'Pete's Dragon' is a celebration of the family
Posted August 29, 2016
I saw a good family movie the other night.
That’s quite an amazing thing, given the cinematic marketplace at the moment. (I recently saw “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad,” too. Those are not good movies, let alone good family movies.) But since it was my birthday last week, we wanted to go see something that everyone could enjoy, which is why we found ourselves watching “Pete’s Dragon” despite not knowing much about it.
I vaguely remembered the hokey original 1977 film, to which this new movie bears no resemblance whatsoever. I had also heard good things about it, and a friend of mine from my college days is in it. (Shout out to fellow USC theater school alum Steve Barr, who plays a cop. His part is small but significant, and he has the hands-down funniest moment in the film. Watch for it — it involves a police radio.) There were other movies that everyone wanted to see. I was keen on watching “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and the kids were more interested in something with superheroes in it. But after much haggling, “Pete’s Dragon” was the acceptable, if unexciting, consensus.
That’s the downside of family films. Generally speaking, they’re both clean and boring. The word “family,” when applied as an adjective to a motion picture, is often synonymous with the word “bland.” Much to my delight, “Pete’s Dragon” was anything but bland. It was a movie that embraced the very concept of family as something vital, something that each of us hungers to find on a very primal level.
The story begins with tragedy, as young Pete loses his loving parents in a rollover crash in the middle of the woods. Lost and alone, he is befriended by a massive, fuzzy green dragon he calls Elliot, the name of the dog in the storybook he was reading in the car. The legend of the dragon is that he is separated from his own family from the mountains of the North. So two very different orphans find each other and, both broken and alone, create a makeshift family of their own.
The story jumps ahead six years when Grace Meacham, a forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard, discovers Pete running through the trees. Her father, portrayed in a refreshingly humble performance by Robert Redford, has been telling people for years that he saw a dragon in the woods years before, but no one believes him. Grace’s daughter befriends Pete, who is all but adopted into the Meacham family almost instantly. The writers play up the tension between Pete’s life in the wild with his discovery of what it means to have a sister and parents. So much of modern cinema is devoted to deconstructing the nuclear family that it feels almost radical to see a major Hollywood release celebrating a child’s intrinsic yearning for a mother and a father.
That’s not to say that “Pete’s Dragon” is preachy or didactic on the subject. In many ways, it’s also a recognition that families can be forged in even the most trying circumstances, as the familial bond between boy and dragon makes clear. It’s also not a perfect movie by any means, as the conflict precipitated by Karl Urban’s lumberjack character is kind of stupid. (If you were to discover something as strange and wondrous as a dragon in the woods, would your first thought be, “Let’s go hunting?” Yeah, me neither.)
Still, this was a movie that should have been pablum. It wasn’t. It was that rarest of rare things — a genuine family film in the very best sense of the word.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.