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.

CSFF Blog Tour: Leviathan

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. (Revelation 12:3)

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12:9)

The only time a dragon appeared by name in the Bible was in the dizzying visions of Revelation. But if you go by description and not only names, dragons appear in the Old Testament also.

In Job 41, God describes the Leviathan, and it sounds for all the world like a dragon: “Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth? His back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. … His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth. … Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.”

Near the end of the chapter, God says that the Leviathan “makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron” – a connection between the Leviathan and the sea that is echoed in nearly every mention of the creature. Asaph, praising God in Psalm 74, writes:

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.

It is implied here that the Leviathan had, or could have, multiple heads – as the red dragon that symbolized Satan did. Another curious parallel to the vision of Revelation is found in Isaiah 27:

In that day,

the LORD will punish with his sword—
his fierce, great and powerful sword—
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea.

“The great dragon” is also called “that ancient serpent” – and indeed, John uses serpent interchangeably with dragon near the end of Revelation 12.

It is common to see dragons portrayed as good in modern Christian fantasy. Yet the Bible symbolizes Satan with a dragon and calls the dragon-like Leviathan a monster.

I will begin by admitting that if Scripture uses a dragon as a symbol for Satan, it is because something in the nature of dragons corresponds to something in the nature of Satan. Allegories and symbols, similes and metaphors are all based on a real likeness.

But not a complete likeness. That is the other side of the coin. The Apostle Peter famously wrote that the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”. And for all that the devil is like a lion, Jesus Himself is called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”. The lion as predator – brutal and devouring – resembles Satan, but the lion as the king of the beasts – strong and majestic – resembles Christ.

Like the dragon, the serpent is used to represent Satan, and imagery throughout the Bible associates snakes with evil. Jesus more than once used the denunciation “brood of vipers”. And He still commanded His followers to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Satan may be an ancient serpent, but serpents are not all bad.

Doves prove the same principle from the other side. As the Bible usually invokes snakes negatively but may invoke them positively, so it usually invokes doves positively but may invoke them negatively, cf. Hosea: “Ephraim is like a dove, easily deceived and senseless.”

To think that Satan’s representation as a dragon is a commentary on the intrinsic evil of dragons ignores both the logic of symbolism and the richness and diversity of Scriptural imagery. Perhaps it ignores, too, the truth that since God is the Creator of all things, nothing is intrinsically evil.

Many things are evil, and some things are evil without redemption. But nothing is evil in its original nature, because that nature comes from God. The fierce and powerful Leviathan – the “monster of the sea”, fire-breathing, invincible, and undeniably dragonish – has another side. Psalm 104 has what may be the only gentle imagery of the Leviathan:

There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Gentle – and also mighty. Like the lion laying down with the lamb, gentleness and strength may be the truest nature of Leviathan, and even of dragons.

CSFF Blog Tour: One Realm Beyond

Cantor only ever wanted one thing: To be a realm walker – to travel from one plane to another, helping, discovering, adventuring, with an impressive dragon by his side.

All right. He wanted two things. One he will certainly get.

One Realm Beyond is the first book in Donita K. Paul’s Realm Walkers series. The shape-shifting mor dragons are a classic fantasy element, but overall the book had sci-fi flair to it. The “realms” were given a more or less sci-fi explanation; even the special powers of the realm walkers struck me as more superhuman than supernatural.

The setting of this novel completely engaged me. I enjoyed the various bits of technology, I enjoyed the political intrigue and the educational “rounds”, I enjoyed the fantasy mix of races – dragons and humans and Brinswikkers. I enjoyed the idea of the realms and the realm walkers.

The characters were even more engaging. Bridger and Bixby charmed me at once, and the more I saw of Totobee-Rodolow, the more I appreciated the uniqueness of her character – supremely confident, supremely knowledgeable, and almost exaggeratedly feminine. Cantor was the straight man of the foursome, which made him less flashy but not less needed. Somebody has to be normal.

One of the interesting pieces of this story is how the dynamics between the two young realm walkers and their dragons work out. Cantor is persuaded to accept a dragon as a “temporary constant” (now there’s a contradiction in terms), and Bixby persuades a dragon to accept her as a temporary constant. Bixby ends up with the sort of dragon – elegant and sophisticated – that Cantor dreamed of having, and Cantor gets an offbeat, diversely talented dragon who is much more like Bixby than himself.

Religion was a persistent theme of the story, but by no means an overstated one. Primen (their name for God) is mentioned a good number of times, but always in ways that seem natural to the characters and their situations. (In a brief but fascinating moment of complexity, a character who has been studying “Primen’s Guide” denounces realm-walking as witchery.)

One chapter revolves around going to sanctuary – an obvious church equivalent. And what is interesting about that is that even fantasy novels with religion generally have no church equivalent. Going to church (or the synagogue, temple, etc.) is such a constant in real-life religion, and so rare in fantasy-world religion, that I have to congratulate Donita Paul for the chapter.

