Christian themes in Disney’s remake of “Pete’s Dragon”
There are reasons the audiences and critics both loved the movie…
I watched Pete’s Dragon with my children over the weekend. I noticed some crucial themes in the movie that led to its success. The movie came out last year (2016). It is one in a recent line of live-action remakes in a kind of “live-action Renaissance” that Disney is experiencing.
Disney recently released a live-action remake of it’s animated classic, Beauty and the Beast. This is the latest in a string of films to be released since 2010, beginning with Alice in Wonderland. They followed this up in 2014 with Maleficent, a live-action take on Sleeping Beauty, followed a year later by Cinderella. Then The Jungle Book arrived in 2016.
But so did another classic Disney film: Pete’s Dragon. The original, released in 1977, was a live-action musical that combined animated elements — primarily for Elliot, Pete’s dragon friend. The new one did away with the musical elements and re-imagined itself, instead, as a straight comedy-drama intended primarily for young audiences. But adults like it, too.
** WARNING: Spoilers Follow **
Both the original and the remake are about Pete, a young boy who has no parents, who becomes friends with a big green dragon who breathes fire, flies, and can become invisible. The two become best friends. Roger Ebert’s website summarizes the rest of the plot:
An old timer in town, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), is known as the only living person who’s seen the dragon. The beast has a local mythology, like Bigfoot or the Yeti or the Jersey Devil, but it’s kept alive mainly by Meacham’s stories. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) hasn’t seen it, nor has her fiance Jack (Wes Bentley), a logger, or his daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence). When Grace finds Pete living in a self-built shack in the woods and takes him to the hospital for treatment, the film enters Frankenstein-and-the-villagers mode. Will Elliott save Pete from civilization? Will Pete save Elliott from being captured and put on display like a freak of nature, or worse, death by posse?
The film was profitable in the the theaters and maintains favorable reviews. Rolling Stone gave it 3 out of 4 stars. Ebert’s website gave it 3.5 out of 4. It receives an 87% at Rotton Tomatoes from the critics, and 74% from the audience.
THE SECRET OF ITS SUCCESS
My take? It’s the Christian themes that made it resonate so well with the critics and the audiences alike. Let me talk about just two.
Towards the end of the movie, in the dramatic finale, there is a chase scene. The bad guys are chasing down Pete and Elliot. Elliot is weak and unable to fly because he’s been filled with sedatives, and Pete, with the help of his new adult friends, is helping Elliot escape by buying him time until he can regain his strength and fly away.
Well, Elliot finally does regain his strength, but he wakes up, mad and confused. He climbs onto the top of a bridge and begins breathing fire at his incoming foes, which include the police. Except, in doing so, he almost kills Grace and Jack, the adults who have taken a liking to Pete and who are trying to help him and Elliot.
Elliot hears Pete’s cries to stop because he needs them. He doesn’t want Elliot to hurt them. But their car begins to slip through a hole blown in the bridge by Elliot’s fire breath. Elliot moves down and grabs the truck, saving them.
But then the bridge collapses, and Elliot, Grace, and Jack all go sinking into the abyss below. There is a cloudy fog covering the chasm, and they vanish into its depths. For a moment, everyone, including Pete, holds their breath and stares. Did they die? Will Elliot save them?
And he does. In a triumphant moment, Elliot comes rushing up from the abyss below with Grace and Jack on his back. It’s a powerful moment that brings an emotional close to the movie’s climax.
This scene is powerful and works so well because it invokes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ descended into the darkness of death for a brief period, but then he was resurrected into life as the conquering savior. The same thing happens with Elliot in the movie. Grace and Jack descend into the abyss, and Elliot with them. But he comes soaring out of its dark grip, with them riding on his back, as their triumphant savior. In the same way, Christ’s resurrection saved us from the certainty of the fate we justly deserve.
A NEW FAMILY
Secondly, the movie centers around an important biblical theme: adoption.
Pete loses his parents as a young boy at the beginning of the movie. He meets Elliot, and Elliot cares for him while he’s too little to survive on his own. But eventually, Pete must move on. Grace and Jack, who are only dating when the movie opens, get married. At the end, they adopt Pete, and he becomes their adopted son. He finds a new family who will care for him and love him.
Adoption is at the center of Christianity. As fallen sinners, we are born into Adam’s family. But through Christ’s sacrifice and by God’s grace, we are washed clean of our sins and welcomed into God’s family. Just like Pete, who spends most of the movie disheveled and covered in dirt, in the end we are united with a new family, cleaned up, and accepted as one of God’s own.
Pete’s Dragon succeeds because it embraces important themes at the heart of Christianity.