Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

How director David Lowery made Pete's Dragon an instant family classic

The new Pete's Dragon is unashamedly a throwback. In movie terms it's outdated, it's off-trend and it has barely anything to do with its namesake.

It's also one of the best family films I've seen in... well, years.

Blame Shrek. In 2001 the animated ogre enjoyed such massive success that its template became the new norm. To succeed, family movies now needed nods and winks to Mum and Dad. They needed to work on two vastly different levels and they needed to be crammed full of pop culture references and sly gags for the oldies.

Consider it a hostile takeover. There were still entertaining movies, sure. But when the adult world stormed the children's world, something was lost.

It's taken a while to work out what that was. Pete's Dragon is a powerful reminder of exactly what it is that's been missing for far too long; that old Disney magic and childhood sense of wonder - qualities you inherently think of when you think of the term, 'Disney classic'.

Pete's Dragon was filmed in New Zealand.
Pete's Dragon was filmed in New Zealand.

"The movies I remember growing up loving were very textured and had a lot of emotional qualities to them, in addition to all the things that make them enjoyable for kids," explains director and co-writer David Lowery.

"I wanted to make a film that felt like that. That felt like the movies I grew up loving. It's not just nostalgia. It's a different mode of filmmaking that's been forgotten."

Lowery is bringing it back. Pete's Dragon has enjoyed a staggered worldwide release and has had critics raving about its return to the old feelgood factor of yore. The movie is heartwarming and packs an emotional punch.

"What attracted me to this movie was the opportunity to make a great family film and the chance make a middle-of-the-road classic Disney movie," he says on a blustery Wellington day. "I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. I didn't want to do anything revisionist or dark and gritty. I just wanted to make a really great children's film."

The film has fun, adventure and - as it nears its conclusion - stirring strings and plenty of teary eyes. There was a risk it could have descended into cheesy schmaltz but Lowery proved a deft directorial hand.

"The key to me was to keep it as simple as possible. By keeping it simple it's easier to be honest and sincere. And if you're honest and sincere than all of those moments that could be false or cliche or ring untrue ultimately are earned.

"So it was a matter of keeping the story on track and staying true to it. As long as it's earned I don't mind wringing an audience's emotion or being sentimental."

The thing with the original 1977 Pete's Dragon is that though I can picture the chubby fat dragon with his floppy pink moptop and teeny wings quite vividly, I can't remember anything else about it. I know it so well, yet I have no idea what it was about.

"My memory of it is the same as yours," Lowery laughs. "I can see it in my head. I can remember exactly what the dragon looks like, how he walks and sounds. But that's about it. I have fond memories of it but they're very, very vague."

Director David Lowery wanted to make a film that harked back to his childhood.
Director David Lowery wanted to make a film that harked back to his childhood.

Surprisingly he didn't go back and watch the film. In fact, he still hasn't.

"If I was referential to the original I felt that would be a trap. And if I went back and saw the original and hated it, maybe I wouldn't have wanted to do this. So I felt it best to just let the original be and try to capture some of the memories I had, those vague hazy memories, but not in any specific way."

Which leads us, nicely to, the dragon. When the first production stills were released I scratched my head. It didn't look much like a dragon. Having seen the film I now totally get it and that distinctive look makes so much more sense.

"I had a clear idea of what I wanted him to look like from the start, and I knew he was going to be furry," he says. "On a practical level we've got a kid who needs to have a bond with an animal and as that animal's going to be photo-realistic it's much more likely they'll be endeared to him if that animal's furry. You just respond to more to soft cuddly things than to cold scaly things. "

Then with a grin he says, "I just wanted to make a 20ft version of my cats."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Director David Lowery
What: Pete's Dragon
When: In cinemas from Thursday Sep 16

- TimeOut

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