Pete's Dragon: A legacy passes on

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LOS ANGELES >> Bryce Dallas Howard remembers as a child watching the 1977 film "Pete's Dragon" on repeat until the VHS was worn out. She even hung onto her old "Pete's Dragon" board book to read it to her two children. So when she heard there was a script for a new take on the fantastical story of a little boy and his dragon friend, she actively sought it out.

What started as pure, sentimental curiosity led to a starring role in Disney's new version of "Pete's Dragon " from indie director David Lowery. Howard plays the park ranger who stumbles upon this mysterious boy (Oakes Fegley) living in the woods and becomes his protector as they unearth the mystery of this so-called dragon who he claims is his friend. The film is out Friday.

"This movie is so sentimental for me because it reminded me of a lot of those movies I loved growing up that had real gravitas to them and real emotion," Howard said. "You felt transported."

As the progeny of two generations of entertainers, including her mother, actress and producer Cheryl Howard, and father, actor, director and producer Ron Howard, it's no surprise that movies have been a backdrop in Howard's life for as long as she can remember. In fact, her first sentence was uttered at a showing of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." (It was, she's told, "E.T. fly!").

Those films hold a special spot for Howard as reminders of her family legacy, her emotional development and how she's passing that on to her own children. Howard shares a few of those stories:

A fairy tale legacy

Howard's grandparents, Rance Howard and the late Jean Speegle Howard met as teenagers doing a touring children's production in Oklahoma of classic fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella. They even married on the tour dressed in their costumes, with her grandmother as Snow White and her grandfather as a huntsman.

"I come from a family who has a very romantic notion of fairy tales and that seeping into reality," Howard said.

Her grandmother imparted on her a love of classic Disney animated films through repeated viewings and trips to Disneyland. A talented seamstress, she would also make her costumes from her favorites like "Snow White," "Cinderella," and "Alice in Wonderland."

Learning from darkness

In the films she loved growing up and in this new interpretation of "Pete's Dragon," Howard has always seen the value in family films that don't shy away from trauma and darkness.

"The reality of life is that trauma exists and you can move forward from trauma. You can heal from trauma," Howard said. "That's the power of Disney. It's not just there to entertain, it's there to enlighten. I know they provided me with a lot of growth ... Children are going to create monsters. If you try to shelter a child completely from all dangers, they're going to be ill-equipped for the world. These movies are kind of giving children the tools to deal with those monsters so that they can learn to face them in their own way."

Passing the torch

While many parents can't wait to inundate their children with the films they loved from their youths, Howard and her husband, actor Seth Gabel, have a little more patience and an overriding theory.

"We mess this up all the time, but, if we can, we want to space them out so that the movies come at a time in their life when they're asking themselves similar questions," Howard said. "My son is 9½, he's going into fourth grade, he's really coming into this place where there is independence and mischief and friendships independent from the family, so we just showed him 'Aladdin.'"

For her 4½ year old daughter, it's still all about "Frozen," which has meant a slew of questions about the definition of words like "fractal," ''effigy," and "unconscious."

"In delaying it, it doesn't just become something that they watched when they were younger. It's something that they really look forward to and understand and hopefully can see the big picture," she said. "My parents are always encouraging (us) to be a little less precious, which is kind of ironic. They were very precious!"


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