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

1 Comment

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

Movie Review: ‘Aladdin’ Grants Our Wish for an Illuminating Disney Remake

2 Comments

CREDIT: Daniel Smith/Disney

Starring: Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwin Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Numan Acar, Billy Magnussen

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG for Vividly Fantastical Wish Fulfillment

Release Date: May 24, 2019

One of the best possible values of Disney’s recent spate of remakes is something typically associated with theatrical revivals, i.e., the space to illuminate and expand upon the messages of the original. With that in mind, Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Aladdin is one of the best entries in this trend because of how much it emphasizes what worked about the original and how successful it is with its new elements. Both versions are clear, thorough, and simple about explaining their character motivations, which sounds like it should be a basic tenet of storytelling, and it is (except when you want to be ambiguous), but sometimes filmmakers get distracted by the bells and whistles.

While the details are fun and fancy, the main ideas are what keep Aladdin flying along. We know that Aladdin and Jasmine are smitten each other, we know that Genie wants his freedom, we know that Jafar is power-hungry, and we know that the Sultan wants what is best for his kingdom and his daughter. The circumstances that frustrate or reward these desires are understandable and internally consistent, which adds up to a formula for a satisfying story.

So Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August know what clicks about the meat of what they’ve got here – how about the fresh flavors they add? Casting is key here, and that is a success across the board. Mena Massoud (Aladdin), Naomi Scott (Jasmine), and Marwin Kenzari (Jafar) are mainly playing variations of what came before, while Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much sterner than, though just as lovable as, Douglas Seale’s goofball version. Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen provide a good chunk of the comic relief as a couple of new characters, a saucy handmaiden to Jasmine who can totally get it and a very sweet, but way-of-his-depth, Scandinavian-ish suitor, respectively.

Of course, the question everyone is parroting is: does Genie Will Smith grant audiences their wishes? There were plenty of concerns after trailer footage suggested that a blue Fresh Prince was maybe a little too creepy for comfort. Frankly, though, I have spent this whole time believing that any weirdness is this movie’s biggest asset. And ultimately anyway, I believe that the CGI threads the needle between off-putting and palatable. (Although I’m not sure how necessary his jacked torso is.) Smith is reverent to Robin Williams’ iconic performance, but his Genie is just as unique. He’s operating at the height of Big Willie style, the sort of confidante who knows just how to swag out confidence and perception to everyone’s advantage. We have had a friend like him before, but we could always use another.

Aladdin is Recommended If You Like: Aladdin (1992), Big Willie Style, Willennium, Sitcom episodes with Nasim Pedrad guest appearances

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magic Carpets

Movie Review: ‘Dumbo’ Takes Flight on the Strength of Some Truly Captivating CGI

2 Comments

CREDIT: Disney Enterprises

Starring: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Michael Keaton, Eva Green, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: PG for Steampunk-Style Circus-Based Peril and Implied PTSD

Release Date: March 29, 2019

CGI has become so commonplace in modern big-budget filmmaking that it is hard to be impressed anymore, even when there is clearly hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coding and manpower up on the screen. Correspondingly, the possibility of feeling a genuine connection with a computer-generated character often feels generally impossible. I would not expect that hurdle to be cleared by Disney’s live-action remake factory or late-era Tim Burton. But incredibly, the title baby pachyderm in Dumbo is one of the best CGI creations in a while. Ever, even. It usually seems that practical effects are necessary to create a spirit-filled non-human character, but this is something unique that could really only be achieved with digital technology. And it is amazingly quite soulful.

From the moment that Dumbo emerged from a pile of hay and looked up at everyone around him with his wonder-filled baby blues, I was enthralled. The magical floppy ears are just a bonus. But oh, what a bonus they are. Every single time that Dumbo took flight rendered me immediately choked up and awestruck. But as joyous as those moments are, I would have been won over by this little guy even he couldn’t fly. I loved seeing his eyes light up at the circus amusements (it’s the same thrill I get from watching YouTube videos of dogs who think that they’re people), especially the homage to the originals “Pink Elephants on Parade” done entirely through bubble form.

As for the human characters, and there are plenty of them, they mostly fill their roles admirably, but none are as unforgettable as Dumbo. Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins are delightful as a young brother-sister pair who have the closest connection to the beast, while Colin Farrell reliably pulls off the right emotional beats as their widowed father who lost an arm in World War I. Danny DeVito is right in his wheelhouse as a small-time circus ringmaster and owner who finds his full fatherly-protector spirit once he starts drawing in crowds like he’s never seen. He matches ambitions with Michael Keaton’s rival showman who wants to exploit Dumbo for his full wealth-generating potential. The message about the dehumanizing effects of capitalism is clear and welcome, though there could have been more room to explore a more complicated take on that theme. But ultimately, you can get away with a few minor disappointments if the main attraction is undeniably flying high.

Dumbo is Recommended If You Like: The original Dumbo, Cute animal videos, Batman Returns, A cameo from Michael Buffer (the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” guy)

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Feathers