When I was a boy, there was a movie I watched over and over again. It was one of the few movies we owned in my house, and I was a kid who didn’t have a whole lot of friends, so videotapes were as good a pastime as any. That movie, about a boy and the animated dragon that he called his best friend was all about finding one’s way home, and being a in a place where people believed in you. It was comforting in a time when I didn’t always feel so great.
So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that going back to that mindset so many years later reminded me so much of feeling at home and feeling special.
PETE’S DRAGON begins with an adventure. Five-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is sitting in the back of his parents’ car during a road trip in the American Pacific Northwest when his father swerves to avoid hitting a deer. The car flips, the parents are killed, but a frightened and tearful Pete is unharmed. Taking his backpack and his storybook with him, Pete wanders deep into the woods in search of safety.
It’s there that he first encounters the dragon.
Covered in green fur, able to make himself invisible, with a long neck, giant wings, and the face of a large dog, the dragon comes to Pete’s aid when he is surrounded by wolves. After the dragon scares them away, he turns to the boy and realizes that the child is scared and alone. The dragon wordlessly offers his paw, and a dear friendship is born. Pete names the dragon Elliot after the dog in his storybook, and the two make the forest their domain.
Six years later, the forest Pete and Elliot call home is the scene of great change.
A logging company owned by two brothers – Jack and Gavin (Wes Bentley and Karl Urban) – is clear-cutting in areas that are supposed to be protected. Jack is opposed to the idea, but Gavin is trying to get a leg-up on the competition. As the loggers work, they unknowingly inch closer and closer to the space Pete and Elliot call home.
In the middle of the mix is Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park ranger who is trying to keep Gavin’s ambitions in-check, and also happens to be dating Jack. Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford) is woodworker who swears he came face-to-face with a dragon in these woods when he was a younger lad. Nobody believes him.
Everything comes to a head when the cutting comes too close to the cave where Pete and Elliot live. The boy becomes curious, and creeps towards the scene of the work. That’s when Jack’s daughter catches sight of him and gives chase. As she does, she gets hurt and prompts all of the adults to come running. Pete is discovered, and immediately taken into protective care. Once he’s gone, though, Elliot grows concerned and wanders away from the cave. It’s then that he encounters Gavin, and both scares the heck out of him, and becomes game that the logger wants to hunt.
So it goes that an entire community try to do what’s right for a lost little boy, and try to make sense of renewed tales of dragons deep in their own backyard.
In many ways, PETE’S DRAGON feels like a throwback to a bygone era. Not in the way that it brings families together around one table, with nary a screen in sight (though it does that too). More in the way that for a few minutes in our youth, just one other soul is enough for us. It can be one of our parents, or a sibling, a friend, or a pet. There is one being in our lives that makes everything okay and everything feel safe. We don’t feel a need to impress the whole world, only to impress that one person. As we grow, ambition seeps in and we begin to want to take on bigger things to impress more people…but for a while there, it’s all about coming back to one.
If we’re lucky, we grow-up and become that singular soul for somebody else; a child, a spouse, a dear friend. But more often than not, we try to be many things for many people and forget about what it was to be singular; to be special.
There’s a moment late in PETE’S DRAGON where Elliot sees the change coming in his relationship with Pete. Seeing the boy interact with other humans, he immediately understands that his time as being Pete’s sole purpose is coming to an end. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and yet it’s also beautiful since we can see in the creature’s body language a clear understanding not only of what, but also why. This is not a child growing-up and casting away childish pursuits, this is a dear friend finding a place he belongs.
We all feel that way sometimes. Someone we care about gets a better job, or moves somewhere with new opportunities. We feel saddened to see them go, but in the same breath say to them “don’t ever look back”. We know that wherever they are going is somewhere they belong, and at the end of the day the feeling of belonging is what we all want most.
PETE’S DRAGON embodies that feeling of belonging like few other films in recent years. It pivots effortlessly from the connection of a boy and his pet to the realization that a boy needs a family too. Near the margins is the desire of an old man to have his experiences validated, and closer to centre a couple who are sorting out love in the shadow of a sibling rivalry. In every corner, people just want to feel at home . They want that bygone feeling; the table, the family, no screens.
What the movie understands is that to get to that place, one will encounter sadness on the way. That’s okay though, because by letting go of something both sides open themselves up to new sources of happiness they’ll be able to approach with full hearts.
That’s what makes PETE’S DRAGON such a beautiful film. Time and again, we are witness to that moment of transition – that point where one soul needs to pack up the car and hug another soul goodbye. That should be a miserable experience, but instead it is continually bittersweet and heartwarming. It allows us to witness the beginnings and endings of singular relationships and remember when we held that place for someone in our lives.
It reminds us of time where we knew we belonged.