2016 has been a year filled with disappointments, but Pete’s Dragon is not one of them.
Something like Tarzan meets How to Train Your Dragon, the remake of Disney’s 1977 film is a complete reinvention. Very few specific plot points carry over from the previous film, aside from a few throwbacks, making it both a fresh and respectful reimagining. The thing that really makes this film worth seeing, though, is not just that it’s an imaginative Disney remake, but the numerous allusions and applications to faith.
Pete is an orphan, left at age 5 with nowhere to go but the forest. Elliott, a friendly dragon blessed with the talent of invisibility, protects him, plays with him, and is his companion, allowing him to grow up wild and healthy in the mountains and woods. About four years later, a nine-year-old Pete is discovered as the forest is slowly removed, and a ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers him and takes him in.
Surrounding this story are the tall tales of the green fire-breathing dragon, which the ranger’s father Meacham (played by Robert Redford) tells. According to these stories, the dragon is so powerful it snapped his rifle in two, and he himself would hardly have survived, were it not for his handy knife. Grace rolls her eyes at these stories, and they’re generally regarded as folklore.
But if so, Pete sleeps with a figment of imagination every night. And after he is hurt and taken in by Grace, his stories about Elliot, and the picture he draws of the green dragon challenges Grace’s conventions of reality. And that is exactly where this film becomes a powerful piece of dialogue when it comes to faith and reason.
I could start just by listing one of the most crucial quotes to this whole movie: “If you go through life only believing in what you can see in front of you, you’re going to miss a lot.” – Meacham. “But green dragons don’t exist!” she might say. Even Grace’s daughter, Natalie, asks Pete if Elliot is an imaginary friend. But as is pointed out later (also by Meacham) “Just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
There are essentially two types of apologetic argument given implicitly in this film. The first is one of reason – Pete’s experience of Elliot is what we might call eyewitness testimony. When they find the place were he and Elliot were living, they find an impressive tree fort and ask “How could he do this all by himself?” which is an argument from design. Second is an argument from personal experience, notably more emotional and less logical. Meacham talks of “the magic” when he tells the actual story of what happened when he encountered the dragon. He tells Grace “it changed how I see everything, even how I see you.”
Folks, that’s what we call a worldview.
The emphasis in this film is by far on the former of these two. At the same time, the separation between Pete and Elliot is highly emotional and provides the primary sense of conflict throughout the movie. It’s hard to think of a film that’s conjured more emotional connection to a CGI character. This presents a great parallel to the Christian worldview – where rational arguments are presented to a person many people don’t believe exists, while also emphasizing the emotional and relational aspect of that relationship.
All of this makes the movie a fantastic tool for Christian apologetics, and a great advocate for the Christian worldview. I don’t know that this film was created with a Christian emphasis in mind (many of the best apologetic tools in story aren’t intentionally created that way), but that doesn’t diminish its usefulness and effectiveness.
From a more cinematic point of view, the movie still has much to offer. The plot is somewhat predictable and there are no true surprises, but the emotional points are highly effective, Elliot is some of the best CGI I’ve seen in films like these, and and the emphasis in the film of Elliot finding a loving family, even though he can’t have his biological family back, is one that is heartwarming while being relatable for at least some adopted or orphaned children (though this could admittedly be a point of concern for children who have not come into these nearly ideal circumstances).
Parent should be aware that certain elements of the film might be frightening for younger children. The opening scene where Pete loses his parents, while non-explicit, is certainly emotional. There are occasional intense moments which could scare younger children, as well. But for any who can handle those moments well, this film is a great tool for teaching our children, and a great one for engaging others in communicating the principles of Christianity through story.
Pete’s Dragon is rated PG for Action, Peril, and Brief Language