It wouldn’t be too hard to type the names of these two big, summer family films into Google and find endless reviews in order to make a judgement as to weather or not they’re worth your time. For that reason, I’ll come right out and say that I really liked Pete’s Dragon – I thought it was a lot of fun, the [furry] design of Elliot (the dragon) was cool and unique, and even though he was an antagonist, Karl Urban is – as always – charming and charismatic. As for The BFG, based on Roald Dahl’s nearly-universally beloved children’s book of the same name, I thought it was okay. The interactions between Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant (BFG) were fun and amusing, but the abundance of CGI took me out of it at times, and (aside from some of the scenes in Dream Country, which I thought were pretty spectacular) the feeling of whimsey or magic that I’d hoped for in a film like this just wasn’t present for me.
That being said, what I want to look at, is how these two films separately approach the theme of conquering fear and unraveling the unknown. Both Pete’s Dragon and The BFG bring our protagonists (both children) face to face with creatures and concepts that have been traditionally feared and presented as monstrous and/or villainous. While Pete and Sophie first react to these creatures of myth with some trepidation, they both ultimately accept them with much more openness than we would usually see from adults.
Both of these examples represent a conquering of the fear of the unknown, and illustrate one of my favorite quotes:
The greatest danger facing us is… ourselves, and irrational fear of the unknown. There’s no such thing as ‘the unknown,’ only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.
This quote, of course, comes from Captain James T. Kirk in the original series Star Trek episode, The Corbomite Maneuver (and a version of this quote was also made famous by 2016’s Star Trek: Beyond as well).
In their respective films, Elliot the Dragon and the Big Friendly Giant take on the figurative role of the unknown. As both Pete and Sophie come to realize, and what the adult characters take a bit longer to understand, the fear of these misunderstood creatures is truly a manifestation of our own deeper fears of the unknown.
While Pete’s Dragon mostly focuses on Elliot, the events of the story (and a parting shot towards the end of the film) indicate that there are more dragons in the world and despite looking scary, it is implied that they are friendly and misunderstood. Slightly counter to this, The BFG depicts the other giants of Giant Country to be not so friendly. With that, the film easily depicts the conflict between humans and giants in a way as to not judge all of giant-kind based upon the actions and desires of the not so friendly ones.
The message that The BFG and Pete’s Dragon ultimately delivers is a message of not only shedding light on the unknown to dispel fear, but an active message against the concept of ‘othering.’ In our world today, we see a growing trend from countless peoples and cultures to lay blame for the actions of members of a certain community at the feet of that community as a whole. We see a reluctance to accept certain communities and cultures as being made up of individuals and instead group them, giving way to the power of stereotyping, hate, mistrust, and deeper divisiveness – the ultimate dangers of ‘othering.’
Unfortunately, both Pete’s Dragon and The BFG were not considered box office successes, and as we are currently seeing in our society today (through frequent hate crimes and the shape of public policy across the globe) the messages they were trying to convey seem lost on many of us. However, let’s not allow this to dispel hope. The genres of science fiction and fantasy have frequently been a force to push us to look at ourselves, our opinions, and the momentum of our societies in different ways. Their allegories and commentaries often breed messages of hope, optimism, and unity, and during times when things seem grim, these messages become more and more meaningful, encouraging us to look forward rather than backward. With that, I’ll leave you all with another quote from a fictional character, this one from the great Professor Albus Dumbledore:
Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.