Pete's Dragon and the power behind unusual screen friendships

15 Aug 2016 BY Elinor Walpole in Film Features

7 mins
Pete's Dragon
Pete's Dragon

Pete's Dragon is the latest in a growing trend of new adaptations of classic family films, which has already seen new versions of The Jungle Book and Peter Pan released. But where those stories had their origins in books, the original 1977 Pete's Dragon was a unique story crafted especially for the big screen.

In that version - which combined live action with 2D animation - unhappy runaway Pete befriends an animated dragon that gets him in trouble with the townspeople by turning himself invisible and causing all sorts of mayhem. For this retelling of Pete's Dragon, though, director David Lowery decided on a rather different approach. Lowery remains respectful to the nostalgia for the original, but chooses to emphasise the emotional potential of the story, rather than the comic, as he presents a unique relationship between boy and mythical beast, which the dragon itself brought to far more realistic life with the latest technological developments.

2016's Pete is an only child who loses both of his parents in a crash, just as they head off for a family holiday. Pete is the sole survivor, left seemingly alone in the forest with nothing but his beloved book 'Elliot Gets Lost' for company. Suddenly in a position where he must test the bravery his parents have praised him for, Pete is daunted by the threatening wilderness - until a dragon intervenes.

Opening with such a dramatic and traumatic event, five-year-old Pete must learn to readjust and make the most of his new adventure - having only just found out what the word even means. After experiencing a loss he cannot fully understand, Pete accepts his new dragon protector unquestioningly. Six years later, we see him having fully embraced his life in the woods, swinging through trees like Tarzan or his counterpart Mowgli in The Jungle Book, and facing up to the other woodland creatures, always confident that his dragon (whom he names Elliot, after his special book) will be there to back him up.

Elliot is now a drastic departure from the original, 2D-animated clumsy creature that got the first Pete into so much trouble. While being playful and occasionally struggling to balance grace with his incredible size, this version of Elliot is a much more nuanced character that the filmmakers were keen for audiences to establish a real emotional connection with. Animated using CGI, Elliot has more dimensions than the first incarnation (in more ways than one), and borrows his look more from household/companion animals such as horses or dogs, as opposed to the mythical or lizard-like characteristics traditionally associated with dragons in films like How to Train Your DragonShrek, or The Hobbit. Elliot is fluffy, rather than scaly, emphasising his cuddly persona, and each of his 15 million hairs had to be animated individually to create a convincingly plush coat.

The unique friendship between Pete and Elliot is at the heart of the story, and to ensure this was translated onto the big screen properly, an inflatable dragon was brought in for actor Oakes Fegley (who plays Pete) to interact with. For moments of emotional intensity, a wireframe puppet dragon head was used to make sure the eye contact levels were correct between Pete and the CGI dragon. 

Elliot is a powerful, but sensitive and caring dragon; his more fearsome side only unleashed when Pete is threatened. This sort of intense, wordless bond between a child and a misunderstood friend that exists beyond the reach of adults is at the centre of many much-loved family films, including E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and The Iron Giant, and more recently The Good Dinosaur.

Pete's life in the woods with Elliot has trapped him in a bubble of time beyond which he has not developed. When Pete first encounters another person, he still believes he's five when asked his age, bringing to mind characters such as Peter Pan, who lives in a world where he will remain forever young. Peter Pan is another film that has been frequently reinterpreted, sharing similar themes to Pete's Dragon with its tale of an orphaned perma-child adventuring in an adult-free realm. Stories of brave, independent children such as these continue to capture the imagination, and gently introduce poignant messages about growing up and learning to accept change. In charge of a large dragon with whom he has a special connection - and living in a treehouse which is sure to excite the envy of many young viewers - Pete's life is the ideal fantasy for many children, and we as the audience are reluctant for that spell to be broken, as inevitable as that is.

Pete, however is not the only person in the film to have had a special experience with a dragon. Meacham (played by veteran actor Robert Redford), is an elderly resident of the nearby logging village, who enchants the townspeople with his thrilling yarn of a dragon encounter up in the mountains. Despite embracing the mythology, none of the village's residents truly believe in his tale, and over the years Meacham has made it more and more fantastical as even he loses faith in the memory.

Pete's Dragon is a film that invites the viewer, like Meacham, to connect with and trust their own special memories. Valuing the people and the environment of the film's world over impressive spectacle (although the film certainly provides that too!), Pete's Dragon puts forward the idea that sometimes it is the simplest things that are the most magical.

Pete's Dragon - Bryce Dallas Howard Interview

Below, our young reporter Rohan talks to Pete's Dragon actor Bryce Dallas Howard about how the film approaches environmentalism, when she's had to be brave in her career, and what she's learnt from working with independent filmmakers.

Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer

Elinor Walpole , Film Programmer

Elinor has a BA in English Literature from the University of Warwick. She has worked as Education and Community Officer for Picturehouse Cinemas, and as Outreach Coordinator for Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

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