My daughter took her first steps this week and my heart almost exploded. Being a parent is something I was scared of for a long time but found myself wanting more and more. I find it’s changed the way I think in all sorts of unexpected ways. – for example I suddenly spend a lot more time thinking about children’s stories. I’ve believed for a long time that the stories we tell each other are one of the most powerful ways we transmit values and a sense of belonging as a culture.
I’ve taken to watching movies aimed at children, searching for positive messages I can feel good about sharing. On a flight recently they had the new “Pete’s Dragon” remake and I gave that a look, but quickly turned it off in disappointment. Which is a shame, the original Pete’s Dragon was a family favorite when I was growing up. So I decided to re-watch it with a more critical father’s eye. It immediately struck me how much I had missed as a child.
Once upon a time mapmakers would decorate the unknown portions of maps where explorers had not dared to tread with illustrations of fantastic beasts. The legend “Here Be Dragons!” warned of the horrors rumored to exist in those far-off margins, places where european explorers had not dared to tread. In some ways, I feel like this entire film is one of those illustrations.
For those who haven’t seen it recently, the story is set at the turn of the last century and starts out with Pete, a 10 year old orphan boy fleeing the Gogans, his abusive Appalachian adopted parents (because we have to have stereotypes about someone and in a movie with no people of color, that means the hillbillies get it). Now one interesting twist is that back in the day people could literally buy orphans and use them as free labor – and in fact to Gogans sing at length about how they have “a bill of sale right here” and intend to recapture him, beat him to a pulp, and use him as free labor. In other words, lily white Pete is literally a runaway slave, heading north in search of freedom. Fortunately for Pete he’s not alone, he’s traveling with his best friend – a gigantic and intentionally ridiculous looking animated dragon (Elliot) who can turn invisible at will.
Pete and Elliot end up in a small town in what looks like Maine, cause some ruckus, and then Pete gets taken in by Nora. She’s the adult daughter of the alcoholic lighthouse keeper who does her father’s job for him and keeps a literal candle burning for her lost love – a sea captain who’s ship never returned. Hijinks ensue as Nora assumes the dragon (Elliot) is imaginary and the town’s people argue back and forth over whether he’s real and – if so – how to deal with him and the mischief he causes. The combination of Elliot’s pranks and the fact that it’s a musical helps lighten the mood, but there’s a lot more going on here than I picked up on as a child.
One of the more interesting songs happens when Nora tries to enroll Pete in the local 1-room schoolhouse and is told there’s no room for him (and his dragon) by the comically uptight schoolteacher. Nora promptly launches into a musical number with all the school children about how “there’s room for everyone in this world, if everyone makes some room!”, and proceeds to convince the town’s people that accepting strangers is not so hard after all. The entire movie hinges on this scene and the question of whether the town can accept Pete and Elliot. Apparently without irony, every single cast member for this song about diversity and accepting differences is white. Maybe that’s just an accurate representation of small-town Maine, but as a Californian who grew up in a town with over 70 languages in daily use, it still strikes me as… odd.
Watching the scene now, it feels like Pete and his dragon are meant to be a stand-in for integration and all the other cultural changes that were happening in 1977 when the film was released, as though the director wanted to tell a story about tolerance and civil rights while making it as nonthreatening to white America as possible. Accepting the cute little orphan boy is obviously the right thing to do, but in order to do so the town has to recognize and make peace with the literal dragon that follows him around. I wonder, how differently would this movie have been received if Pete had been cast as a black kid – with everything else about the film completely unchanged? Something tells me Disney would have never agreed to make the film, for starters.
It’s difficult for me to comprehend a mind set that would see school integration (for example) as something to be angry and picket against. But going back and looking at the photographs of angry white mobs opposed to civil rights, I see a lot of blind stupid fear. People for whom the message that “there’s room for everyone in this world, if everyone makes some room” would have been a really big deal. People for whom equality for people of color would have seemed a lot like embracing a dragon.
I’m torn between thinking that catering to them waters the message down to the point that it’s unrecognizable and thinking maybe that’s the point – maybe you can’t stop racism by preaching to people who already oppose it, you have to find a way to dialogue with racists. If Trump’s rise teaches us anything it’s that American racism didn’t go anywhere, it just stopped using certain words in public. There has to be a way to break that cycle of racist indoctrination and tell children better stories… but maybe that’s too much to ask of a silly animated dragon.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe it really is just a silly musical for kids, just another movie (like most mainstream films in its day) that presented a vision of America that was unchallenging in its lily whiteness. I don’t know.
I still like the songs though. I think it’s worth showing to my kid. Hopefully, by the time she’s an adult America will have dealt with its dragons. But I won’t hold my breath.