Wednesday, August 24, 2016

No Homework Is Just the Beginning of the Changes Needed to Fix Education in America

School has started or is going to start for millions of American children over the next few weeks. Besides having the Back to School Blues (which my kids have been moaning about since August 1st), they face getting back into a routine that includes lessons, studying, tests, and homework; however, many educators (including yours truly) have been questioning the efficacy of homework in the education equation for years.

Recently a second grade teacher named Brandy Young from Texas has made a virtual name for herself by deciding not to give her students homework for an entire year. Her letter to parents explaining this decision has gone viral on Facebook and has been discussed in other venues. While this may seem like radical thinking, there has been a growing call among educators to reevaluate homework and its place in our evolving technological world that is changing the scholastic atmosphere considerably. Ms. Young wrote in part:
After much research this summer, I am trying something new. Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year. Research had been unable to prove that homework improves student performance. Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eating dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.
hw4While I get her point, I think Ms. Young is thinking of a more holistic approach to bringing families together and keeping them from dealing with the dreaded homework monster that seemingly mocks the meat it feeds upon. As a parent who has spent countless hours helping my kids with homework, I commiserate with her and all parents who feel like they were in the same sinking boat; however, as an educator, I have long suspected that traditional homework was not just an unnecessary burden but also ineffective in reinforcing concepts or enhancing students’ success.

Many parents, especially those who are paying for private schools, tend to equate a heavy homework load with getting more bang for their buck, but the truth is that copious amounts of homework (besides being extremely tedious and time consuming) are mostly detrimental for students at all levels, and what has long been called reinforcement of skills taught really just ends up being extremely low quality in its value to the student.

Having long been interested in the concepts of "blended learning" and "the flipped classroom," I have become a proponent of taking both ideas and turning American schools around. One of the most crucial incentives for this is the need for individual instruction, paced in a way to meet every student’s needs. As a former classroom teacher I can attest to the fact that kind of instruction is almost impossible in the traditional frontal classroom with 25 or more students all listening and seeing things from their own perspective.

Blended learning involves some kind of online component within the traditional hw1classroom setting. In this scenario students would watch lessons created by their subject or classroom teachers online. The key thing here is Student A may be able to grasp everything with one viewing; however, Students B, C, and D may need two or even more viewings.

I have sometimes heard students complain that “the teacher goes too fast,” and this would be an ideal way to slow down the pace to meet individual needs. Afterwards students could participate in an in-class activity or session with the teacher at the pace each one needed while others are working independently. The teacher can also buttress the online component with a whole class presentation or activity once everyone is where he or she needs to be.

The flipped classroom – of which I have long been an advocate – involves an even more radical approach. Remember when old Mr. Gradgrind (a rather hw3horrid educator from Dickens's novel Hard Times) used to sit at his desk drilling students and making them read from a chapter? What a complete and total waste of time you say, right? Well, I would hear from teachers in the real world that this was the only way they could know that students knew their work or read the textbook.

The flipped classroom changes everything. That chapter would be read at home online or from a book. The lecture about that chapter would also be viewed at home and, similar to the blended learning scenario, a student could take as much time as needed to rewind, pause, and truly grasp the concepts at an individual pace. Students could then complete an assignment or quiz that would allow the teacher to ascertain whether or not the lesson was grasped. These assignments and quizzes could also be individually prepared to meet each student’s needs.

So what actually happens in school in the flipped classroom? In the flipped classroom, the in-class activities are like the homework – but in a much more dynamic and fluid manifestation. Moving away from what has been jokingly called “the sage on the stage” model, the days of teacher lecture in the classroom would be over. Instead, the teacher facilitator, or what some have dubbed “the guide on the side,” would allow for a more student-centered environment that would fully engage the students in a situation where they too are responsible for the success of lessons. This kind of student empowerment will help prepare them not only well for school but for when they become adults.

The future of our schools will no doubt see a combining of the ideas from blended learning and the flipped classroom to revolutionize education by truly individualizing it. This would change the landscape of “regular” education to be more like special education for all students. In this way each student should have an individualized education plan (something long overdue) and would better meet the needs of all students.

