So there's this dragon -- a big, green dragon that defies all logic, and his name is Elliott.
And then there's this boy, Pete, an orphan who's survived in the forest thanks to the dragon's care. But when residents of a small town discover this curious duo, life as they know it changes forever. That's the plot of the recently released Pete's Dragon, a remake of the 1977 Disney flick, which has a similar plot, though it takes place in Passamaquoddy, Maine instead of a village called Millhaven, somewhere the Pacific Northwest. This remake, like the original, is essentially a story about faith, faith in the unknowable, the larger than life, faith that calls one to love of neighbor and to the practice of kindness.
In many ways, it's also a Christian allegory.
Indeed, both movies seem to place faith at center stage. Elliott, the dragon, has a name that derives from Elijah, a Hebrew prophet whose name translates to something like, "My God is Yah [God]." Throughout the film, Elliott functions like a prophet, acting in ways that are unconventional, demanding that the community recognize more wholesome and just ways to live.
Likewise, in the original, the viewer encounters a woman named Norah -- played by Helen Reddy -- who's name means "light" in Arabic and who literally spends the film searching for light in darkness, unable to believe in Elliott without seeing him. In the remake, her parallel character, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a pragmatic forest ranger who never believed in the existence of dragons because she'd never seen one. Not unlike Doubting Thomas, both women come to believe only once they see the dragon for themselves, their names symbolic of their experiences of light and grace respectively.
And then there's Pete himself, the boy who introduces all of Passamaquoddy/Millhaven to Elliott and who functions, not unlike Peter in the Bible, as the rock on which the towns' faith is built.
Just as characters go on faith journeys and have names that point to elements from the Judeo-Christian narrative, so does the plot. Case in point: the characters of Dr. Terminus (original) and Gavin (remake) who try to capture Elliott and use him for financial gain. They function as the films' antagonists, power hungry, corrupted by greed. Striking a parallel with those who opposed Jesus' ministry, they attempt to scapegoat and persecute Elliott, creating mass hysteria in their wake.
Yet if the original and remakes share parallels up to this point, their endings depart from one another, and it's that divergence that raises the most provocative questions for contemporary Christians. (Double spoiler alert.) In the original, residents push Dr. Terminus out of the town and embrace Elliott, who helped save many of them from personal injury. Elliott then voluntarily leaves Passamoquoddy to help other children, having brought joy to local residents, the restoration of Norah's faith, and Pete to a new, loving family. It's a hopeful, bright ending, the characters dancing around a lighthouse, singing, waving to Elliott as he rises to the heavens.
An allusion to Jesus' ascension, perhaps?
In contrast, the ending of the new film is much more somber. Gavin is not cast out, and Elliott leaves under duress, fleeing to a rural forest where his existence remains a mystery to all but Pete and his immediate family. He does not embark on further acts of goodwill; he's essentially in hiding.
So why make this change?
It's impossible to know without asking filmmakers. Were they trying to suggest that Christianity is no longer normative, dominant in American culture? Were they implying that times are darker, and God seems hidden? Did viewers find the ending more satisfying in focus groups? Were they trying to avoid something too saccharine? All are possible; none are known to be true. But while we cannot postulate a motive, we can still interpret the narrative of the film itself.
Now the easy thing to do as a Christian is to cast aside the new film and take solace in the unremitting optimism of the original. And yet, perhaps the story of this new movie is simply a different allegory, a different symbol of Christian faith. Whereas the original seems to make Elliott a metaphor for the prophetic life of Jesus, perhaps this new version presents Elliott as a symbol of one of the many Christians who attempted to live a life that followed in Jesus' footsteps. After all, Christians from the founding of the Church have had to live on the margins -- in both literal and metaphorical forests -- in order to practice their faith safely. The film is therefore an important reminder to today's Christians that members of their religion could not and cannot always gather freely to express their beliefs. From the early Christians in Rome who gathered, clandestinely, to worship inside their homes to those who feared the Inquisition and those who today feel that they are unable to practice their faith in various parts of the globe, Christians are not immune to religious persecution. Sadly, they share this history of mistreatment in common with their brothers and sisters from virtually every faith tradition.
If the remake doesn't leave the viewer with warm, fuzzy, optimism then, it may be for good reason. That's because this version of Pete's Dragon is ultimately a story not about Jesus but about us. It is a reminder that we must be granted freedom to flourish and to fly. For it is only with that freedom -- the freedom to practice one's faith -- that we can all experience hope and light and even grace itself.