There’s something about not only revisiting an old story but also discovering new layers of meaning within it, don’t you think? That’s what’s happened when I introduced my children to a childhood movie, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. Our favorite babysitter brought the movie over one night years ago, and my sisters and I loved it. Well, I thought Pete was a little campy, but it takes more than that for us to turn down a musical. I still think Pete is a bit campy, but that performance is far outshone by his character and others, and the messages contained within this story.
I listened to the movie playing while washing dishes. The kids sat in rapt attention on the couch, much as my sisters and I must have the first time we saw the movie. The dialogue rolled through my mind as if I’d memorized it-duh, it’s a musical, of course I have. Woman with eccentric father, both on the fringes of small town society, new stranger threatens town norms and safety, woman stands up for stranger, stranger terrorized by mob, stranger restores harmony-hey, this reminds me so much of Beauty and the Beast! I hadn’t noticed that before.
And what strikes me about Pete is that his life touches so many narratives. We all want to belong, and there aren’t many people who embody that desperate need more clearly than orphans. Elliot the dragon-is he a fantastical creature, or part of Pete that he is afraid to share with others for fear of being rejected, but who has been invented out of necessity for survival? I like to think he’s both. Don’t we all have those parts of us we’re afraid to show? The survival tactics that make us feel isolated? Those corners of our hearts we fear will be rejected if brought to light? Maybe we have and, like Elliot, that revealing (or attempting to not reveal) has left a trail of broken fences and irate townspeople.
That’s what makes Nora such an anomaly. She doesn’t see or believe Elliot is real, but she never once treats Pete with anything less than care and respect. While everyone else looks at Pete and sees a stranger, a ragamuffin, a threat to the town on more than one level, Nora sees a person in need of basic human kindness. She realizes he has something in common with her. That’s the power of vulnerability: people exposed to exclusion, who live on the fringes, can be better at seeing those in similar situations, and better able to extend sympathy and help to them.
And Nora isn’t shy about this either! I love how she stands up for Pete. She’s in his corner when no one else is. She does this even though it doesn’t earn her any popularity points…points she’s pretty low on to begin with.
In the end, (yes, spoiler alert) Nora’s kindness towards Pete rescues him from a life of rejection, abuse, and bare survival. Her belief in him also results in surprise turn of events for her. As Elliot leaves Pete, it’s a sad scene. Yet, it’s also a powerful image of one season’s end as another begins. Children leaving an orphan’s life behind will have a tearing away of the old. It’s painful to leave what you know, even in light of entering something exponentially better. It’s scary. It’s beginning to accept that you can relinquish the survival tools once so necessary. You are closer to the whole person you are meant to be.
Not only is the mythical creature seen and accepted by the end of the story, but so is the boy. And all because Nora stood up for him.