Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday Musings: Pete's Dragon Review

A while back I made a deal to swap movie thoughts with Mirriam. She picked Kubo and the Two Strings, reviewed it quickly, and praised it left and right. (If you haven't seen it yet, go out and do so. It's a gorgeous Japanese hero myth.) I chose Pete's Dragon because I was excited to see what a fresh take on one of my favorite childhood films would look like.* Seven or eight months later, I can finally deliver on my end. (Oh the glories of Netflix.)

First things first: yes, this movie is different from the original (and not just because it's not a musical). It is, like the other Disney remakes preceding it (Maleficent and, to a lesser extent, Cinderella) a new spin on things. In all three cases, this is a good thing. Breathing new life into old stories is part of the ongoing process of storytelling.

I really appreciated the fact that the filmmakers wanted to take the heart of Pete's Dragon (an orphaned boy befriended and cared for by a dragon before finding his adoptive family) and bring it into a modern setting with what I think is a truer fairy tale spirit.

At the center of this modern take is the concept of relationships -- between humans and other humans as well as humans and nature -- and how these relationships, once broken, can be restored. All of the dysfunction and pain in the film can be attributed to one or more of these relationships being broken or imbalanced in some way -- from the opening scene where Pete's parents die (because his dad swerved the car to avoid hitting a deer) to the destruction of Pete and Elliot's tree house (because Gavin feels he has to prove himself and views nature as something to be exploited rather than tended) to even old man Meacham's telling a very different dragon story to the kids at the start of the film than he later tells his daughter, Grace.

Twice in the film Elliot's fur changes from a darker, greyish green to the vibrant green of sunlit leaves. Both times this happens when an understanding human (first Pete, then Grace) touches him in a moment of fear and danger. In the first instance, this forges the bond between Pete and Elliot that allows both of them to survive the next six years in the forest; in the second, it gives Elliot some much-needed love when the town's logging force (under Gavin's leadership) have him tied and tranquilized.

The scene with Pete is especially important because it marks an instance of what C.S. Lewis once referred to (I believe in The Problem of Pain) in regard to the relationship between man and animal: that just as humanity is raised up by its relationship with God, so animals are raised up by their relationships with humanity. In this scene, Elliot shifts from "dumb beast" to a fuller version of himself. Isolated in the Millhaven woods, he's become a brute rather than the relational animal he was intended to be. The microcosm he and Pete create is a substitute for what they've both lost -- but the film doesn't hold this wild living up as the ideal. Pete cannot be fully himself -- and fully human -- apart from a human family. Likewise, Elliot must return to the dragon family from whom he has been separated so long.

Although Gavin is an antagonist for part of the film, he is never the villain Doc Terminus and the Gogans were in the original. The new film eschews a hero vs villain story to focus on reconciliation. Not only is Pete given a new family with Grace, Natalie, and Jack, but Gavin and Jack are brought back together as brothers in harmony. When Elliot (out of the desire to protect Pete) becomes a fire-breathing dragon out of legend on the bridge leading out of town, Jack and Grace are endangered. Gavin is faced with the results of his own greed, ambition, and disregard for both nature and humanity in this moment and chooses to risk his own life in order to help his brother and future sister-in-law return to safety.

The most subtle reconciliation in the film is Meacham's. He begins the film by telling local kids the story of his encounter with the dragon of Millhaven woods -- a tale which ends with him "driving his knife home". Aside from the knowledge that he couldn't have killed Elliot, this story feels false because Meacham is a maker who carves things into wood and spins tales for his community; he is not a destroyer. This is made even clearer in his conversations with Grace, where he attempts to draw her from her stark rationalism into a worldview that allows for wonder and things beyond human explanation. When he finally tells Grace the truth of his encounter with the dragon, the revelation is two-fold: he explains that his reaction to the dragon was fear and wonder, a feeling beyond words, and then he tells her that this version has remained unspoken for so many years because of the town's own reluctance to believe his story about a dragon who is both real and awesome. The town's acceptance of the dragon's existence and Meacham's ability to show Elliot a good turn, coupled with his mended relationship with Grace (they aren't as far apart in their worldviews come the movie's end), make his character a linchpin of the movie's theme.

Another key difference that I think works in the newer film's favor is the ending. Rather than a deus ex draconis wherein long-lost family members are returned, apparently from the grave, the new film chooses to leave all the dead parents right where they've been the whole time: dead. Instead of forcing some miraculous restoration of old relationships on the story, the filmmakers have given us a truer fairy tale ending: the new family formed by the main characters, blended and strengthened by their encounters with Elliot.

So tell me: have you seen the new Pete's Dragon? What did you think? What other themes or ideas did you pick up on that I didn't mention? Let me know in the comments!

*As a side note, the original Pete's Dragon has not aged well for me. When I tried watching it with my wife last year, she couldn't sit through it and I found myself cringing at much of the opening. While I still love the music (aside from the Gogans), I just can't stick with this one anymore.


  1. I have not seen the new one yet though you're not the only person I've heard say it was worth the watch. I just know I always disliked the original (to the point where I can't really even remember much about the movie at all) so when I first heard about the remake, I wasn't remotely interested. But you've made me curious.

    1. The original was definitely a unique film. Not for everyone, even at its height. Let me know what you think of the new one whenever you see it!


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