This kind of change is already happening as an experiment in some schools, and many teachers and students are embracing it. For the teacher there is no longer the pressure of getting everything into the lecture during 45 minute periods, and for the student the obvious benefit is to be able to hit stop and rewind. More importantly, allowing students to come into school and actively take charge of their lessons, make meaningful choices, and have significant input, raises the bar in ways never experienced before.

hw2Also taking away the “time” factor will no longer inhibit that creativity that tends to get left at the wayside because only concrete and definitive answers are acceptable. Instead we are moving toward a place where Socrates might feel right at home – the classroom where asking thought provoking questions is encouraged and becomes just as important as having the right answers, where critical thinking skills are honed and become the rule and not the exception.

So this Texas teacher is onto something because the days of homework should indeed be numbered. The idea of homework and in school work will eventually take on a whole new meaning, one that is necessary and compelling if we are going to guide students to meet exceedingly difficult standards and curriculum as they move up each grade and through to high school and college; also, in this way they will be better prepared for the challenges they will face in the workforce in their future lives.

Monday, August 22, 2016

NBC Olympic Coverage – Gets No Medals for Too Many Commercials and Too Much Fluff

“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” was the old promo for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and the second half of that phrase is truly apropos in reference to NBC’s coverage of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The almost haphazard cutting and pasting of events, sometimes broadcast after they were long over and results announced on other stations, seems an incongruous way to cover sporting events, especially something so important as the Olympic Games.

rio-feathers_1b1f5dca4e6d77feed3f011384536f72.nbcnews-fp-760-400It is one thing when the games are coming from Australia or Asia – tape delays may seem acceptable in those cases, but Rio is only an hour ahead of EST, so there doesn’t seem to be much sense in the scheduling here. There also is the fact that some events seem not to be covered at all (admittedly, I didn’t watch every minute, but I saw little or nothing of track and field events).

So after covering the games many times before and hearing the critics, NBC seems to have learned nothing from those experiences. Besides the tape delays, the seemingly endless commercial breaks and annoying announcers tend to be the biggest weakness of the coverage. There is also the “fluff” which many viewers neither want nor need – yeah, we get that they are trying to fill all of the prime time schedule, but is hard to keep watching when you want to see a specific event and have to sit through what is basically filler.

The ratings were way down from 2012 coverage – perhaps 17 to 20% when all is said and done – and that is because people are forced to tune out. I have nothing against Bob Costas, but when they cut to him in a studio and he started talking, I immediately changed the channel. I wanted to see sporting events; I didn’t want to watch Costas talking about them.

160817142836-01-lochte-0809-medium-plus-169And for everything NBC got right – the coverage of Michael Phelps and swimming events was well timed – they got twice as much wrong. The great Simone Biles and her fellow gymnasts were on way too late (especially for kids). And did we really need to see Matt Lauer in prime time interviewing Ryan Lochte, who disgraced his team and country? Also, no matter how “cute” it might have been, we also didn’t need Costas interviewing Simone Biles and Aly Raisman about their meeting with movie hunk Zac Efron (something NBC arranged no doubt in a desperate attempt to stoke the terrible ratings).

The problem is that NBC invests so much money to broadcast the Olympics that it has to get it back in advertising, so the frequent and long-winded commercial breaks are annoying but understood. We have almost been conditioned to accept that from a sporting event like the Super Bowl, but that is a one-day broadcast and not 16 days long. Besides the ads, how many times did we have to be subjected to NBC plugging its own shows, especially Timeless (which I am now deliberately never watching)?

CqbSksdVYAArW24The general feeling I got and also have heard from many others who were watching the games was that “We want more sports!” The Olympics is a sporting event, and we don’t need to see the fluff! The announcers and reporters (like the incompetent Al Trautwig who called Simone Biles’ adoptive parents her grandparents), Matt Lauer, and especially Bob Costas, have to listen to the critics and make some big changes, or they are in for some rude awakening in Tokyo in 2020.

