When the original Pete’s Dragon came out in 1977, my parents took me to see it. Being three years old, I don’t remember the experience. But according to family legend, when Elliot flew away from Pete to help another boy at the end, I stood on the seat and cried my heart out saying, “Elliot, come back, Please come back.”
Everyone makes fun of me for that story. Sure, its a cute story about a three year old boy. But for me, it’s much more. What about that movie struck me so hard when I was three? I watch it now and it’s a bit dated. The acting is on the hammy side of things and the musical numbers are full of drunken hilarity. Yet, the heart of the story is glorious and beautiful: the search for wonder, magic and astonishment.
The more I think about it, the more I realize why the three year old me cried so hard. It was probably my first touch with the search for magic, beauty and The Mystery. Elliot probably marked me for life when he flew away. He would fire what’s in every human heart: the belief that there is more to the world than what’s in front of our faces.
While that search has often brought me sadness and misery, I could not live with out it. The search for something other is the driving force of my life, to be “on to something,” to peek around corners or take a walk through a mysterious wood. Without it, I would, in the words of Sufjan Stevens, drive my car into the canyon at night or take a warm bath at a Holiday Inn and slit my wrists.
Indeed, the times I’ve forgotten the search for The Mystery, I’ve fallen into the shadows and cynicism. Yet, that crying three year old boy always brought me back from falling into utter darkness. I may get sad, ache or get mad when I can’t find what I want. But, the core of the search has always gone on.
Needless to say, the original Pete’s Dragon is close to my heart, even in its obvious silliness. I’ll admit, I scoffed at the possibility of remaking it. It just seemed wrong, especially in light of Hollywoods’ dash to remake whatever they want and usually doing such a terrible job. I’m happy to say that Pete’s Dragon, Version 2016 not only shows remakes can work, but gives us a new and beautiful way to see the heart of the original film.
In case you cherish the idea of getting through the movie with dry eyes, it begins with the death of Pete’s parents in a terrible car crash. Five year old Pete wanders into the woods and Elliott finds him. The dragon bends down and the boy asks him, “Are you gonna eat me?” Shaking his head, he nuzzles the child.
Cue the waterworks from this 42 year old man.
Gavin is Grace’s soon to be brother in law played by the excellent Karl Urban. He represents in the cynical in all of us, the desire to only look at things in two categories: useful and not useful. We get a sense that he has not always been like this, but has given himself over to forgetting the Mystery. He plows through trees and decides to hunt down the elusive dragon with force.
Meacham, played by Robert Redford and also the coolest Father/Grandfather figure ever, is our spiritual guide to the mystery of the dragon. When he describes his encounter with Elliot when he was a young man, he says, “I just stared at him, it was like, magic, you know? How could I shoot him?”
But even though Gavin is kind of the bad guy in the film, he is not a mustache twirling, seeking the end of the world kind of villain. In fact, he could be a lot of men that I know. When he captures the dragon, it starts to transform him slowly until Elliot rescues his brother for certain death, showing was not as far gone as you might think: it just took a dose of overwhelming mystery and beauty to set him straight.
When I look at the men of the modern age, I see what the Devil has done. C.S. Lewis described it The Screwtape Letters when Screwtape instructs Wormwood to make sure the patient has no sharp, sudden shocks in their lives. He wants the junior devil to keep him away from not only beauty but also sadness, to keep on with the ordinariness of their lives. You might say, the search for being useful and finding useful things, instead of the search for the Mystery. And when they lose sight of the Mystery, they can no longer be tempted to “the good.”
Men have fallen deep into the Spirit of the Age’s trap of usefulness. For example, men fall into pornography because its useful to them. They forget these are real, live Images of God pretending to have sexual pleasure. They neglect their wives because they’re no longer “useful” to them. Children are a buzzing nuisance until they become useful to their egos.
The answer is not to shame men into being better. It never works. Instead, the answer is to try and keep giving them gigantic, dragon size doses of the Mystery with all the sadness, sorrow, pain, happiness, joy, and overwhelming beauty that entails. Remind them of the little pirates who climbed trees, broke arms, cried, and then went out the next day to do it all over again. This is not a call to get in touch with the inner child. Rather, it’s a call to reconnect with wonder, beauty and The Mystery. It’s what led them into the forests, the drains and the lakes in the first place. When they go, they might find themselves sitting at the feet of Christ, fighting off surly apostles who want to remind them to be useful. If that doesn’t work, you know they are truly lost and that’s a scary thought.
So please, take your boys, old and new, to see Pete’s Dragon. Remind them they need the Mystery to not only survive the world, but to thrive in it.