The forest can be dark and scary. A place of deep shadows, glowing eyes and the unexpected sounds of twigs snapping under mysterious, large feet. And when a man named Meacham tells his story of a terror he once supposedly lived through, well, the forest seems more frightening with each retelling. The eyes in the night grow ever brighter with ominous light. And the eyes of his rapt young listeners grow ever bigger with his every word.
Until, that is, Meacham’s forest ranger daughter, Grace, walks by and tells her dad to stop scaring the kids. She ruffles the old man’s hair and grins knowingly at the tykes. As for the tall tale of the day her dad saw a dragon in the woods, well, she’s heard it all before. And so has everyone else … over the age of 9 or 10.
Grace grabs her ranger’s hat and heads for her truck, chuckling as she goes. She’s walked through miles and miles of the woods surrounding their little town of Millhaven, and not once has she ever seen a single scrap of evidence of the alleged “Millhaven Dragon.” And she’s sure she never will, no matter how much she’d actually sorta love to … if only to add a juicy detail or two of her own to her dad’s mythic narrative—and watch him get big-eyed for a change.
Six years or so before Grace pulled out of her driveway with dragons on her mind, a 5-year-old boy named Pete was riding down a narrow, forest-lined roadway in a car with his mom and dad. They laughed and talked of the adventure they were on, and they chatted about Pete’s new book featuring a lost puppy named Elliot.
That’s when the deer darted out into the road. In hushed slow-motion, their car swerved and rolled.
Only little Pete survived.
The forest can be dark and scary. Especially for a confused little boy suddenly left all alone there. And as black shapes slide past tree trunks and break twigs under foot, it gets worse.
But Pete and the wolves around him aren’t alone. There’s also a much, much bigger creature nearby.
It’s huge enough to scare any puny wolf away. But it’s gentle and comforting to a little lost boy. In fact it’s not really frightening at all. “Are you going to eat me?” Pete wonders out loud at first. But he quickly realizes this creature has nothing of the sort on its mind. It wants only to protect something so small, so alone, so vulnerable.
Someday, years later, a young pretty ranger named Grace will accidentally stumble across this lost boy, too. He’ll be older by then and have lived a strange and incredible life. She’ll marvel over his survival sojourn in the woods and hear his odd, fantastic stories about a creature named Elliot.
And she’ll start to wonder if maybe her beloved dad’s outlandish tale isn’t so tall after all.
For all of Pete’s love for the forest and for his dragony “best friend,” we see that he is drawn to the humans he meets and that he naturally longs for the familial embrace only his own kind can give. Grace instinctually reaches out to the boy with motherly love. Grace’s fiancé, Jack, and Jack’s daughter, Natalie, welcome him with open arms, too.
Even Elliot the dragon eventually recognizes that a human boy is better off with a family than with him. And we get a hint that Elliot starts looking for a family of his own once his young charge is being cared for.
Some light save-the-forest messages get mingled into the story’s mix.
When Meacham recounts the story of his encounter with a dragon in the woods, he speaks of the magic of the moment, and how that magic changed his perspective on life.
Pete’s parents are killed in a car crash. But the crash is handled with age-appropriate discretion, the camera’s eye focusing on an unharmed and buckled-in Pete as the car tumbles. We hear Pete’s mom weep and then breathe her last (offscreen) as Pete crawls out of the wreck. Wolves soon surround the boy threateningly.
The older, wilderness-savvy version of Pete leaps off cliffs, faces down roaring bears in the woods and jumps from the roofs of moving vehicles in town. But, of course, his actions aren’t really depicted as reckless since he’s always protected by a gigantic dragon. Pete and Natalie take a few tumbles—once, thumping down from the high branches of a tree.
Elliot has a defensive ability to almost become invisible and blend into his environment. And that’s for good reason. As men become aware of his existence, they start making plans to hunt him. Jack’s brother, Gavin, and his crew track the dragon with rifles and dart guns. They throw ropes around his neck and hit him with tranquilizer darts. As he tries to take flight, Elliot loses consciousness and crashes to earth.
Elliot fights to protect his “boy cub” at one point—belching out fire and destroying a bridge. When it looks as if those destructive actions might actually injure someone, though, the dragon swoops down to save the victims at the last second.
A car chase involving pickup trucks, police cars and a semi smashes up a number of vehicles. Several tumble off a large suspension bridge. Hospital orderlies drop a patient from a gurney.
Gavin leaves an unfinished “oh my …” hanging in the air. Meachum says that the dragon he saw had eyes that were “red like hellfire.”
Meacham, Natalie and Pete steal a truck. Gavin selfishly wants to use Elliot to bring him fame and riches (though the movie clearly points out the wrongness of his actions).
Solomon, the world’s wisest man, once said: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). And though this biblical paragon of wisdom had no concept of 21st-century Hollywood, his well-considered words still apply.
The rebooted, live-action rendition of Pete’s Dragon is really nothing new. And it’s not just because it’s a modern re-envisioning of a 1977 Disney cartoon. It’s because we’ve seen the basic building blocks of this tale mixed and stirred together again and again at the moviehouse: the troubled kid, the misunderstood otherworldly companion, the longing for unconditional love and family, the selfish outside threat, the need for bravery and justice.
As I was watching Pete’s story unfold, it sorta reminded me of Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Others have made comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. All different stories, but all very much alike. Those stories are all about us, the longings in them are our longings, and we love these tales. That’s why they work. That’s why Pete’s Dragon works. Really, really well.
If you’re a parent pausing over concerns about dragons, worry not. Pete’s winged, galumphy bud Elliot is no scary, scaly fire-breather. He’s more like a cuddly monster in green fur—a lovable, golden retriever puppy-like pal … that’s as big as a bus.
And, frankly, good-ol’ huffing, snuffing, wing-flapping and face-planting Elliot is a pretty good metaphorical representation of this whole film. It’s got some mildly perilous moments of gun-waving and car-chasing that may require some arm-around-the-shoulder comfort for the littlest ones. But the movie’s king-sized heart is what ultimately gets you … and carries you away in a pair of big green fuzzy paws.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.