Unfortunately, NBC has dropped a big wad ($12 billion) to cover the games until 2032, so we know we are in for more of the same unless someone in authority at NBC listens to all the negative feedback. For now, NBC’s credibility and reputation for covering sports has taken a tremendous hit, and that once proud peacock is sadly wilting away and going home from Rio with its tail between its legs – the agony of defeat indeed!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Presidential Campaign Is Ruining People’s Quality of Life

I don’t know about you, but everywhere I go I hear the same thing – “I wish this presidential stuff was over!” This is not just a few people; I am talking about numerous people in different levels of involvement in my life – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Some of these individuals are friends; others are known professionally, and some are acquaintances or people I see going about my daily routine.

donhill3-foxThe problem is that there is so much division felt in the office, at sporting events, and even in our own homes. There are spouses who want different candidates, and their children sometimes take sides. Then there are friends and their children, and it just spirals completely out of control if the conversation turns to politics, and lately this always seems inevitable.

Another source of angst is the social media aspect of the campaign. Facebook has become a battleground – either you are standing with one candidate or the other and, if not, you are the enemy. It is really rather absurd but it is happening there and on Twitter and other online venues. “You don’t like my candidate? I’m unfriending you!” It’s sort of like the old playground “I’m not your friend anymore” crap, only it’s worse because we are adults.

olives 2Going to a cocktail party now seems like something to dread rather than enjoy. They say “in vino veritas,” but you don’t expect “in vino venom” as you sample hors d'oeuvres and sip a martini. There is always the guy who seems ready to engage, ready to get things going.

“So, who are you voting for?” he will say rather obnoxiously.

“I haven’t decided,” is usually an easy out, but not with this fellow.

“Come on, you’re voting for Trump, right?”

“No, I’m really not sure yet.” This usually works, right? Not with this guy.

He’ll laugh like sarcastically, letting you know that he doesn’t believe you. “I know, everyone who says that is voting for Trump.”

So, now that you can’t get out the easy way, you go for the real truth. “I am an Independent, so I always vote my conscience, and right now I can’t see voting for either of the main candidates.”

His eyes will bulge and he will say, “Oh, so if you vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, you’re actually voting for Trump anyway!”

Now you’ve about had it; you are done being polite. You take your drink and that now cold pig in the blanket and, as you walk away, the guy gets all Jack Nicholson on you yelling, “See, you people can’t handle the truth!” You don’t turn around; you just keep walking.

Now, this is an example of what has been happening lately. It can be in the supermarket, the coffee shop, or even in Walgreens – the venue almost doesn’t matter. People are ready to engage and are armed for battle.

Sometimes I see the guy in a red Trump hat, and I turn and walk the other way, even if the item I want is down that aisle. Other times I see people wearing Clinton shirts or buttons, and I do the same. Like a political version of Bartleby, I just prefer not to – and I wish people would respect that.

At this time I cannot watch American TV news anymore, because the same version of divisiveness in the real world is happening on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. The talking heads are yelling at one another; the hosts are biased and spouting their opinions, and the hope for “news” is just wishful thinking. When I do want some actual news coverage, I turn to my local cable news for area stories and the BBC for what’s happening in the world.

albatrossIt really has reached a point that the pettiness and vindictiveness of the presidential campaigns have affected the quality of life for many people. Like an albatross around our collective necks, it weighs down social situations, work environments, online interactions, and family functions. It is an unfair punishment for a crime we didn’t commit, but we’re saddled with it anyway.

As we move closer to Labor Day and what follows after that – the homestretch of the campaigns heading toward Election Day – I wish that people would just respect others for having an opinion or not having one. I wish that people would not try to take every opportunity to start a debate on for whom to vote, and I would hope that general decency could take the place of acrimony.

In short let’s not start the conversation someone else may not want to finish, and if you do engage in some kind of political discourse, let civility reign and respect the other person’s opinion – even if that person is choosing not to vote on November 8. Everything will be over after that day, but the wounds inflicted before it may take a long time to heal, or may fester and grow worse afterwards.

