The little boy wanders through the forest, alone and scared. Unsure what to do or where to go, he clings to a book about Elliot the dog. It is the only source of comfort he has. There is a wide range of dangers lurking in the darkness. Among them lurks a little magic.
This is how Disney’s new Pete’s Dragon begins. It is gripping, demanding the audience to settle in to their seats and throw a few more pieces of popcorn in their mouths. Before the title appears on the screen, we have been introduced to the main character, a little boy named Pete, and met the mysterious creature in the woods. This magical creature shines compassion, erasing any fears we may have.
The film brilliantly depicts a tragic moment without showing every detail. It is the origin story of how young Pete becomes orphaned and adopted by the forest’s dragon. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is not the only person who knows about the dragon. The old carver Mr. Meacham, played by Robert Redford, delights the local children with his tales of a red-eyed, fierce, fire-breathing dragon.
Grace, Meacham’s daughter played by Bryce Dallas Howard, thinks that these stories are nothing more than tall tales. As a forest ranger, Grace walks the woods daily and has never encountered a dragon. Her father tells her and the children, “Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Grace responds, “Just because you say it’s true, doesn’t mean it is.” Grace insists that there is no dragon. It is the discovery of Pete living in the forest that changes everything.
Pete is innocent, unaware of the first world problems that plague the community.
One of the more dramatic scenes is also one of the shortest. Pete and Elliot stumble upon a newly barren section of the forest. Gavin (Karl Urban) has been harvesting trees from the forest, and continues to move deeper and deeper into the forest. As Pete stands in the dirt, the camera pans out and the destruction of trees resembles a wasteland of bones.
There is a tension between the innocence of childhood and the realities of adulthood. Innocence, too often, lies in destruction. A reality that we are all too familiar with this summer. There is a lot of debris around us: police shootings, terrorism, protests, and a presidential race.
We need to reclaim some innocence in our lives.
Pete’s Dragon offers some comfort in the midst of destruction. There is no cell phone use in this unnamed town. There is no identity of time. To my count, there was not one curse word or harsh language used, even in moments when it could be justified. All making this a unique and just plain good family film.
Pete’s innocence is a reminder of what believing looks like. Meecham’s comments call into question the lack of believing without seeing. The classic go-to scripture would be the story of Thomas, often called Doubting Thomas. He was not present when Jesus appeared in the upper room to the disciples. When Thomas returns, the others tell him about Jesus showing up. Thomas does not believe them. He vows he would believe it if he sees it.
Thomas had left the confides of the upper room and reentered reality with its destruction and wasteland. The disciple had lost some of his innocence.
Sometimes we have to see to believe. Grace is not a hardened soul. But she is a disciplined one, and knows that there is no dragon. When she meets Elliot, something magical happens, and all certainty that dragons are not real is washed away. As Meacham says, “The magic changed the way I see the world.”
When we encounter the Holy, as people of faith, it changes the way we see the world. It changes how we see those suffering from the plight of poverty. We see differently when we see the results of racism on our neighbors.
When we see, we believe, and it changes everything.
And yet, there is something mystical and magical about believing without seeing. Pete’s Dragon offers us something valuable this summer: a reminder that we have something to believe in.
Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12. You can use these discussion questions with your small group.