Saturday, September 17, 2016

Pete's Dragon

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Pete’s Dragon (Disney, 2016) – Director: David Lowery. Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (s/p). Malcolm Marmorstein (based on a screenplay by). Seton I. Miller, S.S. Field (based on a story by). Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, & Francis Biggs. Color, Rated PG, 103 minutes.

This is one remake that was worth creating. The 1977 original only served to reconfirm that Disney corporation could mix animated characters with real-life people. But unlike Mary Poppins (1964), it was a silly fantasy with a dragon goofier than Goofy and nowhere near as funny. Today’s technology has provided us with a dragon-sized dragon complete with a wingspread capable of true flight to replace the pot-bellied caricature with the tiny pink wings. We now have a story where we can put aside our disbelief and just enjoy it.

Pete’s parents are driving their young son through the woods and explaining an “adventure” to him when a deer leaps in front of the car. Dad swerves and all we see is Pete’s reaction, securely strapped in, to a car rolling over and landing on its roof. It’s a heart-breaking moment when the two-year-old (we assume) cries when his parents do not answer him but bravely packs his storybook into his back pack and enters the woods. Strange sounds come from everywhere and he’s beset by wolves. Just before they attack we hear the familiar thudding walk of a giant creature (similar to the sound of the T-Rex approaching in Jurassic Park). The wolves scatter and Pete is confronted by a towering green, furry dragon. “Are you going to eat me?” he asks. Wordlessly we know the dragon communicates a no by putting out his left front paw palm up. Pete climbs onto it and the dragon places him gently on his back.

It’s six years later and loggers are working in the forest. Jack (Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Urban) have continued operations in a section of the woods they were not supposed to harvest and forest ranger Grace (Howard) is there to point out the infringement. Her daughter Natalie (Laurence) is with her, wandering around while Mom remonstrates with the foreman.

Now eight years old, Pete (Fegley) watches from the cover of bushes. Natalie spots him and chases him into the forest. They both climb a tree and it’s not until a branch breaks and both go tumbling to the ground that Grace hears her daughter’s screams. When Grace and Jack race in to find her relatively unhurt, she explains that she was chasing Pete and points him out. Pete is captured and the mystery begins.

In a prior scene, we heard Meacham (Redford), Grace’s Dad, telling the children the stories of the “Millhaven Dragon,” and that he himself saw it when he was young. This turns out to be the very dragon whom Pete accredits his survival to and has named him “Elliot” after the main character in his beloved book. Pete wants to get back to Elliot because, “He gets scared when I’m gone,” but Grace makes a deal with him. If he stays the night, she’ll take him back to his “home” in the morning.

Meacham joins Natalie, Grace, and Pete to the section of forest where Grace has never been. (She had claimed previously that, “I know this forest like the back of my hand.”) The three are awestruck at the huge, furry apparition that emerges from under a centuries-old tree, but Natalie steps forward to pet it. Again, wonderful wordless communication comes from the grunts, deep hums and throaty growls from Elliot and they are all convinced he’s friendly. That is, until Gavin bursts onto the scene. He’s terrified, scares Elliot with his rifle, and Elliot does a classic “bend the rifle muzzle back on itself” routine as Gavin retreats.

Gavin is undeterred, gathering the other loggers. Together, they sedate Elliot, chain him onto a flatbed 18-wheeler, haul him out of the forest, and lock him in a barn. But Gavin doesn’t know that Elliot can make himself invisible and he does so when Sheriff Gene Dentler (Whitlock Jr.) arrives. Pete and Natalie free Elliot and, with Meacham at the wheel, break Elliot free and the chase is on.

The new Pete’s Dragon is beautifully done, from the superb special effect of the dragon to the musical soundtrack ranging from tearful sadness to glorious themes in full flight. Both of the children playing Pete are adorable and convincing. Robert Redford does his usual spectacular job and Bryce Dallas Howard depicts the perfect Mom/Naturalist/Protector. The rest of the cast are Disney rubber stamps: predictable. But it’s Elliot who is amazing. The models that were built for the close-ups reveal a facial mobility that succeeds in projecting every emotion. I swore that at one moment he was going to cry.