It is up to us not to ruin friendships, alienate colleagues, or fracture our families. The best bet is to ease up on everyone around you and keep the peace. Life is too short for anything less.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

2016 Summer Olympics – Gold Medal Winner Lochte’s Behavior Disgraces America and Tarnishes His Reputation

The 2016 Summer Olympics have been a gold mine for American athletes – as I write this the United States has earned 40 gold medals, and 110 overall. These wonderful accomplishments by our athletes should be what the conversation is about in Rio; however, because of the teenage antics of swimmer Ryan Lochte and three other swim team members,  everyone is talking about their crude and embarrassing episode in a gas station bathroom.

We have seen this all before in America – professional athletes behaving badly. Whether it is taking PEDs or abusing a partner or assaulting a fellow player, all these reprehensible kinds of actions diminish sports nationwide. It is bad enough when have to deal with these things at home, but the Olympics is a worldwide stage and everyone is watching, so when one or more American athletes does something wrong, it is magnified one hundredfold.

12-188711297757b71f76038dd1.14249976So much has already been written and said about the Ryan Lochte debacle in Rio, but perhaps not enough has been done. Lochte, like many athletes behaving badly before him, didn’t even have the decency to stick around and deal with the consequences of his actions in a straightforward manner. Lochte hopped a plane home and let the other three swimmers involved in the incident face the music.

In this case the music was a dirge, and it is despicable that these four athletes acted like anything but Olympians. As representatives of our country, their demeanor and actions should have been exemplary during their stay in Rio. On that Olympic world stage, the people are not merely players, but rather living symbols of the country they represent.

Besides bringing shame to America, the worst part is always the same – the children are watching and looking for role models they want to eventually emulate on the court, on the field, or in a pool. How sad is it that some athletes take for granted this sacred charge to aspire to greatness not just for country or their own rewards but to inspire young people to want to be like them one day.

The story changed several times about exactly what happened, but the gist of it is that Gold Medal Winner Lochte and fellow swimmers James Feigen, Jack Conger, and Gunnar Bentz went to a party outside the Olympic Village, and upon returning in a taxi stopped in a gas station to use the bathroom. Initially Lochte reported that he and the others had been robbed, but then subsequent stories came forward that the swimmers actually vandalized the bathroom and caused other damage. Guns were drawn, but by security guards for the gas station, and some money supposedly exchanged hands – but more as money to cover damages rather than a robbery.

In this case there is no clear version of what really happened, and security video of the incident leaves more questions than answers. The problem is that the four swimmers, regardless of what occurred, got very drunk and violated the rules. The United States Olympic Committee has condemned their behavior, but none of this erases the damage done.

Lochte did issue an apology, but it was really too little and much too late. The other three athletes were detained in Brazil and had their passports confiscated. Eventually Conger and Buntz were allowed to return to America (only after discrediting Lochte’s story), but Feigen was detained until he paid approximately $11,000 to a Brazilian charity for impoverished youth, but this becomes just so many pieces of silver and leaves a bad taste in the mouth for anyone witnessing this disgrace.

Apologies and donations notwithstanding, Lochte and friends have helped to further damage America’s image around the world. Their actions have also harmed the host country Brazil, which has been going through enough turmoil and receiving criticism for athlete and attendee safety, the Zika virus, and water pollution – Brazilians obviously didn’t want or need this kind of scrutiny and bad publicity.

Lochte has his medals but has lost people’s respect and his reputation may not be salvageable unless he takes great pains to right this terrible wrong. We all recognize that he knows how to jump into a pool and swim well, and he was very good at swiftly getting out of the country when he knew the getting was good, but none of this is admirable. Because of these actions, chances are Lochte will miss an opportunity for millions of dollars in endorsements that would have come his way after Rio, so his childish antics probably end up hurting him as much or more than anyone else.

160817142836-01-lochte-0809-medium-plus-169Ryan Lochte can begin to repair his reputation by doing more than just offering a tepid apology. Lochte should go out of his way to perform some kind of community service, preferably for the Brazilian people, which could mean establishing a charity or going there to visit and help them raise funds or build a swimming pool for poor children.

He must also remember that he is a role model and needs to live his life accordingly. This is a teachable moment now for everyone, but especially children, so how he proceeds from this point does indeed matter a great deal.

If he does not do good deeds and change his ways, Lochte’s legacy will have nothing to do with winning 12 Olympic medals and everything to do with his despicable behavior in a Rio gas station's bahroom. That’s how he will be remembered, and perhaps that is the most suitable punishment of all.

