Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Pete's Dragon (2016) Adoption Movie Review

by Addison Cooper, LCSW

Please note: Spoilers throughout this review. Want to avoid spoilers? In a nutshell: this one is probably good for adoptive families with kids over 8, but it could be hard for kids who are sensitive to themes of parental loss or violence. Like Finding Dory, for adoptive families this isn't a popcorn flick, but instead is a rather deeply emotional film that could be helpful for some kids and parents as they think about loss, feelings, and family formation. Spoilers ahead the rest of the way:

A young boy named Pete is on a road trip with his parents. Just after his parents commend Pete for his bravery, their car overturns. Pete’s parents die in the accident, and Pete is left alone on a road through the wilderness. Pete is sad and alone, and soon finds himself surrounded by wolves. Before the wolves can attack, they are scared away by a large, furry, green dragon. Local legends tell of a vicious dragon in the woods, and Pete’s first question is “Are you going to eat me?” This is a friendly dragon, though. Pete is safe, and names the dragon Elliot after a favorite storybook character. For the next several years, Pete and Elliot enjoy life. Their happy life is threatened when developers come to the forest. Several workers decide to hunt Elliot; Pete is fascinated by Natalie, a human girl of his own age. Will Pete and Elliot remain friends? Can Elliot stay safe? And how will Pete fit in with the other humans?

The Adoption Connection

Pete lost his parents when he was very young. He has bonded to the friendly dragon Elliot, who serves as some combination of guardian, friend, and pet to Pete. He appears to have strong memories that arise when he sees a car, which makes sense given that his parents died in a car accident. Pete is initially scared when adults try to take care of him; he runs away, and cries that he wants to go home. Pete eventually finds a home with a human family, but continues to visit Elliot.  

Strong Points

Natalie and her mother Grace take a genuine interest in Pete when they find him apparently alone in the woods. They are safe people; Natalie’s mother takes Pete home, finds out who he is, and strives to care for him, intending to take him to the social service agency in the morning.

Grace is able to connect with her own history of loss to be helpful to Pete.

Pete has several people who arise to protect him when he is vulnerable, alone and afraid: Grace, Natalie, and Elliot all help him out.

When Pete wants to run away, he tries to promise that no one ever has to see him again; Grace affirms that she wants to keep seeing Pete around. Her affirmation to him reminds me of what David says to Dennis in Martian Child – basically, “you belong here, and I want you here.”

Finding a human family does not preclude Pete from maintaining a friendship with Elliot; his human family makes sure that he is able to keep visiting his furry green friend.

When Pete and Elliot say goodbye to each other, they howl to express their emotions; it was reminiscent of a scene between Spot and Arlo in The Good Dinosaur.


An adult handles Pete roughly, knocking him out.

One of the woodsmen tries to capture Elliot, and to claim Elliot as his property. One or two scenes are a bit violent, Elliot is shot with several tranquilizer darts, and another scene involves a lot of fire; either of these could be scary for some kids.  

Weak Points

Grace lies to Pete; she tells him that he can go home, but she secretly intends to bring him to social services.


Pete’s Dragon seems best-suited to kids ages 8 and up. Younger kids might enjoy the film, but younger kids who have experienced trauma might be scared by a couple scenes where Elliot is attacked by hunters. Kids who have unresolved grief regarding lost parents might find an opening scene very hard to watch when Pete’s parents die in a car accident. It’s also pretty sad when Pete and Elliot split up – even though they are able to continue their friendship. A few kids behind me in the theater cried. Although it is sad at times, this is also the story of a young boy who is helped after a great loss by a safe friend, and who needs – and finds – a loving, understanding parent. If your kids can make it through the hard parts, this seems like a positive movie for adoptive families with kids over age 8 or so. It’s not an easy “popcorn flick” kind of movie, but it is an emotionally deep movie that could be helpful to some adoptive families for its portrayal of loss, emotion, and family formation.  

Questions for Discussion

Two people have an argument; one says, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The other says “Just because you say something is true doesn’t mean it is.” Which of their points of view do you like best?

What do you think helped Pete feel comfortable with Grace and Natalie?

Now that Pete is part of Grace’s and Natalie’s family, will he keep seeing Elliot?

How many different people cared about Pete?

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