Frozen and Me

I just got back from seeing Frozen II and I have to say, as a fan of the original, that was a very rewarding sequel.

I plan on writing my review for Frozen II soon, but first I’d like to give some early impressions of the film, due to reasons that I’ll explain right now.

When Frozen was released in 2013, it was quite unlike anything I’d seen. Internet cynics would probably lambast me for saying that, seeing as it’s a Disney musical and thus ‘can’t be art’ yadda yadda yadda. But as someone who has been a lifelong fan of Disney, I admit there were still things about the animation studio’s output that I always felt were outdated. Frozen, as it turned out, was the Disney movie I always wanted, but never knew I’d actually get.

As much as I appreciated Disney films, I never would have put them on the same level as Studio Ghibli or Pixar’s animated features. Ghibli and Pixar would craft stories that were driven by the characters. Disney, meanwhile, used characters who were defined by a small handful of archetypes, and seemed to exist for the sole purpose of pushing the plot forward. Compared to the characters of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, well, there was no comparison.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a plot/concept-based movie. But knowing what animated storytelling was capable of due to the likes of Ghibli and Pixar, it felt like Disney was unable/unwilling to break away from their formula. Granted, Disney movies were mostly good, but kind of interchangeable really. I could name several Studio Ghibli or Pixar movies that would rank among my favorites, because they all felt distinct. But I felt I could pick one Disney movie to represent the entire lot because, well, they very much had their formula down pat (in case you’re interested, I would have listed Beauty and the Beast in a pre-Frozen world).

But Frozen changed all that. In one fell swoop, it addressed and rectified the issues I felt were holding Disney back. Sure, the archetypes were there, but there ended up being so much more to these characters than what was on the surface. What seemed to be marketed as “just another Disney Princess movie but with two princesses,” ended up being the most thoughtful and meaningful film in the Disney canon. Said princesses were fully fleshed-out characters, the comic foil (Olaf) existed for more than just comic relief (though he was also great at just that). Even the Disney Prince, the most bland and uninteresting of Disney’s archetypes, was given an overhaul, and the film featured one of the very few plot twists that genuinely surprised me.

Frozen subverted expectations before subverting expectations was cool. And honestly, it did so way, way better than the works that have attempted it since. Perhaps The Last Jedi would have been less polarized if Rian Johnson had studied how Frozen subverted expectations, as opposed to seemingly writing off what J.J. Abrams and company started with its predecessor (I would like to point out that I actually liked The Last Jedi, but no doubt Frozen did to Disney traditions what Rian Johnson could only hope to do with Star Wars).

On top of defying tradition and giving new depth to Disney storytelling, Frozen was also a hell of a lot of fun, and the catchiness of the songs needs no explanation. Again, the cynical and snarky would love to ridicule me for saying something like this, but Frozen was a perfect movie (and certainly THE perfect Disney movie). Sure, naming my favorite Disney movie still has an easy answer, but now it’s because there’s one that’s just so damn good, as opposed to one I simply feel best utilized the studio’s formula (I still love you, Beauty and the Beast).

Now I have to get a bit more personal. On top of being the Disney movie I always wanted/never expected, Frozen also had a profound impact on me personally. Sorry to sound like a sad sack, but I suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression and Social Phobias. I have my entire life, and in that particular point in time I had been feeling especially low. But Frozen, a Disney movie about a magical snow princess and her sister, believe it or not, helped me better understand and subsequently deal with my demons. And I have been improving myself ever since.

Through Elsa, the snow queen who gives Frozen its name, Disney somehow created a character who serves as a universal and sympathetic allegory to such issues (and many others). Many people have also viewed Elsa as an allegory for homosexuality, and more power to them. But that goes back to what made Frozen so special: What other Disney movie featured characters and elements that were allegorical and left so much room for interpretation?

Again we go back to the internet smartasses, who would no doubt laugh at me for claiming Frozen – a kids movie (and perhaps even more so, a popular movie) – of all things, is what has helped me better understand myself. Surely they would point out all the arthouse and indie films that deal with mental issues and such in a literal manner. Well, I’ve seen a good number of such films, but even with the good ones, I’ve felt a bit of a disconnect with them. Along with a tendency to feel more than a little bit like award-bait, many such films tend to display mental issues and the like as a hopeless tragedy, or something that is simply to be pitied or vilified. But through Elsa, Frozen told audiences how these issues – even though they may be hard, and sad, and tragic – are a fact of life for many. These things shouldn’t be feared, but we should learn to accept them and be willing to face our issues to better ourselves. Elsa may have been the antagonist, but not because she was the typical Disney villain who was out to cause evil because reasons, but because people were ignorant and feared her, which caused her to run away from her problems and create the core conflict of the movie. It’s through the selfless love of her sister Anna, the film’s protagonist, that Elsa in turn learns to love herself.

Yeah, it’s a bit deeper than the usual Disney fare.

