Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Despite the old and no doubt wise saying, Disney canon clearly holds that being raised by wolves is not injuriouspetes-dragon to childhood development. This is one of the lessons of The Jungle Book, another being that if a ferocious man-hating tiger gets your calling card, you cannot lose if you arm yourself with a blazing torch. In the remade Pete’s Dragon, released close on the heels of the remade Jungle Book, we find that it is even better to be raised by dragons.

But still, inevitably, tragic to need such raising. And children grow up only to leave, don’t they?

Pete’s Dragon is a unique movie, at least in today’s world. The opening sequence sets the pattern. It is the slowest opening I have seen in a long, long while, taking its time to the disaster you can feel is coming. A lone car on an isolated highway, the land gorgeously forested around it … a young, pretty mother, a quietly strong father, an adorable little boy … the well-loved book, haltingly read by the little boy with his mother’s patient help, about a dog that gets lost and adventures and being brave …

And then the car crash, because Disney does love to warm your heart just before ripping it out. The crash itself, far from being violent or graphic, is dreamy, fragmented, to some extent detached. And it feels oddly realistic – not that this is the way a thing like that would happen, but it is the way it might be remembered, especially by a child.

If the movie shies away from the violence of the car accident, it still evokes – quietly but effectively – the horror of it, as the little boy wanders away alone from the wreck. The sequence where he encounters the dragon tastes strongly of a fairy tale, from the old, green, untouched forest, to the inhuman menace of the wolves, to the powerful, initially ambiguous appearance of the dragon. (I feel that this is what it would be like to enter Faerie: the beauty and fear and the unknown.)

The rest of the movie is crafted in a similar way. This is a film that lingers – on its characters, on its world, on its pivotal moments. It means to bring out all these things richly, and it will pause to do so. There is action in Pete’s Dragon, but it is not a fast-paced movie.

Neither is there exactly a villain in this movie. The one character who comes close is certainly reckless and somewhat selfish, but in the end even he is not so bad. The movie also rejects the cynical and sarcastic humor so much in vogue today. All of these elements add up to a gentle movie, an unusual movie in today’s theater. Even Disney and Pixar’s animated offerings are a tougher breed.

Pete’s Dragon does a fine job handling Pete’s reintroduction to human society, giving him much the reaction of a wild animal. Perhaps the most notable flaw is that Pete possesses language skills difficult to believe in a child who has lived in the wilderness for six years, with no interaction with other humans since he was five. I do not, however, complain of it. But not because I think it’s ironic or unfair to bring such a complaint against a movie that has a dragon; it may have a dragon but it has normal humans, too, and this is not realistic for humans, y’know. I give the movie a pass because to be realistic, in this respect, would have been more trouble than it’s worth.

The movie is, to the end, ambiguous on Pete’s dragon. The dragon is always central but also always silent, and it is impossible to tell whether he is a highly intelligent animal or in possession of a real, childlike sentience. The adults speak of him as an animal but only Pete could know the answer, and he would not ask the question.

Pete’s Dragon is a gentle, thoughtful film skillfully shot with beauty and a sense of wonder. It may not be the best kind of movie, but it’s the best movie of its kind.

Review: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History

There are many stereotypes of the Irish, and no doubt most of have some antecedent in reality: the policeman with a brogue, the corrupt politician of Tammany Hall, the talker, the fighter, the drunk, the priest. Behind all these figures, familiar and sometimes even comic, shimmers a history of tragedy and of glory. Often this history is neglected. To remedy this neglect, Seumas MacManus wrote The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History (first published in 1921, with later editions covering until the end of the 1930s).

On the first page of this book, the author calls it a “crude compendium” and “a rough and ready sketch.” Perhaps so, but at 725 pages and a historical span of nearly three thousand years, it is quite a sketch.

To his credit, the author makes no pretensions to neutrality. He declares on the first page that the purpose of this rough and ready sketch is to provide a history of Ireland for her people and exiles (and descendants of those exiles – of whom I am one). This is a book of the Irish, by the Irish, and for the Irish.

A more rigorous book might have been written, as the author acknowledges at the outset. The opening chapters consist greatly of speculation about the historical basis of Irish legends, especially those of the Tuatha De Danann. The later chapters are strong and unequivocal in their anti-British viewpoint. They are not, however, hateful. (And reading the accounts of Britain’s conquest and keeping of Ireland – including atrocities of murder, rape, and torture – and the ruthless self-interest with which Great Britain ruled the Irish, and the oppressive laws with which it sought to disenfranchise and degrade an entire people … well, I could see why many of the Irish have hated the English. I felt I could come to hate them myself.*)

The book’s clear Irish viewpoint, once recognized, is valuable in understanding the Irish viewpoint. There is also a kind of richness that flows from this viewpoint, from reading of Ireland from someone who loves Ireland. The author’s pleasure in the lore and songs and poetry of Ireland, his love of it through every defeat and misfortune, his delight in its glories – all of this shines through the pages.

The author may well be biased (and his expressed opinions are, of course, not infallible). Yet this is not propaganda. The author means to provide history. He recounts events that reflect poorly on the Irish and provides support for anti-English or pro-Irish statements from sources that have no bias in favor of Ireland (and perhaps some in favor of England).

This book is flavored with deep emotion, sharpened with strong opinions. It is also filled with apt quotations, powerful details, and colorful sketches of great characters. The author shows great skill in what he chooses to relate and how, and wholly avoids the dryness that comes of too much attention to statistics and too little attention to the individual stories that make up the great arc of history.

The Story of the Irish Race is not a definitive history of Ireland, but probably no single book could be. Whatever its limits, it is written with respect for the truth and love for Ireland. It reprises Irish history too little known in America and reflects the Irish spirit that has so doggedly resisted domination down through the centuries.

And it quotes poetry in the footnotes and sometimes in the text itself. What more could you want?

 

*In case the tone of this statement is misunderstood, let me clarify: I don’t hate the English.