August 13, 2016

‘Pete’s Dragon’ and ‘The Little Prince’ … mixed messages for kids

In the 1977 Disney musical version of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ the first song is sung by Pete’s adoptive family about what they’re going to do to him after they find him. In this older version Pete is an orphan runaway and his adoptive family actually paid for him. That film is a study in hillbilly stereotypes.  

The new version is in theaters this weekend. It’s not a musical. In fact the only music is a soundtrack of numbing folk songs interjected at unexpected times. And like the original version, the opening’s not designed to woo children. In fact, we found it disturbing.

The pre-film glee and anticipation of an audience of children under the age of 7 was unexpectedly quelled to complete silence within the first 10 minutes. A car crash leaves Pete’s parents dead in a forest and Pete alone. It brought the audience to a perceived near state of shock. That surprising car crash, shown in alarming slow motion, is a big bite for children to swallow especially when they’re expecting the magic of a friendly dragon.

As Pete (Oakes Fegley) crawls from the wreckage he sits and cries alone on a road amidst the forest sounds and darkening sky. We wonder what the movie-goer tykes and their adult companions are thinking. What was director David Lowery thinking in creating opening scene and, most important, what message will be the “take away” for the children who see this film?

Wolves are portrayed in the old stereotype as threatening and predatory. The men clear cutting the forest hear and get a glimpse of the dragon, immediately pull out automatic rifles and take aim. The message: instead of thinking that perhaps this creature might be something interesting to find out about, let’s just shoot it.

There are a few redeeming qualities for this film, but one must dig deep. Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the forest ranger daughter of Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford). Both actors do a respectable job and Grace’s compassion and kindness for Pete is believable. 

The dragon, covered in fur and not scales, lends a close resemblance to a big dog complete with expressive ears and eyes. Since Pete was in the forest with the dragon for six years, we assume the fur would give Pete a winter warmth respite that dragon scales could not.

We’re disappointed with the missed opportunities in this film. There was a chance to show the magic of belief, to heighten the connection between humans and animals and to openly discuss, however brief, the implications of loss of loved ones. Guns and Disney are a bad combination especially when the opportunity is so quickly cast away to portray a different kind of understanding for children. Perhaps the new beginnings Pete finds with Grace and her family soothe the loss of his parents and dragon best friend. After all, there’s always hope and redemption.

By contrast, a terrific film for young and old alike premiered this month. ‘The Little Prince’ is a wonderful adaptation of the classic children’s book of the same name by the late Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

It’s a wonder there’s not been a film version until now. Maybe the animation and stop-motion technology had to get to a point that honored the imagery so well. The illustrations from the book are so well preserved in the stop-motion segments of the film that we suspect Saint-Exupery would be delighted.

The screenwriters use a clever way to tell the story creating the character of a little girl who moves into the house next door to an eccentric former aviator. It’s obvious we’re witnessing how this story might have been told to a young person had he lived. Saint-Exupery was a French aviator in World War II who never returned from his last mission.

The writers hold true to most of the characters in the book and cling to the wisdom this classic tale has imparted to generations. The voices of the characters are a Who’s Who of Hollywood: Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Benicio Del Toro, Marion Cotillard, Paul Giamatti, Albert Brooks and Ricky Gervais. They all bring these characters to life.

It’s so well done it makes one wonder why Paramount decided not to release the film earlier this year. It is now streaming on Netflix and was set to open August 5 in some theaters. Maybe Hollywood figured there’s not much of a market for a movie filled with symbolism, fantasy, and philosophy. The lesson we learn in this film as with the book is, “…it is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

That immediately brought to mind the contemporary hymn, “Open the eyes of my heart” that is sung in many churches. Or what many in Celtic spirituality would call the gift of seeing; seeing God in all creation.

Watch this film. Then watch it with a youngster. We’d love to know what you both thought.

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