For one reason or another, Elsa was a far more relatable character to me than anyone found in “more intellectual” films. I may now be a 30-year old male, and (as far as I know) I lack magical ice powers, but Elsa is indeed the movie character I relate to over all others. I am not the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

Frozen, of course, eventually became a worldwide phenomenon. Along with Pokemon and Harry Potter, it’s probably among the biggest pop-culture phenomenons to have occurred in my lifetime. While it was great to see something so good be rewarded with recognition, the fact that we live in the often-abhorrent internet age naturally meant that as soon as Frozen became popular, it became ‘cool’ to ridicule it (how dare children like things!). But despite generic internet contrarianism (a YouTuber complaining about stuff? Oh, how original), that first year or so of Frozen-Mania, when the film was absolutely ubiquitous, was probably the first of maybe two instances in the 2010s where the world seemed to find something that made it genuinely happy and brought people together in a way that’s incredibly rare in this cold, disconnected internet age (the second instance would be the release of Pokemon Go).

Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film in the world for nearly six years (it was somehow displaced by that uncanny valley Lion King remake. Though I suppose Frozen can still claim to be the highest-grossing good animated film). And yes, a sequel became an inevitability. As with any sequel, it’s a risky move. That’s especially true of something that had no pre-conceived expectations (Frozen may be very loosely inspired by Hans Christen Anderson’s The Snow Queen, but really only in the fact that it features a snow queen). Again, Frozen originally just looked liked the “Two Princesses” Disney movie. No one would have guessed it would become what it did.

I should point out now that, ahead of its release, I myself rolled my eyes at the advertisements to the film, as I – in my certain knowledge – knew it was just going to be another example of the Disney formula. Never before or since has a movie made me look like a fool so beautifully.

Here we are, six years later, and Frozen II is a reality. I’m sad to see a number of ‘professional’ critics were cynical even ahead of its release (and some after). Yes, the success of the original surely swayed Disney to make the sequel, but if this were a mere cash-grab, it would have happened years ago, and simply repeat the same beats as the original. This is a genuine sequel, and it’s sad to see some still write it off basically because it’s a sequel and thus “can’t be art.”

Earlier this year, Pixar released Toy Story 4. While that particular movie was decently good on its own merits, it paled in comparison to its three preceding films and, at its worst, retroactively rendered its immediate predecessor pointless. Yet Frozen II is the one cynics are targeting as being “all about the money.” It seems a bit hypocritical, considering that Toy Story 4 is the fourth entry in a series that already wrapped up with its third entry, and is a series that’s literally about toys (I love Toy Story, and Toy Story 4 certainly wasn’t bad, but c’mon, if any party in this scenario is guilty of milking a franchise, well…..).  I am aware that Toy Story 4 currently has higher meta-ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk, but I don’t see that as a reflection of the actual quality between the movies, so much as yet another reason why we should stop giving Rotten Tomatoes and company any credibility and form opinions ourselves. It also seems kind of strange that franchises primarily targeted at young girls are usually the ones that come under fire for “being greedy.” But that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.

Having seen Frozen II, I genuinely felt it was a worthy follow-up to the original. I hope to review it ASAP, but part of me wonders if I should review it. After all I’ve said of the personal impact Frozen had on me, no doubt many would think I’m an unreliable source due to my love of its predecessor (which seems a bit strange, when you think about it. Who exactly are sequels made for if not fans of the original?). But I would say, if there are means to justify biases, x-thing helped me understand and deal with mental illness seems like a pretty decent one. It certainly has a stronger case than it’s a sequel ergo it’s bad, I like to think. And in my defense, I do try my best to still be fair and honest when I review things. Sure, I have preferences (I am a human being, after all, not a robot), but that doesn’t mean I can’t also view things from a critical lens. I could have easily awarded every Hayao Miyazaki directed film a 10/10 based on personal feelings and history, but of the eight of them I’ve reviewed so far, their scores range from 7s to 10s (Miyazaki still unquestionably makes good movies, so nothing on the lower half on the scale from him, admittedly).

Yes, I honestly felt that Toy Story 4, while decent, was a retrograde sequel that undermined Toy Story 3, while Frozen II felt like a meaningful continuation that added to the growth of the characters and world of the original.

The big question has to be: Is Frozen II as good as the original? Well, that’s kind of an unfair question at this point in time. Again, I have been praising Frozen as Disney’s finest achievement for six years now, and it has played a surprisingly big influence in my life for that same amount of time. It’s kind of difficult to compare. I will reiterate that Frozen II is an exceptional sequel that – like any good sequel – feels different from its predecessor while simultaneously adding to it. It was worth the wait, and it feels like something that came from the heart of its creators, as opposed to a token sequel merely capitalizing on the success of the original.

I hope to review Frozen II in the near future, and maybe after better analyzing it and contemplating it, I can give a proper comparison between it and its predecessor. But at the moment it feels like an unfair task on myself. Frozen II is an incredible sequel, but with the impact the original had on me, can I of all people make that comparison? It would be like if I saw a really great anime movie, and someone were to ask me if it compares to Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. It’s like, well no. Of course not. It’s an unfair battle.