Phone Home: A Short Story by Victor Lana

The men in dark suits grabbed Pete Dawson on the corner of Madison and 34th Street, putting something over his head and throwing him into a car. He felt the vice grip fingers on his arms from the men sitting on either side of him.

“What’s this all about?” he attempted to ask, the material covering his face muffling his voice.

“Just be quiet,” the man to his left groaned.

phone3Soon he felt himself being dragged out of the car, heard what seemed like the ping of an elevator and sliding doors opening and closing. The men continued to hold Pete tightly as they moved downward, another ping sounded, and the sliding doors opened.

They threw him into a room, pulling off his head cover and slamming the metal door. His eyes adjusted to the light and he noticed a table, two chairs, and a two-way mirror on the wall. A voice over an intercom said, “Please sit down.”

“What’s this all about?” Pete screamed.

“Sit down now,” the voice commanded.

Pete reluctantly did as he was told and slapped his hands on the metal table. “I was going to work; now I’ll be late.”

The metal door opened and a tall thin man in a white lab coat walked in carrying a big envelope. He had wiry gray hair and wore black eyeglasses with thick lenses. The man sat across from him and put the envelope on the table. “Do you know why you are here?”
“I don’t have a clue,” Pete said.

The man pulled a thick file folder from inside the envelope and opened it. “We’ve been watching you for some time; however, you appear to live a normal life.”

“What’s this all about? Who are you people?”

The man stared up at him, his green eyes magnified by the thick lenses. “We are a government agency that studies anomalies, researches their origins, and tries to solve mysteries.”

Pete leaned back and sighed. “Great, I’m stuck in an X-Files episode.”

CI-033 Little Girl and Lamppost, 1946“No, this is the real deal, Peter.” He took a black and white photo out of the folder and pushed it towards Pete. “Is this your mother?”

Pete’s hands shook and tears dropped from his eyes. “Yes, that is her – when she was a young girl.”

“Okay, and how about this one?”

Pete looked at a color photograph of his mother pushing him in a stroller. “Yeah, that’s her with me; I was about two there I guess.”

“Do you notice anything odd, Peter?”

“I’m wearing one red sneaker and one blue,” he noted. “Mom often couldn’t find my shoes because I would hide them.”

“How lovely,” the man said, “but there’s something else.”

Pete shook his head. “Don’t see it.”

The man took a pencil and circled his mother’s head. “She’s holding something up to her ear.”

Pete squinted. “Uh, yeah, so what?”

phone1The man produced another copy with his mother’s face magnified. “If you look at this you can see that your mother is holding a first generation iPhone.” Pete looked up at him with a blank expression. “But this photo was taken in 1977; the iPhone wouldn’t be introduced for another 30 years.”

Pete leaned back and took a deep breath. “Well, I can’t explain it. Did you guys Photoshop that or something?”

“The photo is undoctored!” the man snarled. “Now, your mother disappeared in 1981 without a trace.”

“Uh, yes, I was just a kid….”

“You have no theories about what happened to her?”

Pete wiped tears from his eyes and sat forward. “I wonder every day where she went, what happened, or if she died. It’s a terrible way to live.”

“We believe that your mother was talking on a device that wasn’t made in 1977 because she was a time traveler.”

Pete shakes his head. “She was born Betty Martino in Brooklyn – you see her old photo at Coney Island. She went to Lafayette High School and met my father at Brooklyn College….”

“Explain how your mother's talking on an iPhone in a picture taken in 1977!” the man growled. “Then she mysteriously disappears without a trace, and you aren’t suspicious? What did your father have to say about this?”

Pete leaned back and sighed. “Dad always felt she was abducted, but there was no proof. He said that he loved her and did until the day he died.”

“How did your father die?”

Pete pointed at the folder. “Don’t have that in there?”

“This is your file, Dawson.”

“He died in his sleep a few years back. I like to think that they’re together now.”

“Did your father have a cellphone?”

Pete chuckled. “Come on, you guys have to know that.”

