“Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
“Just because you say it’s true doesn’t mean it is.”
Pete’s Dragon really isn’t a remake of the 1977 Disney live action/animation musical. Disney is calling it a reimagining of the story. The only similarities are the title and the basic premise of a boy and his dragon. This is a totally different story with new setting and characters. In place of a dopey looking, amiable animated dragon is a slightly less dopey looking, amiable CG dragon (who has shaggy fur, not scales).
When Pete is five, he is traveling with his parents on an “adventure” in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. A car accident leaves him orphaned and alone in the forest. He is rescued and taken in by a dragon that lives in the woods. Then the story skips ahead six years.
There is local lore about a dragon living in the forest, mostly based on accounts of Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), who has been telling children what seems to be a tall tale for many years. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a forest ranger who has never seen the dragon in all her years in the woods and claims there is nothing to them.
Meanwhile, Pete (Oakes Fegley) and the dragon (whom he calls Eliot because of the book he had with him and has read over and over through the years) have been living an idyllic existence. It is not so much a parent child relationship as that of a boy and his dog (take your pick which character is in which role). They frolic and play. Think of Pete as another version of Mowgli from Jungle Book. Pete and Eliot are both alone—the only ones of their kinds that they know of—so they form a kind of family.
One day, loggers are working in the area when the boss’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) sees him and goes into the forest after him. Soon, Pete is caught and brought to town where Grace and Natalie’s father Jack (Wes Bentley) care for him. Pete just wants to go home to Eliot. Meanwhile, some of the loggers have set out to find and capture Eliot. Eliot and those who support him and the loggers all converge on Eliot about the same time, which leads to Eliot’s capture. Soon it will require all Pete and his new friends can do to rescue the dragon who first rescued Pete.
There are three themes worth noting in the film. The film has a slight (maybe too slight) environmental message. The forest is a place of wonder. Grace loves the woods and does everything she can to protect it. Jack (with whom Grace has a relationship) seeks to be a responsible logger. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) wants to cut down many more trees than he is supposed to. These views of how we relate to nature transfer to the way people approach Eliot. Grace and Jack seek to save him. Gavin and others seek to exploit him, just as they want to exploit the forest. Gavin is not an evil person or really even what we would call a villain. He is just one who operates out of selfishness whether it has to do with trees or Eliot.
The film also seeks to emphasize the importance of family and belonging. Even though Pete and Eliot have what seems like a family bond, we know that they are both missing what it means to be with those of their own kind. The family motif plays out with Meacham and Grace, with Jack and Natalie, and even with Jack and Gavin. But the real ideal of family is seen in the bond between Eliot and Pete, even though it is not a real family. It is that relationship that all the others want to have in their own lives.
Finally, the film is about wonder and faith. When Meacham tells Grace the non-tall tale version of his encounter so many years before, he says he didn’t experience fear, but rather awe at the magic in the world. He says, “It changed the way I see the world.” Ever since his encounter with Eliot, he has lived with that sense of wonder and tried, through his storytelling, to convey it to the generations that have followed. Pete and Eliot bring the reality of his story to the town. Encounters with Eliot and discovering that there is magic in the world lead many to new ways of seeing the world, just as it had for Meacham. Often faith is understanding that things we may not see really are there.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios