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: Shane Black’s Version of ‘The Predator’ Has Some Interesting Ideas, But It Could Have Benefited From a Few More Drafts

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Jacob Tremblay, Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski

Director: Shane Black

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Plenty of Blood and Even More Guts, Tourette’s-Style Profanity, and Predator Sex References

Release Date: September 14, 2018

The Predators from Predator aren’t really predators. They’re sportsmen, hunting for the thrill of it instead of for sustenance. If there’s one thing that The Predator wants you to know, it’s this. And also that “The Predator” is a cool name, so it doesn’t really matter that it’s not accurate. This edition is filled with ideas, most of them more high-minded than the title character’s etymology. That is to be expected, considering that writer/director Shane Black (who acted in the 1987 original) has made his career on somewhat self-aware and slightly askew takes on the action genre. But by his standards, the ideas on display here are a little undercooked.

It turns out that some Predators may not be entirely motivated by killing. In fact, there is now at least one rogue Predator who is interested in helping earthlings survive. That is the idea driving the plot, as Army Ranger sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) procures some valuable Predator tech that multiple parties are interested in retrieving. But this film’s most compelling idea is its definitive stance that spectrum disorder is the next step in human evolution. Boyd’s son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), who gets his hands on his dad’s discovery, is somewhere on the spectrum. His condition is not especially debilitating; it mainly manifests itself in an aversion to loud noises and an aptitude towards accurately interpreting alien devices. He becomes a person of interest to all sides in this struggle, and it is a fairly rewarding avenue for this story to take.

But the issue is, for as much as The Predator wants to grapple with these weighty concepts, the majority of its substance consists of cheeky jokes and action set pieces, which are only sporadically satisfying. There is plenty of energy from a motley crew of military prisoners, like Keegan-Michael Key’s aficionado of “Yo momma” jokes and Thomas Jane’s Tourette’s spouter. But getting in the way of it all are inconsistent explanations about how to dispatch Predators. Do you shoot them in the head? Wear them down with multiple hits until they finally start to fall? Do you need to get their armor off? Sometimes each of those options works, but other times they don’t. Also, there are these Predator dogs that are actually kind of cute but I’m not sure what their purpose is. And that’s pretty much how this whole film goes: it’s pretty cool, but I’m not entirely sure what its purpose is.

The Predator is Recommended If You Like: The Hulk Dogs from Ang Lee’s Hulk

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Predator-Human Hybrids