“We checked his records – 732 calls to one number, except there is a problem – it doesn’t exist. There’s no such number for a cellphone or landline on this planet, and none of the recordings are audible. Don’t you find that odd?”

Pete laughed, “Maybe he was calling E.T.”

“If you know anything, now is the time to tell us.”

Pete took out his iPhone 5 and dropped it on the table. “You’re free to take that apart if you like.”

The man pushed the phone back toward him. “We have all your records; we know that you have never called that number. Still, you could help us a great deal if you know more. There are other documented cases of people using cellphones prior to their invention, but this is the only one where we have a living relative to help us.”

Pete shook his head. “I’ve got nothing; I wish I knew.”

“You’re free to go, Mr. Dawson, but we’ll be watching.”


When Pete got home that night he dug a box out from under the closet floor. He removed an iPhone 6S from it, attaching a filtering device. He looked at photos of his Mom on the table, sitting in the chair and smiling as he dialed a number.

“Hello, Mom, we may have a problem.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie Review: Nine Lives – Not the Cat’s Meow

Usually when I start thinking about writing a movie review, I try to avoid including any spoilers. No such problem is to be found in writing about director Barry Sonnenfeld’s clunker Nine Lives – there’s nothing here to spoil because it’s all rotten to the core.

Rarely do I have this much disdain for a film; however, I knew this one was a stinker from the trailer. Unfortunately, when your kids want to see a movie for whatever their reasons are (in this case I was told “We like cats”), you are just better off taking them and suffering the cinematic slings and arrows of your outrageous misfortune.

I have seen so many children’s movie with my kids, and this is the first time in all these years that I could hear a pin drop in the theater. There was not one laugh, not one guffaw, not one peep during the entire excruciating 87 minutes. Afterwards the kids’ reaction was “It was just okay” which is kind of like their version of a death sentence – it’s their way of saying “This movie sucked.”

MV5BMzEzMjkwMjc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzc0NjY5ODE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,675,1000_AL_Probably the biggest question is this – how did anyone get Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, and Christopher Walken to even walk onto the set after reading this script? I have enjoyed their efforts in some super films and TV shows, but here they were either sleepwalking or hypnotized and stuck in front of the camera – yes, it is that bad.

Spacey plays a vapid, self-indulgent, bombastic billionaire with bad hair (sound familiar?) named Tom Brand who, to stroke his own ego, is trying to build the highest building in North America right in the middle of Manhattan. Garner plays his suffering but in love with him wife Lara, who insists that he buy their daughter Rebecca (Malina Weissman) a personal gift for her birthday, and all Rebecca wants is a cat.

This brings the grumpy Brand into the Purrkins cat store run by Felix Perkins (Walken), combining his Deer Hunter zombie face with his The Continental weirdness from SNL in this part. Sadly, here it is neither funny nor scary just a sort of rote reading of the lines to get through the scenes and cash a paycheck.

Brand ends up buying a cat – Mr. Fuzzypants – and assorted accessories and then heads toward the big building instead of his daughter’s birthday party to meet with his slick and seedy right hand (Mark Consuelos, who should be crying on Kelly Ripa’s shoulder and begging forgiveness for taking this role) Ian Cox. On a rain swept rooftop Cox confronts Brand about going public with the company, and explains a nonsensical plan to beat a competing Chicago building in height (even while writing this I know it sounds ludicrous) with an antenna that Brand rejects and causes him to angrily fire Cox on the spot. A lightning strike sends Brand and Mr. Fuzzypants to the brink of the roof, and Cox allows them to fall – during which a transfer takes place and Brand now resides inside the cat.

MV5BMjAzMjY2Mzc4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTQwMTU4NzE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1428,1000_AL_We have seen all this before in way better films, but the gist of it is that Brand has to redeem himself as a cat or be subjected to living the rest of his life as a feline. There feels like nothing much is at stake here – nothing that makes one want Brand to be human again. In short, there is little or no empathy for anyone in this film except the poor cat that should bite its casting agent and scratch its owner for being dropped into this mess.

