He definitely had to be a dragon named Elliot, but director David Lowery only had one other major request for his title beast in “Pete’s Dragon”: The creature needed to be furry.
Scales can be cute, too — as proven by the salamander-esque Toothless in “How to Train Your Dragon” — but for Lovery’s family-friendly Disney remake, he wanted the computer-generated Elliot to exude warmth, as well as animal magnetism, for the audience and his 10-year-old human buddy Pete (Oakes Fegley).
“We’re writing this movie and thinking, ‘How did this kid survive winter in the woods all alone?’ ” the filmmaker says. “Well, the answer is he curled up with a really fuzzy dragon who’s probably hibernating.”
“Pete’s Dragon” is set in a Pacific Northwest forest where Pete and Elliot have been living for six years, ever since the boy walked away from a car accident in the middle of nowhere that killed his parents. Forest ranger Grace Meachum (Bryce Dallas Howard) has heard her dad (Robert Redford) tell stories about a dragon in the woods since she was a kid, but learns Elliot is very real when she finds Pete and tries to figure out his true identity.
Some traits of the cuddly cartoon star from 1977’s live-action/animated hybrid “Pete’s Dragon” remain in the DNA of the new one: Elliot has a gut, can make himself invisible, communicates via mumbles and roars, and is “not quite as physically adept or graceful as you’d imagine a dragon to be,” says Lowery.
Largely, however, the director wanted something different. There’s the fur, which for Lowery “goes a long way in selling the relationship at the heart of the movie,” but the beast also has ears on the sides of his head, so “you got a little more dog- or cat-like emotions out of him,” adds visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon of Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s effects house.
Plus, Elliot — who stands a towering 21 feet tall — needed a certain majesty about him. “Before you know he’s a nice dragon, you feel this overwhelming sense of awe at the sight of him,” says Lowery, who thought it was important that Elliot be a vegetarian. “He eats sticks and logs but never hurts another animal.”
A zoo of creatures and their physical traits were picked to convey different aspects of Elliot. Lowery borrowed his cat’s morning routine for Elliot waking up, and Saindon videotaped his black lab and sprinkled the dog throughout Elliot’s actions, including how he would react to a water hose.
Animators looked at an albatross for Elliot taking off (“It’s not a graceful thing at all,” says Saindon) and seagulls for the dragon crashing back down to earth, “because they’re just not the greatest landers,” Lowery adds.
The biggest challenge was finding the right line between reality and fantasy for Elliot, where he was “slightly fanciful and yet grounded,” Lowery says.
So when Pete asks Elliot if he’s going to eat him, the director aimed for a mix of humor, emotion and curiosity. “That’s the first time you see the dragon actually respond to something and realize he’s not just an evil creature who’s about to indeed devour this 4-year-old.”