Blue Butterfly Commentary

It is unusual for a child character to control a quest narrative; but The Blue Butterfly (2004) presents just this premise. The child, Pete Carlson (Marc Donato), is a ten-year-old boy who is dying of a brain tumour. He’s also an amateur entomologist. His bedroom is filled with butterfly cases. Pete is also a boy with a mission. Before he dies, he wants to go to the rainforest to capture a Blue Morpho, a giant butterfly that holds special significance for him. His hero, entomologist Allan Osborn (William Hurt) has rhapsodized on television about how the magical Blue Morpho changed his life. Pete decides that he could use a bit of magic himself; he concocts a plan to convince Osborn to help him and his mother, Teresa (Pascale Bussières) to find the butterfly.

Narrative aesthetic conventions are such that children who embark on quests must be somehow separated from their caregivers in order to have the adventure. In the Narnia Chronicles, for example, the Pevensey children are sent to the countryside during World War II in order to be safe from the bombs falling on their city. They come to live in a vast country house owned by an old professor, who seldom sees them. They are therefore free to find Narnia and adventure. The same holds true for Harry Potter and all his friends; they are at boarding school for most of the year.  While away from their parents, questing children must learn how to solve problems and cooperate with others; acquire self-discipline; and be courageous in the face of danger.

While on the quest, the children are assisted with advice and directions from friendly characters who are often animals or magical creatures; they are given maps to follow and talismans to protect them from harm, Most importantly, they are given a guide who will walk beside them, but not interfere in the choices they make. In other words, the guide is there to make sure that the children survive, but he does not prevent the children from making mistakes. In Narnia, this guide is a lion named Aslan; in the Harry Potter story, it is the wizard, Dumbledore.

The Blue Butterfly rings several important changes on the standard quest narrative for children. A child initiates the quest and organizes his own guide. In fact, Pete organizes the entire quest before leaving for the rainforest. His mother assists him in securing the services of a guide that Pete has chosen. Pete and his mother go to an Allan Osborn promotional event in order to ask the entomologist if he will grant the wish of a dying child. Hurt plays a character who has systematically isolated himself from family responsibilities, having walked out on his wife and daughter seventeen years previously. He defines himself as a bad father, but a good scientist. Astonished by Pete’s determination, Osborn reluctantly agrees to take him to the rainforest.

Once in Costa Rica, Osborn begins to learn what it is to do something for another person. His admiration for Pete grows each day. Osborn starts to carry the boy on his shoulders. Pete’s mother gamely tries to keep up, but she hates the rainforest: she falls in the swamp, is afraid of snakes, and hates the insects. One night towards the end of their quest, Pete asks her to stay home in the village while he and Osborn go out alone the next day. The Blue Morpho, he says, knows that she is there and will not come to him unless he is on his own. Reluctantly she agrees, thus freeing the child from parental bonds; inevitably Osborn and Pete see a Blue Morpho the following day and start to chase it. They are so focused that they fail to see a sinkhole in the path and fall dozens of feet down the hole. Osborn is hurt and can’t climb out. It is now up to Pete to go for help. Painfully, he drags himself up the rocky walls of the sinkhole and out onto the forest floor.

In questing narratives involving children, it is only when the guide fails in some way that the child truly finds his way. In the Narnia and Harry Potter narratives, the guide is killed but then provides only ghostly, assistance afterward. Up to this point in The Blue Butterfly, it has been Osborn who has been growing and maturing under the guidance of the child, Pete. Now, however, Pete must earn his own magic. He crawls, then limps, and finally walks back toward the village. It takes him hours; he stumbles and falls and is thoroughly frightened by the sounds of the jungle. At one point ghostly warriors visit him, but the painted face markings and the talisman given to him by Yana (Marianella Jimenez), a little girl in the village, protect him from harm. In fact, one of the ghost warriors touches his head with a spear as a mark of respect.

While Pete and Osborn have been off on their adventure, Yana has actually caught a Blue Morpho for them and placed it in a wicker cage. Pete is overwhelmed as she gives him the butterfly. However, she tells him that the Blue Morpho is no more magic than everything else. What is important to understand is that all of life is magic. Pete frees the butterfly. When Pete and his mother return home, he discovers that his brain cancer has disappeared. While this conveniently tidy ending might have undermined the minimal sentimentality of the rest of the movie, it supplies more emotive effect than one might otherwise have guessed, because this feature film was based on a true story. Indeed, the original entomologist about whom the story was written served as a consultant on the film.

The Blue Butterfly won a Jutra award in 2005 for the stunning cinematography of Pierre Mignot and was nominated for several other awards at the Mar del Plato Film Festival, the Oulu International Children’s Film Festival, the Young Artist Awards, and by the Directors Guild of Canada.

Evelyn Ellerman