Why, I asked myself, was I crying about a dragon? But crying I was, and I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until later that I had time to think about the movie, Pete’s Dragon, and understand what made it so touching.
The plot itself is not original. A 5-year-old boy loses his parents in an accident that happens on a road deep in the woods. Soon after he meets a friendly dragon who befriends him and protects him from the wolves. Six years later the boy is discovered by a forest ranger’s daughter, then the her mother, the ranger, then the men who are cutting down trees near where the boy and dragon live. When the men see the dragon, they hunt him down and shoot darts into his body.
The story, like the classic movie, King Kong, which had a protective giant gorilla protecting a beautiful young woman, goes on to show how greed causes the men to capture the dragon, intending to charge admission for seeing him. But the boy and the girl—and a friendly grandfather played by Robert Redford—help the dragon escape. There are twists and turns of the plot, which I won’t give away.
The movie is filmed in gorgeous 3-D, with lush images of he forest., the mountains and the night-time sky. The 3-D camera by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli is not used for thrilling effects but to enhance the beauty of the landscape. The cinematography and good acting by the largely unknown cast and the deft direction by David Lowery makes the film all the more poignant. It is a deeply romantic story.
Yet, underneath the story the movie is telling another story, and this is why the film made me cry. The dragon is not just a dragon. The word magic comes up a couple of times in the film, and the dragon is indeed a magic one that can become invisible when he wants to. The word “magic” also alludes to what the dragon is symbolic of. The dragon symbolizes not just magic, but the spirit of optimism, hope, and transcendence that resides in the hearts of children, and only sometimes in the hearts of adults.
There is nothing new about using dragons as symbols. In ancient Chinese literature dragons traditionally symbolize unusual powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, typhoons, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of good luck for people who are deserving of it. Emperors of China often had dragons as symbols of their imperial power and strength.
Like Pete, we would all like to have our own personal dragon, especially a cute dragon like the one in this movie. He is ugly but cute, with one canine tooth sticking out and the other broken off, whose eyes are as soulful as a cocker spaniel’s, but can breathe fire when necessary and do somersaults in the sky. And this dragon loves a good hug from Pete.
And in this life we all live in, there are always those who want to squash this kind of magic or exploit it as the lumberjacks in the movie did. One is not allowed to have his own dragon; people may get jealous. You are not allowed to see things like dragons that others don’t see, or believe things that others don’t believe. Adults who have given up their own dreams are the sometimes the first to squash the dreams of their children.
All children have imaginations and youthful spirits that, if encouraged, lead them towards healthy development. And at times they need to believe in fairies or become attached to a teddy bear or a blanket. These things, in psychoanalysis, are called transitional objects. Pete’s dragon might also be seen as a transitional object. Whether it was real or imaginary, it is useful for his spiritual and behavioral growth.
When children are emotionally squashed at an early age and the magical thinking is squeezed out of them, their development is stunted. Their belief in magic is the forerunner of belief in themselves and in their own efficacy. Belief in magic is a transitional phenomenon that allows a child to get to the next step. It is not just a belief in magic, but also a belief that they can do things and be things.
Pete’s Dragon is a movie that children will be in perfect tune with and one that will take adults back to that place inside them that they have perhaps long repressed. It is a place deep inside where love and hope flourish.