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

Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ Offers Goofs Galore and Surprise Reveals Aplenty

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures/YouTube

Starring: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Angourie Rice, Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Tony Revolori, Remy Hii

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Nicks and Bruises from Webslinging Around and Awkward Situations That Teenager Somehow Stumble Into

Release Date: July 2, 2019

The name of the game is the ol’ switcheroo, the bait-and-switch, the smoke-and-mirrors routine … yeah, that’s the ticket. It’s only been a couple of months since the release of Avengers: Endgame, but despite all that seeming finality, the MCU must continue. And the first arrival in this new status quo is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which means we’re going to kick things off with an in memoriam montage that features Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Comic Sans lettering, and a Getty Images-watermarked photo. But there are also some baddies to defeat, although Peter Parker (Tom Holland) would much rather focus on his school’s European class trip and taking things to a more romantic realm with his friend MJ (Zendaya). You get the sense that this cinematic iteration of Spider-Man would also like to just focus on the high school ecosystem. But superhero movie requirements beckon, and Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ script does a fun enough job of incorporating Peter and his pals’ shenanigans into the CGI blowout.

The topsy-turvy hook begins with the fallout from the fact that the people who were snapped away in Infinity War and then returned in Endgame (referred to here as “the Blip”) have not aged the five years that everyone who remained did. Adding to all the pandemonium is the appearance of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a caped-and-suited fellow who claims to be from a parallel Earth and is here to help fight some monsters that have escaped from his world. But not all is as it seems, as characters may not be who they say they are, relationships have sudden accelerations and decelerations, and it really isn’t what it looks like when a classmate discovers Peter taking his pants off next to a much older woman.

That sense of the wool being pulled over and off and back on everyone’s eyes lasts all the way through to the end of the credits, with the extra scenes turning out to be surprisingly essential in clarifying what just happened. Peter’s efforts to puncture his way into what’s really going on have a satisfying vibe of getting past the bullshit. However, that level of satisfaction is not met with any corresponding visual panache, as Far From Home plays it way too safe in the standard-issue Marvel CGI department. If this is the post-Endgame status quo, at least it won’t be so stressful.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is Recommended If You Like: Spider-Man: Homecoming, High Quality Character-Centric Jokewriting

Grade: I don’t know how to grade these Marvel movies anymore. I could give it a 4 out of 5 for Fun, but I also want to downgrade it to 3.5 out of 5 for (Lack of) Originality, and then I also want to downgrade it to Less Than 3.5 out of 5 for Frustration about this being yet another good-but-not great Marvel movie. So my overall grade is all of that somehow mixed together.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ Switches Back and Forth Between Amusingly Diverting and Alarmingly Deadly

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This review was originally published on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Laura Harrier, Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revolori, Martin Starr

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 133 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Usual Superhero Action

Release Date: July 7, 2017

The problem with the two Spider-Man movies with Amazing in the title (as opposed to the Spider-Man movies that could be accurately described as “amazing”) is that they hewed too closely to what had already been told in recent cinematic history. Spider-Man: Homecoming (the first Spidey flick to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) avoids that issue by crafting a Peter Parker (here played by 21-year-old Tom Holland, who easily passes for 15) that is markedly different than any classic conception. Rather than bounding himself by the code of “with great power comes great responsibility,” this Spider-Man bounds into any crisis with reckless abandon. As a big proponent of not being beholden to source material, I admire this decision, but I wish that director Jon Watts and his team of co-screenwriters had a stronger handle on what exactly this conception means.

This is very much a high school movie, with its emphasis on episodic, almost sitcom-esque structure. But it is also a superhero action flick, so the threats are just as deadly and just as adult as they are in any other Spider-Man or any Avengers film. The tonal bridge between these two halves is plentifully whiplash-inducing. It is absolutely fine to awaken a hero to the dangers of the world, because the hero’s journey has been fruitful for centuries of storytelling, and it is a valuable representation of real-life maturation. Even switching back to scenes of high school shenanigans after fights with the most wanted criminals is theoretically acceptable, because mundanity does exist right alongside evil. But it requires a deft hand to make that balancing act entertaining and palatable, a feat whose difficulty Homecoming vastly underestimates.

What Homecoming succeeds at most is its skillfulness at making fun of itself, or the MCU more generally. I often find blockbuster stabs at humor to be glib and obvious, but it helps when you have comedy heavyweights like Hannibal Buress, Martha Kelly, and Martin Starr (whom Community fans will note is essentially reviving his performance as Professor Cligoris). Still, as funny as it is, it feels out of place. After all, it is essentially window-dressing to the fight that Peter takes up against arms dealing Adrian Toomes (a controlled, but thoroughly sniveling Michael Keaton), who eventually takes flight as a mechanized version of classic comics baddie the Vulture. We’ve previously seen Spidey get into predicaments as stressful as what he gets into here (a rescue atop the Washington Monument, holding together the two halves of a fissured Staten Island Ferry), but never against the context of a Spider-Man who actually looks like a teenager.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark stops by for several scenes to lend a hand in some of these most dangerous moments. Holland does not need RDJ’s help to make his first big starring vehicle work, but Peter Parker does need Iron Man’s help to avoid killing himself. It is that alarming realization that makes it clear that this ostensibly light and fluffy actioner has maybe taken on more weight than it can bear. Still, it is enjoyable when it allows itself to be kid’s stuff.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is Recommended If You Like: The Other Spider-Man Movies But Wish That Peter Parker Actually Looked Like a Teenager and That Everyone Was Hitting on Aunt May

Grade: 3.5 out 5 Best Sandwiches in Queens