At first, the idea seems inconceivable: You’ve been hired by a major studio to remake a beloved film, and you’ve never seen that movie. It’s time to begin doing your research, so immediately you rush out and decide — to not watch the original film.
Surprisingly enough, that was the predominant mindset for the cast of “Pete’s Dragon,” the eagerly-anticipated Disney flick that hit theaters Friday (August 12). The film shares the same name and plot as the 1977 Disney classic starring Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy and Shelly Winters — but that is pretty much where the similarities end, and director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) wanted to make sure it stayed that way.
“The gloves were off in terms of how we dealt with that legacy,” Lowery says of his mandate when Disney hired him for the gig, which they immediately made clear was a reinvention rather than a remake.
“There wasn’t a fine line, it was a pretty blunt line, even including the fact that we didn’t have to name the dragon Elliott. We could have called him something else, or not given him a name. But I did like the idea of having a name, and Elliott was as good a name as any. I liked the sound of that, so we kept it.”
For fans of the original film about an orphaned boy raised by the frequently-invisible, aforementioned dragon, changing so much as the name could be seen as heresy. But when you see Lowery’s finished product, it’s hard to argue with the results of largely ignoring the original.
“This is completely different,” says 12-year-old Oakes Fegley, who plays Pete in the new film. “The only two things that are the same is that there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott. So, since I hadn’t actually seen the film before and I didn’t wanna get it all mixed up in my head, I didn’t [watch it].”
Oona Laurence, the young actress who plays daughter to Bryce Dallas Howard’s well-intentioned park ranger, says she also didn’t watch the 1977 flick. With them, perhaps you could blame age — but not their older co-star.
“To be perfectly honest, I never saw the original,” agrees Karl Urban, who plays the mean-spirited logger who acts as the villain in the film. “I was vaguely aware of it, but it was not in my wheelhouse growing up. My interest and attraction was purely in what I read in the script.”
There is, however, one actor who is fully aware of the Disney classic — Bryce Dallas Howard, who insists she was a fan long before any remake script came her way.
“I loved ‘Pete’s Dragon’ as a kid,” she enthuses. “In fact, when I told my sister that I was doing ‘Pete’s Dragon,’ she cried. I was like ‘Wait, no, it’s so different! Ah, how am I gonna explain this to you?'”
According to Howard, she eventually got her sister onboard with the new Disney version — and in the end, she hopes other fans of the 1977 version will follow suit.
“When I heard that it was happening, I was really curious as to what they were going to do, and how they were going to adapt it, because it’s an unusual film, it really, really is,” Howard says. “But apart from the title, the central themes and the characters of Pete and Elliott, this is truly a departure. But the script was so beautiful, and that’s when I was like ‘I’d really love to be in this.'”