Movie Review: Go to the New-ish ‘Lion King’ for the Technical Marvels If You Must, But Stay for the Goofy Sidekicks

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CREDIT: Disney Enterprises

Starring: Donald Glover, JD McCrary, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, James Earl Jones, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG for Leonine Fratricide

Release Date: July 19, 2019

I’ve expressed before that Disney’s recent spate of remakes of its animated catalog is not an inherently bad idea. Plenty of stories have been told and then subsequently retold in fresh ways. For a classic example, William Shakespeare’s plays have remained relevant as many different versions have had their say over hundreds of years. But the major difference, and this is especially clear in the case of The Lion King, is the source document. A feature film that has been recorded on and uploaded onto a variety of durable formats sets a more indelible imprint than an initial theatrical performance that was presented before such recording technology existed. If you want to revisit the journey of Simba’s ascendance to the throne, you can always pop in the DVD or find the right streaming channel. Thus, a fresh feature length retelling demands that there be something new on offer.

The Jon Favreau-directed photoreal Lion King remake does in fact offer something new, at least (or if only) on a technical level. Every speck of dirt and strand of fur is rendered in painstaking fashion. But to what end? I’m reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s mashup of Hitchcock’s original Psycho and Gus van Sant’s remake, which is the sort of thing that you do just because you feel like it. And so, as far as I can tell, the team at Disney recreated the “Circle of Life” opening sequence with an updated animation style just because they felt like it. I have a bit of a Pavlovian reaction to that wonder of a kickoff, but this time it was just a secondhand Pavlov to a secondhand routine.

On a positive note, I will admit that I found this viewing experience valuable for making me feel more amenable to the adult perspective of believing that Simba just needs to get around to taking care of his responsibility. But I don’t know if that is a unique feature of this version or just a function of me happening to see this particular version instead of the original on this particular day.

In conclusion, while I have mostly focused on the disappointments, I do ultimately recommend nü-Lion King thanks to the Timon and Pumbaa of it all. As Simba’s meerkat and warthog companions, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are given more free rein than anyone else in the cast to find the characterization that suits them. Their performances avoid any inadvisable postmodern Shrek-style smart-aleckry, while also suggesting that they are at least self-aware of the all-franchise-fare-all-the-time pop culture landscape they are operating within. If you’re going to go back to the well, you can’t be too precious about what came before, and thankfully, enough of Timon and Pumbaa’s non-preciousness is on display here for us to get by.

The Lion King is Recommended If You Like: The wonders of animation technology, Perfectly suited yin/yang comedy duos

Grade: 3 out of 5 Circles of Life

This Is a Movie Review: Doctor Strange

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doctor-strange-close-up-with-buildings-in-background

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2016.

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams

Directors: Scott Derrickson

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for fantastical bumps and bruises and a gruesome accident

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Now at 14 films strong, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no signs of abandoning its (consistently profitable) template: initial humbling, transformative origin, world-threatening climax. Doctor Strange is not interested in (or prohibited from) straying from that template, but it does mess with the rules in ways that do right by its protagonist.

That transgressive attitude is there right from the start. Stephen Strange is a highly respected and highly arrogant neurosurgeon whose superheroic path is catalyzed by a car wreck that is as horrific and as indulgent as a PG-13 rating allows. The comic book model often begins with these intense powder kegs, but they are rarely this visceral, unless they are making a show of being “adult,” which is not what this entry is all about.

With his hands left stubbornly tremorous, Strange is enticed by the promise of an alternative treatment in the mountains of Nepal. While initially prone to skepticism about the sorcery he encounters, he hears out the pitch, perhaps because all characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor or Tilda Swinton exude confidence. Convincing Strange could have been drawn out, but that likely would have been tiresome, so instead he is soundly convinced by a cosmic trip that achieves cinematic psychedelia unheard of for decades.

Of course, this all leads to a grand climactic battle – this time, a traitorous rebellion led by a former pupil (Mads Mikkelsen). As usual, the entire planet is at threat, but Dr. Strange is sly about how this comes to pass. With much of the action taking place in the “Mirror Dimension” or “astral planes,” the world at large generally has no idea what is going on.

Basically, while Doctor Strange must work within constraints, it has no intention of dialing back the pizzazz. And why should it, considering that so many of its characters can bend the very nature of reality? The film’s most striking visuals – rolling skyscrapers, warped cityscapes – are obviously reminiscent of Inception. That earlier dreamscape flick famously utilized primarily practical effects, while Strange quite obviously employs CGI. That is not a knock – this is perhaps the most artful use of impractical effects of all time. As Stephen Strange learns in his hero’s journey, it’s all about playing to your strengths.

Doctor Strange is Recommended If You Like: Inception But Wish It Had Been More Maniacal, 2001, a Healthy Helping of Looney Tunes

Grade: 4 out of 5 Astral Bodies