David Lowery brings joy and wonder to a sneak peek at Disney’s ‘Pete’s Dragon’ remake

I arrived mid-morning in Hollywood, parked, and headed directly to the event being held right next door to the Jimmy Kimmel theater. There was already a decent line by the time I walked up. I thought the event started at ten, but it turns out that”s just when check-in opens, so I ended up spending almost an hour just sitting in the theater waiting. My bad. Reading is probably important when planning your schedule.

The El Capitan is Disney”s showcase venue. It”s the reason they bought it in the very early ’90s and went to work restoring it. They wanted a place to be able to stage a film as an event, where they could control every part of the experience, and certainly, that was in full effect the morning of the event. The balconies on either side of the main stage were filled with the flora and faunae of Underland, since Alice Through The Looking Glass is currently playing at the theater. The music that was playing from the moment we were checked in and seated was one Disney song after another. I love “Let”s Go Fly A Kite” as much as anyone, but they were playing a sort of medley version by the Generic White People Orchestra where they go from film to film, doing two minutes of most of the major songs in each of the films, with no break in the wall of Disney music. It never quite builds to a conclusion because it”s designed to keep you soaking in the Disney atmosphere.

We were there to see a presentation for David Lowery”s remake of Pete”s Dragon, and while I don”t attend many of these because I don”t want to keep seeing chunks of a movie repeatedly before I see the finished film, in this case, I”m curious. I”m curious because I don”t love the original, but I know many, many people who do. I”m curious because I”ve read the script and it surprised me. It”s much more than a simple Disney update. And I”m curious because David Lowery is a guy who has been impressing me for a long time now.

We met when he used to send me reviews of movies he”d see at film festivals, and I”d publish them on my previous website. David, like all of our contributors, had a secret spy name, and any of the spies who I developed a relationship with as an editor were guys who I thought had a really great take on film. David, in particular, had great taste, and a very clear and precise approach as a reviewer. He would find great moments in average films, and he was frequently one of the first guys to pick up on an emerging voice.

When he made the jump to filmmaker, I wasn”t surprised. Ain”t Them Bodies Saints is a very good first film with a strong emphasis on performance. But when he signed to write and direct Pete”s Dragon, I was surprised mainly because I”ve always thought of the original film as a sort of lesser-than-lesser ’70s Disney mess. The most notable thing about it was the production design of the weird hick town where the whole thing took place, which has always reminded me of the Robert Altman version of Sweethaven in Popeye. Lowery didn”t strike me as a guy who had this kind of film bouncing around inside him, or as a guy who would even watch the original Pete”s Dragon, much less want to remake it.

When the script landed in my e-mail box, I couldn”t resist. I read it quickly, and I was totally taken aback by what he”d done with it. I could see Spielberg and Truffaut in the DNA of the script, but it wasn”t done as homage. It”s just a strongly structured story about imagination and survival and childhood and friendship, and it was written with complete sincerity. There”s nothing meta-textual or winky-winky about it. I realized right away that Lowery was determined to make this something real, and that he was approaching it from a genuinely personal place, not as a corporate gig.

When he took the stage last Tuesday, David seemed both nervous and excited, like he could barely contain his energy. He said that if it was up to him, he would have shown the whole film. Instead, they picked four scenes to showcase. He mentioned that the film takes place in an intentionally vague Pacific Northwest in a particular but unstated point in the past.

In the first clip, we met Mr. Meechum (Robert Redford) and his daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). He”s the town eccentric, and she”s a ranger in the nearby forest. He tells a scary story to a bunch of kids about the time he met a dragon, and just as he”s got all the kids freaked out, she deflates the story completely, telling the kids that there are no dragons in the forest. Sweet. Simple. Short. Nice to see a bit of Redford in action.

The second clip was the best of the bunch that we saw, and it was basically just a long day with Pete and Elliott together. It”s beautiful stuff, and holy cow, they”ve done a good job of making Elliott a living, breathing thing. He”s a big dog, Pete”s best friend and protector, and the way Lowery shoots him is like he”s a real character, not a special effect. If you”ve been dying to play The Last Guardian on Playstation and you”ve been frustrated by all the delays of the game, then brace yourself, because you”ll get your fix here. Oakes Fegley is the kid they found to play Pete, and he”s just as important to the equation as getting the dragon right. We”ve got to believe that this is a little kid who spent six years by himself in the woods with only a dragon as a friend, and Lowery has done a wonderful job of making this friendship feel real and tactile and finding a way of inviting us into this private world. There”s a joy here akin to the scenes on the island between the little boy and the horse in Ballard”s The Black Stallion, high praise indeed.

The third scene they showed us involved Pete taking everyone to meet Elliott, and while there”s no way for any of us to avoid using “The Spielberg Face” during the reveal of something magical like this, there”s a reason for that. It”s a perfect expression of that way you feel when you experience something that fundamentally changes the way you see the world. That”s what I love about film and film language. There is a camera move that conveys something as complicated as an emotional paradigm shift, and it communicates so clearly that you can use it in a children”s film. You can see a little bit of this scene in the new trailer.

You also see some of the big chase that ensues when Gavin (Karl Urban) manages to capture Elliott, only to have Pete and Grace and Mr. Meechum and friends all bust the dragon out. Well-shot and well-staged, the chase scene”s main tension came from whether or not Elliott was going to recover enough to be able to fly. They showed us exactly enough of the chase to make sure that it sucked when they turned it off on a cliffhanger, and I give them credit for knowing just how to guarantee that everyone in that room will be looking forward to the rest of the film when it comes out later this year.

The Q&A that was staged after the footage was fine, and David Lowery seemed really happy with the new trailer and how they walked the line between selling the film and preserving some of its bigger secrets. For the most part, Bryce Dallas Howard and Lowery offered up the same sort of “it was a lot of fun” comments you hear at any Q&A, but I liked how he described his decision to make the movie. It felt sincere, like it came from a place of love. For Howard, that was definitely the case. She is an unabashed fan of the original. “I love Pete”s Dragon,” she told the crowd. “And in loving it, I didn”t want it to just be a copycat thing. I felt like this story and the themes in the original film [was] the charm of the original movie. What made that film last is the central idea of friendship. When I heard it wasn”t a straight-up remake, I wanted to be part of that. And as a parent, I want there to be beautiful films out there that are innocent and timeless. I was super-proud to be part of this.”

My favorite exchange was at the tail end of the Q&A, as they were talking about Oakes Fegley and what a special kid he is. Lowery talked about looking for a kid who wasn”t polished and super-professional. “When a ten-year-old can cry on cue, that”s an amazing skill, and it”s pretty much not what I”m looking for at all.”

Without missing a beat, Howard replied, “You never would have hired me at ten.”

Let”s see if David Lowery”s Pete”s Dragon is as shaggy and wild at heart as the dragon itself when the film arrives in theaters August 12, 2016.