Let's Talk About That Traumatic Opening Scene in 'Pete's Dragon'
By John Boone
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
May I now recount for you, beat-by-beat, the first few minutes of Pete's Dragon, and my experience watching them?
Fade in: We're soaring over the most idyllic forest in the Pacific Northwest, bathed in the golden light of morning. We settle on a station wagon carrying the most idyllic family of three: Dad driving, Mom riding up front and 4-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) reading aloud in his car seat. It's a children's book about a lost dog, named Elliot, on a journey to find his home. Pete stumbles over the word "adventure," unsure of its meaning.
"Is it scary?" the young, sweet child inquires. "That depends. Are you brave?" Father asks. "Of course," Mother coos. "I think you're the bravest boy I've ever met."
As the camera lingers on the lovely, redheaded actress, I think, "Wait, that isn't Bryce Dallas Howard." I was negative 12 when the original Pete's Dragon was released and have only the vaguest memory of it, so I think now, "Wait, do the parents die in this?"
As quickly as this thought crosses my mind, a deer runs into the road, onscreen. Dad swerves. We stay with young Pete in the backseat, holding on him as the car flips in slow-motion. And then black. A shot of a Cracker Jack box in the road. "Mama?" young Pete asks. A single tear rolls down his toddler cheek as he packs his backpack, just a few feet away from the flipped car with his dead parents sitting inside.
Oh, but wait, then Pete wanders into the forest where he's hunted by a pack of wolves. By the time the dragon shows up it's like, "F******k, kid." The terrified child asks, "Are you going to eat me?" and then decides to go with the dragon, because, yeah, the options aren't great, Pete.
This is all, like, 60 seconds into the movie! At this point, the mom sitting in the row in front of me shined her phone light on the faces of each of her kids, checking for tears and -- I'm assuming -- the initial signs of deep-seeded trauma. Content, she turned back to the movie, as Robert Redford appears onscreen to talk about hellfire and stabbing a dragon to death.
"I think that it's important to let audiences know the journey they're going to go on," director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) explained to ET at the movie's premiere. "So, the first five minutes of the movie is all about saying, 'This movie will get dark. It will get sad. It's going to feel a little dangerous. But things are going to get better at the end.' You get all of that in the first five minutes."
This is Disney, after all, the studio that gave us Bambi's dead mom and Simba's dead dad, although this time rendered in the flesh. And it's undoubtedly an improvement on the premise of the brash, partially-animated 1977 musical, which saw Pete meet Elliot as he was fleeing his adoptive family. Because they abused him.
"We wanted to create a movie that is full of joy and heartbreak and sadness and wonder and happiness, and possibly every other emotion that you could possibly feel," Lowery explained, promising the film is suitable for all ages. "That was our modus operandi making this." (Great use of modus operandi.)
The movie all but forgets about -- or seemingly never wants to directly address -- the dead bodies in the car again. Instead, Pete's Dragon unfolds as an inoffensive tale of friendship, family and deforestation; a fluffy flick the whole family can "aww" throughout, with plenty of giggles courtesy of Elliot, essentially a furry, dumb dog.
In the interest of fair and balanced reviewing, I was slightly sleepy going into the screening, and once the first heartbreak and sadness-heavy minutes pass, the movie lulls you into a pleasant stupor. Bryce Dallas Howard, playing a park ranger and doppelganger of Pete's dead mom, talks in a soothing mom voice the entire movie. Pete (played "Six Years Later" by Oakes Fegley as a doppelganger for the kid from Room) is never put in peril, even in the few moments of mild action that make up the film's climax. Folksy, twangy instrumental music swells throughout.
As the credits rolled and Gaelic Mumford & Sons music drifted from the speakers, I realized the phone-light mom in front of me was bawling. Not a few tears in the corner of her eyes, but cheeks-streaked-in-tears sobbing. Her young son leaned over and hugged her.