Nine Lives is easily the most terrible film I have seen in 2016, and it ranks up there as one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I recommend that you avoid this one completely, but if your kids do drag you to it, take some Sominex and wear a pair of dark sunglasses – at least you’ll get a nice 87 minute nap.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon Soars to Great Heights

This new version of the old Disney film Pete’s Dragon that some people may remember from their childhoods is more of a reboot and, just as Disney did earlier this year with its wonderful The Jungle Book, this necessary updating more than retells the tale – it re-energizes it and makes for an entertaining and meaningful experience for kids and parents.

gallery_petesdragon_09_90de8930Director David Lowery, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, has managed to capture the most important essence of this tale – the caring and loving relationship between a young orphaned boy named Pete (in an impressively fine performance by Oakes Fegley) and a massive green dragon named Elliot. The trick here is to get it right when they interact, and Lowery does this by making Elliot’s presence vividly real – from the rush of his breath to the wet spray of his snort in Elliot’s face.

Of course, this wouldn’t work if the young actor who plays Pete were not so attuned, so convincingly expressive and reactive to what we know was really a green screen on the set. This makes Fegely’s work here all the more crucial and commendable, but Lowery does not only gets this right but also does so when Pete starts to interact with human beings as well.

The heart of the story is family torn apart, reassembled as it were between boy and creature, and then challenged by other forces that threaten to annihilate what they have built together. The early scenes when little Pete (Levi Alexander) suffers the loss of his birth parents have a devastating impact (caution should be used for little ones who may not be able to handle the disturbing elements depicted), and then the child wanders in the woods and is surrounded by wolves until the dragon comes to his rescue. The bond between the two is instantly established, and we flash forward six years later and Pete is surviving happily in the woods with Elliot, oblivious to the world beyond the forest.

gallery_petesdragon_02_162ad21aEnter forest ranger Grace (a radiant Bryce Dallas Howard) who has just left her father Meacham (a great, subdued performance by Robert Redford) who is telling the local kids all about his encounter with a dragon in the woods many years before. Grace has always discounted her father’s tall tales, but she discovers the feral boy Pete and, as would be the case, gets her maternal instinct going – little boys aren’t supposed to be left alone in the woods even if they claim to be happy and don’t want to leave because they are being taking care of by a friendly dragon.

gallery_petesdragon_03_b7aef8beGrace does bring Pete home against his will, but she has a young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) and husband Jack (Wes Bentley), and their family unit tweaks memories in Pete of his own parents and latent desires to be a kid in this world where things seem happy and right, but the thought of Elliot keeps weighing on his mind and emotions.

To complicate matters is the film’s villain (Karl Urban) in the form of Jack’s brother and partner in a lumber business, who seems to be a little cutthroat in his dealing with the environment, much to Grace’s dismay, and then learns about the dragon and gets set on capturing it to make a name for himself and have a big pay day (thoughts of King Kong started circling in my head during some of the more painful scenes associated with Gavin’s pursuit of Elliot).

At this point the rest is all spoilers, and the story is too precious to ruin by disclosing too much. There are many questions posed to viewers young and old about how we handle nature, the creatures that live in the wild, and also the importance of family for children. My young son and I went out to lunch after viewing the movie, and he made all the connections as he should, but that is because the film is successful in conveying them in some subtle and not so subtle ways.

Daniel Hart’s musical score lifts the heart throughout, especially as Elliot with Pete on his back rises above their forest world to see a sunset, and Bojan Bazaelli’s cinematography is vividly conceived, making us not just see the forest for the trees, but manifesting an astonishing landscape that unfolds where we have no trouble believing a sometimes green and other times invisible dragon could very well reside.

gallery_petesdragon_05_6c4939eaThe film tweaks all the appropriate heartstrings, and one may feel the urge to cry, especially those of a certain age who may remember Disney films like Old Yeller where the love of a pet becomes inextricably linked to shedding tears. There is also joy in this film as it celebrates families, promotes appreciation of nature’s beauty, and reminds us that all creatures – even enormous green dragons – are deserving of respect and dignity.

Many rewards await viewers of Pete’s Dragon, but perhaps the greatest of all is knowing that in this summer of discontent, this fairy tale of a movie can amaze and delight you, and hopefully get your mind off the troubles of the real world, even if only for 90 minutes.