from his parents six years ago, the fi lmmakers were looking to cast a boy with natural ac ng abili es who could let his guard down and just be a kid. Cas ng director Debra Zane (“Skyfall,” “The Hunger Games,” “American Beauty”) conducted a worldwide cas ng search and saw thousands and thousands of kids, which eventually led her to 12-year-old Oakes Fegley from Pennsylvania.
The young actor 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 fi lm “This Is Where I Leave You,” but that’s not what appealed to Lowery.
“I’m a big believer that there’s a  me and place and a type of fi lm when you want a child who can actually perform Shakespeare or cry on command,” he says. “But the types of fi lms I like to make are really more about le  ng 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's_dragon_2Zane had been raving about Fegley, but Lowery was hesitant to get his hopes up. He watched his tapes and even though he was s ll undecided, agreed to meet with the young actor in person. Lowery went to New York and the moment Fegley walked into the room, he knew they had found their Pete. “He just had that something,” Lowery says. “I can’t describe it, but there was something so real about him.”
Pete has always assumed he understands how the world works. What memories he does have are linked to a torn and ba ered children’s book, Elliot Gets Lost, which he reads over and over again, but when he learns that the world is actually much bigger and much more complex than he ever imagined, he begins to ques on his place in the world, and it was a character that appealed to Fegley immediately.
“Pete is really curious and he likes to ask a lot of ques ons, 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.”
He conƟ nues, “Pete only trusts Elliot, and in a way, Elliot knows where Pete really belongs. At fi rst Pete thinks he belongs with Elliot, but when he sees how nice some humans can be, like Grace, he gets very confused. He doesn’t want to leave Elliot though, because he loves him like a brother and a father all in one.”
Co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks says, “Grace is the embodiment of family and motherhood and Pete sees that she is tender and smart, so if anyone could convince Pete to leave the forest and choose to have a human family of his own, it is her.”

Lowery was looking for someone who could give a natural, believable performance to play Natalie, and they found that in 14-year-old Oona Laurence. While the young actress is a Tony Award® winner for her work in “Matilda the Musical” and has starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal and Rachel McAdams in “Southpaw,” she was a kid who still acts like a kid, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.

“We never got the sense that Oona was giving a performance,” says Whitaker. “She was totally natural but at the same Ɵ me, completely professional, and both she and Oakes always came to set prepared and when it was Ɵ me to work, focused on the work at hand.”
When Pete meets Natalie in the forest, he senses that she is someone he can trust. “Pete thinks that she’s really nice and because she’s so nice they become friends and have lots of adventures together,” Fegley says.
Adds Laurence, “Natalie doesn’t have as many friends as most kids, so when she fi nds Pete and they become friends she gets really excited. She’s kind of a dork and a liƩ le bit of a tomboy and is kind of lonely, like Pete, but she also understands Elliot, like Pete does.”
As a result of Lowery’s associaƟ on with the Sundance Film FesƟ val and InsƟ tute on his fi rst two fi lms, he had been working with founder Robert Redford to develop several fi lm projects and menƟ oned 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 opƟ ons 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 aƩ racƟ ve to me.”
Residents of Millhaven have always viewed Mr. Meacham as the eccentric outsider who will talk to anyone about the dragon he once saw in the woods, but he is not crazy. Redford explains, “He’s the only person to have claimed that he’s seen the dragon…nobody believes him, but they like him and he’s a part of the community. He’s isolated, not because he’s an outlaw, but because he believes in magic, and I thought that was a wonderful character to have in a film.”

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 Ɵ me,’ it’s ‘ah, I’m going to get something now.’”

The screen legend, who has appeared in such classic fi lms as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Way We Were,” “The SƟ ng” and “All the President’s Men,” has been very selecti ve in recent years as to the roles he chooses, so Lowery and Halbrooks tailored the part to fi t Redford’s strengths as an actor, which encouraged him to commit to the role.
“I think the story crafted here is very human and quite interesting,” says Redford. “It is an inti mate 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.”

Lowery, who credits Redford for helping nurture his talents as a fi lmmaker, says, “Working with him and having him in your fi lm is such an honor, and it’s something I have never taken lightly. He is disarmingly relaxed and cool and game for anything, and there was no sense of pretention on his part, ever. He was there to roll up his sleeves and do whatever I asked of him.”