REVIEW: Is 'Pete's Dragon' OK for small children? (And just how scary is it?)

by Michael Foust |

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – Lots of children grow up with imaginary friends, but few of them are raised by one.

Such is the life of Pete, who wondered into the forest as a young boy after his parents died in a horrific car crash in the Pacific Northwest. For years, the older folks in the area have told stories of a dragon that lives deep in the wilderness, but most people assumed it was simply a legend. But not Pete, a 10-year-old orphan who looks sort of like a boy Tarzan and whose family consists of one real-life flying green dragon he calls Elliot.

Pete's Dragon (PG), currently in theaters, is a Disney remake of the 1977 musical by the same name.

The dirty-and-disheveled Pete (Oakes Fegley) is enjoying a seemingly happy life with Elliot until the two get discovered -- Pete is taken out of the woods by a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), while Elliot is shot by tranquilizers by a renegade man who has dreams of putting the dragon in a zoo-like setting and making tons of cash.

Will Pete and Elliot ever be reunited? And will Pete realize that his needs are best fulfilled by a mom and a dad – and not by a dragon?

Pete's Dragon is a delightful, touching movie, but is it OK for the entire family, including small children? Let's take a look.

The Good

(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

There aren't many live-action movies that can be called family-friendly, but Pete's Dragon is one of them. Incredibly, it is cleaner than many animated films from the past year, including Zootopia, Ice Age: Collision Course and The Secret Life of Pets. There is no sexuality (not even any kissing), no potty humor, no violence, and no coarse language.

Pete's Dragon upholds the value of a mom and a dad, as well as the irreplaceable love that a family brings. The last thing his mom told him before she died was "I think you're the bravest boy I have ever met" – words that stayed with him for years. And when Pete is considering living for the rest of his life with Elliot, he sees a picture of a mom and a day in a children's book, and realizes he needs that, too.

Grace's father, played by Robert Redford, is a firm believer in the existence of dragons and tells her: "Just because you don't see something doesn't mean it's not true" – a great line that can be used to discuss matters of faith (see "Lessons for Families," below).

Pete and Elliot protect one another, displaying a sacrificial bond that is worthy of emulating. Also, Elliot is a friendly-looking dragon and rarely exhibits characteristics that can be called scary. (This film is less "scary" than The BFG.)

Finally, the story is very enjoyable, and the movie's setting amidst evergreen forests and snow-peaked mountains makes for a beautiful picture. (It was filmed in New Zealand.)

The Bad

There's not much not to like.

It is rated PG for "action, peril and brief language" – but I'm not certain what the language is. Someone says "hellfire" in reference to the dragon's fire, and there might have been a "he—" and a "da—" in the background at other times, but I wasn't sure. (This brings to mind that The Rookie was rated G and contained clear coarse language – showing the inconsistency of the system.)

For little ones, though, the most troubling aspects will be the peril. The car crash shows no blood or bodies – and it actually takes place in slow motion — but some children might be troubled about Pete's loss.

Other children, particularly animal lovers, might be bothered when Elliot is hunted and captured. The scene shows him being shot repeatedly by tranquilizer guns and tied down. Later, when he escapes, he breaths fire onto a bridge full of cars and nearly kills two people, but then saves them when he realizes what is happening.

Lessons For Families

Pete's Dragon has quite a few lessons, led by Redford's character telling his daughter that "just because you don't see something doesn't mean it's not true." I often tell my children something very similar about God and the angels. Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that "faith is the ... evidence of things unseen."

There's also a rather obvious lesson about our care for creation, particularly for animals. The man who shoots Elliot tells everyone that the dragon is his ticket to wealth: "Folks will come for miles to see this!" Is that how we, the tenants of creation, should act?

There are also positive lessons about sacrifice, family, about not judging by appearance, and about letting go (Pete and Elliot go their separate ways after hugging one another).

The Verdict: OK for Small Kids?

I wish every family movie had as few content problems as Pete's Dragon, and Disney is to be congratulated for putting together a great, clean film. My youngest children are age 4, and I would take them to see this one. That said, some parents might be uncomfortable with the peril and the storyline for their children.

Entertainment rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Pete's Dragon is rated PG for action, peril and brief language.

Language: "Hellfire" in reference to dragon fire.

Sexuality: None.

Violence: Pete's parents are killed in a car wreck, although no bodies are seen. Elliot chases loggers when they are endangering him, and he bends a rifle. A logging crew shoots Elliot and ties him down on the back of an 18-wheeler. Elliot breaths fire at a car on a bridge, apparently killing the occupants when they fall off the bridge (he saves them).

Michael Foust has covered the film industry for more than a decade and is the father of four small children. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelFoust, or on his website: MichaelFoust.com

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