I guess most New York children had already seen this film by the time I got to it, but the ones that were there were enjoying it quietly and without boredom. They were not scared when Elliot roared or breathed fire. That’s what a dragon is supposed to do, right? But I would also guess that covering him in luxuriant green fur makes him more accessible than the scaly look of a medieval dragon, and he did have distinctly dog-like features. (Remember Falcor in 1984’s The NeverEnding Story?) It reminded me of things I said about Disney films before The Black Hole (1979), where I first saw bloodshed. Before then, it was “survival of the cutest” and that phrase applies to this film as well. But beyond all that, it’s a well-constructed movie with no dead spots, humor mixed in with sadness, and a surprise at the end. I might even add it to my home collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Savour Sichuan
108 W. 39th St., New York

Even though this restaurant is across the street from Gabby O’Hara’s, where I go to sing karaoke every Tuesday night, I have never eaten there. The entrance, closer to Sixth Avenue, is garish, intensely Broadway-style, featuring a nearly blinding yellow sign with Chinese calligraphy in white and red. 

Inside, however, the decor is much more sedate, with everything in white walls with dark wood trim. The bar has tasteful Chinese paper and wood swags over it with a large fish tank containing tropical fish at the end of the bar.

My server, Jay, a lovely young girl, took my cocktail order: the Lychee Martini – Lychee-infused vodka, juice and simple syrup – because I wanted a drink served in the arty glass I saw on their website. The drink was deceivingly sweet, and contained two Lychees on a toothpick as the garnish.  

The service is super-efficient and before I had time to page through the food menu, Jay had opened it to appetizers. I chose Mini Crab Meat Soup Buns. Jay advised me that the dish would take five minutes to prepare and I assured her that I had all the time in the world. Another server noticed the length of time I was without and asked if I wanted to order. I assured her I had an appetizer order in. Jay returned when I closed the menu and helped me with my second and main courses. I chose a standard favorite of mine, Szechuan Sour and Spicy Soup, which arrived almost immediately. It was good, but it was standard, nothing special. 

The Mini Crab Meat Soup Buns arrived after I finished the soup, beautifully presented in a light wooden steamer tray resting on a leaf of lettuce and sided by a soy dipping sauce. Very good, but not up to my benchmark for this dish.

Lacking a true wine list, I chose a glass of the house cabernet-sauvignon to go with my main course. It was a nice red, medium bodied wine, suitable to many purposes.

My main dish was Fresh Frog with Pickled Ginger in Spicy Broth. I spooned some onto my serving dish making sure to get as much frog as I could find and started eating. I quickly realized they were not kidding when they labeled this dish “spicy.” It was one of the spiciest dishes I’ve ever had. As my eyes watered I enjoyed the tender white frog meat, scallions and slender mushrooms, carefully sipping my wine so as not to intensify the fire. When I mistook a yellow chili pepper for a piece of meat, I learned that there were three different kinds of chilies in the dish and soon was fishing through the dish with the spoon for the three ingredients I could eat without becoming a smoking volcano. It was most impressive, but the spice killed the delicate flavor of the frog, and  as the frog was hacked into small pieces, each containing a bone or two, caution was called for in the dining process.

After I finished the cabernet and ordered a glass of the merlot to go with the remaining rice and ingredients I could safely eat. A few relaxing breaths later and I was ready for dessert. The Gold and Silvery Buns were true “buns” (not like my appetizer). There were four golden-brown fried and four pure white steamed buns stuffed with almond and sesame paste respectively on either side of a teardrop-shaped bowl of sweet, caramel dipping sauce.

The fire was completely out and I was full. I think I will return, with friends whom I know like exotic foods. Frankly, I’m after that conch soup and tripe main dish. They do have dishes for people who like regular Chinese food, which I would recommend for those too squeamish for brains, intestines and fish maws. However, for those who are adventurous, Savour Sichuan is the place. 

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