Theme: Lost and Found
Critics and audiences alike are praising Disney’s summer blockbuster, Pete’s Dragon. It is a heart-warming story of being lost and being found, of having something taken and having it restored. These timeless themes resonate in every human heart regardless of age. Pete’s Dragon is more than a “Family Film”; it is a way to see and to savor the transcendent; no wonder people applaud at the end.
In the beginning there are three: a father, a mother, and their five-year old son Pete. The family is on an adventure in a world of pristine beauty. Pete is reading his book, “Elliott Gets Lost” out loud to his parents. He has just started the story when something happens which shatters his world.
The word lost has several meanings. First and perhaps foremost, it means being unable to find one’s way, unable to be found (as of a person in great difficulties). Second and equally important, it denotes something taken which cannot be recovered, something that has perished or been destroyed.
In the car accident which turns Pete’s world upside down, he becomes lost (#1) and loses (#2) his parents in death. The family story of a beautiful adventure together is also lost, and another story is inserted in its place. It is a fallen story which begins with death and has dark forces like ravenous wolves placing the child in great peril.
The child stands encircled by death clutching his book and backpack with no means of escaping his ugly fate. And then Elliott appears. Who is Elliott? Elliott is of course a mythical creature, but what does this mean? In order to understand, a reclaiming of the words myth and mythical is necessary.
In the post-modern world, these words mean something false or fictitious. The true meaning of myth, however, is “a way the eternal expresses itself in time . . . a story that confronts us with something transcendent”.1 Myths (and mythical creatures) helppeople see and experience the transcendent in ways the rational never can.
Elliott is Pete’s rescuer, his savior, who is from another dimension. He lifts him up out of death’s sure grip and brings him to himself, carrying him on great wings. He becomes his constant loving companion and friend who delights in the child and tenderly watches over him. In Elliott’s presence the lost little boy has found home.
The name Grace means God’s favor. It is a woman named Grace who awakens Pete’s soul to his original story. Five years have passed since he last saw his mother’s face, and then suddenly walking in the woods, he catches sight of Grace. Snatching her compass, he opens it that night to find a picture of a small child with its parents. He is being brought back to his true self and story by grace.
Pete is discovered and eventually ends up staying at the home of Jack (Grace’s boyfriend) and his daughter Natalie. In their bookcase, Pete finds a copy of the book “Elliott Gets Lost”. The family sitsdown to read the story together. Pete has been telling himself his own version of the story ever since he lost his parents. Jack offers to read the book to Pete as it was truly written.
Elliott, who has pursued Pete, looks in on this family vignette and then returns to his home in the forest alone. This poignant scene touches the heart because Elliott is sacrificing his own love of Pete to gain a greater good, righting the story Pete lost . . . in the beginning.
Grace turns to her father in search of an answer as to how a child could survive almost six years alone in the wilderness. Pete’s drawing of Elliott, his forestfriend, reminds Grace of her father’s own much-ridiculed experience with a mythical creature at the time of her mother’s death.
In relating what he saw “out there”, Grace’s father shares a moment of transcendence; when another realm was opened to him and he saw and felt something which not only changed him, but changed the way he saw the world and everything in it . . . ever after.
Her father’s words, to be open to looking, come back to Grace the next day and she decides to take Pete, Natalie, and her father to the forest to find Pete’s “home”. Pete leads them into terrain that even the rational Grace has to acknowledge she did not know existed. Entering the cavern under the ancient tree,Pete finds Elliott and brings him out to meet his new friends. This is the magical moment . . . fear and awe gives way to wonder and delight.
The forces of darkness which first appeared in the wolves have also come forth in humans. Jack’s brother Gavin leads a group who go deeper into the ancient forest cutting indiscriminately and wantonly without regard for conservation.
At the moment of Elliott’s revealing, they appear with guns not chain saws. Capturing Elliott they lash him down and take him to the lumber yard, all the while gloating over their prize.
Righting the Story
Pete, Natalie, and Grace’s father help Elliott escape. In the ensuing chase, Elliott “fires” at the destroyers to protect Pete. Providentially it is Jack and Grace who get caught in the vehicle on the bridge. This is the return to Pete’s story; to the exact moment when the story went awry. A man and a woman who he loves and needs are flipped over the edge of the road into an abyss; but death does not have the victory. Jack and Grace are lifted to life by Elliott’s great wings. This is a resurrection moment when the story gets “righted”; not only for Pete but for all the others. Restoration love flows from brother to brother and from fathers to daughters.
Pete flies with Elliott to their devastated tree willing to give up his new friends for his love of Elliott. Elliott, however, knows the story and he lovingly has Pete turn the pages of the book until he reaches the last page. There is the picture of a reunited family. This is the story Pete belongs in.
The movie ends like it began, with a family going on an adventure in a world of pristine beauty. They are headed north to where there is magic in the woods. They are reunited with Elliott who had “lost” his family in order that he might save those who have lost theirs.
1. The quotes on myth are from Wheaton College Professor Rolland Hein. Clyde Kilby,former President of Wheaton, says “myth is the name for a way of seeing, a way of knowing.” For these men and many others like Christian mythmakers C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, myth is the only way certain transcendent truth can be expressed in a comprehensible form.