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.