How to Reimagine Your Dragon

Pete's Dragon

Disney reimagines another classic, but with dragons everywhere on screens, will audiences care? Director David Lowery and star Oakes Fegley make the case for a modern Pete’s Dragon.

Aside from the money-spinning machines of Marvel, Pixar and LucasFilm, Disney has stumbled upon a lucrative new jam mining the back catalog of its own animated fantasies, and audiences who grew up loving classic titles like Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book and Dumbo are living through a renaissance.

The latest live action remake is Pete’s Dragon. When director Don Chaffey’s (Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years BC) original hit cinemas in November 1977, the visual artistry of Star Wars was still fresh in everyone’s minds and Pete’s Dragon’s blend of live action and animation wowed audiences around the world.

Of course, every second film nowadays is a blend of live action and (computer} animation, so director David Lowery promises a story that’s just as heartfelt this time around – even though he stresses it’s a completely different movie.

“What would I enjoy as a seven-year-old watching movies?” the director says to explain the genesis of his Pete’s Dragon. “I love playing in the woods, I love the whole Calvin and Hobbes style childhood, I just wanted to make a version of my ideal childhood with a dragon in it.”

After deciding he wanted his version to take part in a forest setting, Lowery says the storyline and characters emerged naturally. “What issues come up if we set something up in the forest?” he asks. “Cutting down trees – a lumber mill. Someone who’s trying to keep that from happening – a forest ranger. We got Bryce’s [Dallas Howard] character from that.”

11-year old actor Oakes Fegley, who plays Pete, agrees completely this isn’t your dad’s Pete’s Dragon. There’s a boy called Pete, a dragon called Elliot, and that’s it. “I hadn’t actually watched the original and I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to get any ideas in my head about what the movie was going to be like, because it’s completely different,” Fegley says. “After the shoot was over I watched it twice and [ours] is completely different from the old one.”

Dragon fatigue?

Of course, no matter how much the character relationships or emotional stakes keep the audience invested in the story, one of the biggest draw cards for many films featured in the pages of Famous Monsters is seeing what the dragon/shark/werewolf/alien/etc will look like.

By now you’ve probably seen Elliott in the trailer – with his huge, green, shaggy pelt and enormous eyes he’s more like a giant, curious terrier than the scaly, fire-breathing monster we know from pop culture.

Lowery says he had Elliott’s look in his head from the get go, even though he and his team of designers went through a lot of sketches to get there. “Ultimately it ended up back where that original design was,” he says. “They made my amateur sketch look like a real thing and it was great. The very first thing I said to the studio was that I wanted the dragon to be furry. That was really important to me, I like cuddly things.”

Once Elliott’s look was locked there was only one place to go – Weta Digital, close by the New Zealand set that stands in for the Pacific Northwest. “Not only are they great at doing character work with their CGI creatures but they mastered fur with the Planet of the Apes films,” Lowery says.

As he now recalls, it was quite the process. Every strand had to interact with real or virtual environments (such as the lighting or how it moves in the wind), but Lowery says the team at Weta has its ‘hair process’ down. “They animate the shot, hit ‘render’ and then two weeks later there’d be a shot of pretty good looking fur coming out the other end.”

Of course, a common refrain from actors in the modern age is how tricky it can be on set, reacting to a guy running around with a tennis ball on a pole as they act against a character that doesn’t exist yet. It was no different for Fegley while he worked with markers to represent Elliot’s eye line, with no idea how his giant best pal would look.

“At the beginning of the shoot it was hard for me to picture what the dragon was like and in my mind I had to come up with what he was like,” he says. “They had rough drawings that helped me out and eventually it became easier for me to picture Elliott because we interacted more and I figured it out more. They did a lot of sketches and drawings that helped the actors.”

All of which leads to the billion dollar question. In 1977 (back when it was the million dollar question) we’d seen few dragons on screen. Today we’ve had Smaug, the young charges of Daenerys Targaryen and everything in between. Is just another dragon enough to bring audiences into theaters anymore?

Lowery says it’s one of the reasons he wanted to make Elliott distinct from all the others. “We found out really quickly where the design would break and not be a dragon anymore. If we put feathers on the wings he wasn’t a dragon but if you made bat wings he still felt like a dragon. I hope the character in itself stands out.”

Targeting all quadrants

If people grew up loving the original, Lowery figures they’ll line up again no matter what Elliott looks like. The critical difference, he thinks, harks back to a particular hallmark of other movies from the original film’s time. “I look back at the movies I grew up with, they weren’t specifically geared towards kids, they were just geared towards all audiences,” he says.

“Anything from back then like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or ET – even going back to some of the weirder Disney movies like The Black Hole – they really worked for me as a kid because they played to kids but they appealed to adults. [They were] just story telling with integrity.”