The plot of One Realm Beyond moved only gradually to the main point; it took a while for the story to find its dramatic center. I noticed this as I read, but it never really bothered me. I was enjoying myself anyway. It is such a fun book, such a light-hearted book, with entrancing characters and a terrific setting. I like fantasy, and I like sci-fi, and I hold a special fondness for well-done science fantasy – which is what One Realm Beyond is.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: Landmarks

This month, the CSFF blog tour is featuring One Realm Beyond, the first book in Donita K. Paul’s new Realm Walkers series. It involves realm walking. And dragons.

Donita K. Paul is the first author ever toured by the CSFF, back in the distant day, so returning to her work is something of a landmark. My own personal landmark is that this is the first time I have ever begun a tour without first finishing the book.

Yes, I’m ashamed. Yes, I will be reviewing the book. Yes, I will finish the book first.

My plan for this tour is as follows: Day one, introductory post with links and confession; day two, review of book; day three, musings on the contrast between Scripture portraying Satan as a dragon and modern Christian fiction portraying dragons as our big, loveable friends. What is the import of this biblical symbolism to our fantasy novels? Where does the leviathan come in, and what about snakes and lions?

The links follow below, so that you can begin your exploration of One Realm Beyond. As for me, I’m thoroughly immersed; the characters are scurrying towards the climax and I’m going with them.

One Realm Beyond on Amazon;

Donita K. Paul’s website;

best of all, the blog tour:

Julie Bihn
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Mike Coville
Pauline Creeden
Vicky DealSharingAunt
Carol Gehringer
Rebekah Gyger
Janeen Ippolito
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Emileigh Latham
Jennette Mbewe
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Melanie @ Christian Bookshelf Reviews
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Donita K. Paul
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Jojo Sutis
Jessica Thomas
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Jill Williamson
Deborah Wilson

CSFF Blog Tour: Dragons of the Valley

(Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.)

It’s been said that good fortune follows good fortune, and bad fortune follows bad fortune. This may be why Chiril’s first armed rebellion in many years is followed by its first foreign invasion in many years.

But never fear! An artist is here – and a librarian, and a couple wizards, and several royal personages, and an enormous parrot. This may not sound like a recipe for deliverance, at least until you add an army. But it is certainly a recipe for an interesting story.

Donita K. Paul has created a fantasy world, in an unusually precise sense. (The geography is more comprehensive than normal, with characters talking about continents and countries on the other side of the planet.) Here be dragons. More uniquely, here be emerlindians and kimens and bisonbecks and ropmas. The list goes on. Mrs. Paul populated her world richly.

And that goes twice for the characters. This is where Mrs. Paul most excels. Fenworth, Lady Peg, and The Grawl would be a credit to any author. The good characters are properly likable; the bad ones, properly despicable. Even despicable, the villains have some depth, and their evil is painted with a fine and sometimes chilling touch.

Mrs. Paul’s style is clear and clean. She avoids long and complex sentences; she rarely uses metaphors or similes. This tendency to go down a straight line can be seen elsewhere in the book. The story lines, and the character arcs, take few sudden turns.

But there are so many of them. Mrs. Paul juggles a large cast of characters, and all their intersecting story lines. This is where her novel’s complexity lies. The names can also get elaborate – Odidoddex, Groddenmitersay, Graddapotmorphit Bealomondore. There is actually a scene between Bealamondore and his father, who calls him by his first name. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be raise a child named Graddapotmorphit? “Eat your vegetables, Graddapotmorphit.” “Time for bed, Graddapotmorphit.” And suppose you had to find him. “Graddapotmorphit! Graddapotmorphit!”

Dragons of the Valley is a good story, but there were events that needed more handling. Months of battle, the fall of a capital city, and extensive conquest are mentioned almost in passing. At the end – spoilers ahead – the heroes go from nearly complete defeat to total victory in about three pages. If the battle in the valley really were such a turning point, it should have been given much more emphasis. It should have been narrated. I think there was about half a scene devoted to recounting the battle.

One more thing – and more spoilers: The Grawl is an excellent character, and I fully sympathize with Donita Paul’s desire to keep him in the cards. In fact, as a reader, I support it. But she didn’t manage to justify Fenworth’s decision to spare him. She brought the point up but never really answered it.

I wasn’t even sure about the nature of The Grawl’s imprisonment. I can think of two explanations, both equally unsatisfactory. One, The Grawl was trapped within the silver box. This is so nasty it is almost just, but it’s also dumb. Why carry around a little box that springs a bloodthirsty assassin on whoever opens it? But if what Fenworth actually did was trap The Grawl in his domain – didn’t he, in essence, punish The Grawl’s mass-murdering ways by revoking his traveling privileges?

But for all this, Dragons of the Valley is still a delight for fantasy readers. It engages its readers with excitement, humor, and winning characters.

The blog tour continues and I will, too. In the meantime, you may learn more about Dragons of the Valley from:

the book’s Amazon page;

the author’s website;

the author’s blog;

the other blog tour participants:
Gillian Adams
Noah Arsenault
Amy Bissell
Red Bissell
Justin Boyer
Keanan Brand
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
Keanan Brand
Morgan L. Busse
CSFF Blog Tour
Amy Cruson
D. G. D. Davidson
April Erwin
Amber French
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Dawn King

Emily LaVigne
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis

John W. Otte

Donita K. Paul
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Tammy Shelnut
Kathleen Smith
James Somers
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
Dave Wilson