Once again, this is not the Throwback I planned to write. Unfortunately, being sick for the past two weeks and being a compulsive procrastinator put a damper on playing all the way through StarCraft: Brood War, which is what I originally planned to talk about. Instead of participating in something so interactive, I decided to park my ass on the couch and watch movies. Seeing as it’s been near twenty years since I first watched Pete’s Dragon, I decided it was time for a re-watch, especially since the movie is getting remade.
Pete’s Dragon is by no means the best movie from my childhood, and watching it again in my mid-twenties really puts that into perspective. Some parts of the movie don’t make much sense at all, the editing and scene changes are fairly choppy, and the characters have a habit of doing and saying things that the plot demands, regardless of how they acted in previous scenes. Despite all that, the story is still something I hold dear and immensely enjoyed.
Pete’s Dragon follows a little boy named Pete and Elliot, Pete’s dragon friend. Elliot befriended Pete after he was adopted—rather, “bought”—by a group of abusive hillbillies, the Gogan family, and assists him in running away. Eventually, Pete and Elliot find themselves in the fictional town of Passamaquaddy. Here they run into Nora and her father, Lampie, who eventually take Pete in and adopt him as their own. Even though Elliot has the ability to turn himself invisible, Lampie, who is pretty much the town drunk, ends up seeing him. Although no one believes Lampie about Elliot at first, especially Nora, as Pete’s time in Passamaquaddy grows, all the townspeople begin to realize that Elliot isn’t Pete’s imaginary friend, but an actual dragon. This naturally causes some worry.
All this attracts the attention of con artist Dr. Terminus who sees Elliot as a good means for profit. Dr. Terminus teams up with the Gogans in order to catch both Elliot and Pete. Thankfully, Elliot, being a dragon, manages to get away from Dr. Terminus and saves Pete from the Gogans. The movie then ends with Nora’s lover Paul, who had been missing and presumed dead at sea for over a year, returning home. Now that Pete is in a good place and has a loving family in Nora, Paul, and Lampie to take care of him, Elliot bids Pete farewell—he says there’s another child out that needs him as his friend.
As much as I love Pete’s Dragon, it is sadly a product of its time. We have only three female characters: Nora, Lena Gogan, and the school teacher, Miss Taylor. Although Nora interacts with both these women, all their conversations are about Pete. Furthermore, both Lena Gogan and Miss Taylor are cruel and abusive, while Nora is pitted against them as being the kind, motherly figure. Essentially, Nora’s a good guy because she likes children. The movie also, unfortunately, has some rape-y themes as well. Both of Lena Gogan’s sons imply that they plan on sexually assaulting Nora, and even earlier in the movie we see some of the local townspeople at the bar grab Nora and force her to sit on their laps. Also unfortunately, due to Miss Taylor’s treatment of Pete, Elliot rips off her petticoat. Even though that’s both sexual harassment and a crime, we are supposed to agree with Elliot’s treatment of Miss Taylor because she’s a mean person.
However, the story’s treatment of Paul in relation to Nora is a subversion to two common tropes that women in movies often face. Movies like to kill off female characters to further male characters’ storylines, and we’ll also often see female characters used as trophies for the reward of male characters. That is not the case here. Paul is supposedly killed, and his death is used to further Nora’s internal conflict, instead of the other way around. Furthermore, because Nora accepts Pete as part of her family and takes care of him, and even stands up for him against the Gogans, Elliot rewards her by finding Paul and bringing him home. We discover that Paul’s ship went down a year ago, he was the only survivor, and he lost his memories in the crash. When Elliot finds him, he knocks him on the head, and all of Paul’s memories come back, so now he can return to Nora.
While Nora’s character falls victim to some sexist traps in the storytelling, it was neat to see this role reversal between her and Paul. My only other big issue with the movie is that Pete’s Dragon doesn’t seem too concerned about exploring the psychological trauma Pete suffered at the hands of the Gogans. Instead, Pete is presented as more or less mentally sound and not scarred for life, even though we see the Gogans talk about putting chains on him or murdering him brutally, and treat him as a slave.
On the whole, despite these more serious issues, Pete’s Dragon is a fairly light-hearted movie with a good message about acceptance and helping people who need help. After the movie’s end, on my DVD copy at least, was a special clip about how Pete’s Dragon was made and how the animation team was able to combine live-acting with animation. As an artist myself, I think I enjoyed watching the behind the scenes extras and learning about the movie-making process back in the 70s just as enjoyable as the actual movie.
While Pete’s Dragon is not my favorite movie from childhood, it is one that definitely stuck with me over the years. Also, considering how Hollywood has been treating reboots of some of my other childhood favorite stories—such the whitewashing in Pan—I can’t say I’m too excited about a reboot for Pete’s Dragon. At the very least, I hear the Gogans might not be in the remake, and certainly a family film like Pete’s Dragon could use fewer child-slavery and rape-y subplots. Nevertheless, if you haven’t seen the 1977 version of it, you should check the original out. Pete’s Dragon is fun, uplifting, and artistically, it’s pretty awesome as well.