I loved Frozen II, and yes, I even cried. When I do review it, expect it to be pretty glowing. It genuinely saddens me that a number of critics are writing it off because of that ‘II‘ in the title, because the film is more than that. But whether or not I think it matches the original is, for once, not a matter of the film’s quality itself, but a testament to what the first film accomplished, and what it did for me.

The Addams Family (2019) Review

When it comes to the Great War – and by ‘the Great War’ I am of course referring to the age-old Addams Family vs. Munsters debate – I usually find myself ultimately siding with the Munsters. That’s not to say that I dislike the Addams Family, and I certainly appreciate the (surprisingly large) influence they’ve had on American pop culture from their inception in comic strips over eight decades ago. But in regards to the comparisons between the two franchises, the concept of the Munsters just makes more sense to me.

The Munsters were a traditional American family, immigrating from “the old country” to America. It just so happened that the Munster family was an assortment of classic movie monster archetypes. It was a fish-out-of-water scenario, with the Munsters being completely naive to the fact that the average person wasn’t a vampire or a Frankenstein’s monster, which of course lead to many a misunderstanding and unintentional frights. This toyed with the idea that the “normal” people around them were much weirder than the Munsters themselves.

The Addams Family, by comparison, is much less defined. They’re macabre, and they frequently boast some dark humor. But they’re also a bit inconsistent. Some of them are undead, some of them are oddities (like the hairy “Cousin Itt”) and some are just…weird people, I guess. That’s all well and fine, but they kind of lose some of their charm when their personalities become as all over the place as their family tree.

“The reference to Stephen King’s It is fun. Too bad it was spoiled in all the trailers.”

A good example of what I mean happens in this 2019 animated feature adaptation: Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz), daughter of Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia Addams (Charlize Theron), is looking to displease her mother. Not out of teenage rebellion, but because the Addamses are weird and opposite of everyone else, so displeasing parents is to the Addamses what pleasing parents is to normal people. Wednesday hopes to upset her mother by changing her physical appearance (by wearing bright pink colors, skirts and hairbands, of course). But when her mother disapproves, Wednesday takes offense and decides to run away from home to escape her overbearing mother. So which is it? Do the Addamses indulge in negativity and conflict or do they have more relatable human wants and desires, and just happen to be weird in outward appearance and behavior? It’s a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.

It’s these weird inconsistencies with the characters that can, in certain adaptations, make it hard to empathize with the Addams Family. Sadly, I think this movie is an example of just that. It can’t seem to decide if the Addamses are simply misunderstood (which seems to be what it’s trying to do thematically) or if they actually work on some bizarro, backwards logic and morality.

Along with the plot of Wednesday and Morticia butting heads, there are two additional main plot lines, which prove to be spread too thin for a movie that barely misses the hour and a half mark in its runtime.

The other family-based dynamic is between Gomez and his son, Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). Pugsly has come of age to perform a “Sabre Mazurka,” a swordfight/dance that serves as a kind of right of passage for Addams boys to become Addams men. Pugsley is disinterested in learning sword fighting, being far more occupied with explosives. This leaves Gomez fearing that Pugsley will embarrass himself on his big day.

It may have been better had the film settled on the two parent/child plots, since they’re narratively and thematically similar, and focus on the core group of characters, with Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) in the mix for good measure. But the third aforementioned plotline involves the swampland surrounding the Addamses’ hilltop home being replaced by a planned community. This not only means multitudes of ‘regular’ human beings now live just under the hill, but because the swamps are gone, the fog blocking the Addamses’ house from view has disappeared. This means that the Addamses now have to socialize with the world around them which, as you probably guess, doesn’t tend to go too well.

This is especially true in the case of Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a reality TV show host and homemaker, who sees the Addamses as a disturbance to her budding neighborhood. Needler then makes it her mission to run the Addamses out of town to maintain a “perfect neighborhood” image.

Honestly, it’s this third plot that drags the story down. The other two storylines at least mirror each other in a way that makes sense. But this story with Needler’s disdain for the Addamses feels like a different movie, and yet, it’s probably the plotline that gets the most attention.

The Addams Family can be a funny movie at times. I think I even let out an audible laugh on a couple of occasions. The film is admittedly at its best when it’s acting more like a gag reel, with the titular family’s oddball, macabre nature providing some good laughs. Take, for example, how the film introduces the Addams family’s butler Lurch into the picture. In the movie’s opening moments, when Gomez and Morticia are moving to New Jersey, they hit an escaped asylum inmate (Lurch) with their car, and see the asylum on a nearby hill, which they then decide will make a perfect home to raise their family. They then just kind of pick Lurch up and he becomes their butler on the spot, no questions asked.

It’s the silly little moments of dark and oddball humor such as that when The Addams Family is at its best. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough of it weaved into the main plots, so when they do show up, they feel separated from everything else going on. As you can imagine, with three main plots in a movie that’s slightly under an hour and a half, with various series of gags that seem removed from those plots thrown in, The Addams Family really feels stretched thin and episodic.

That’s not to say that there’s anything innately horrible with The Addams Family, just that there’s nothing particularly special about it, and none of its elements feel like they click together to form a proper movie.

The animation can also be a bit of a mixed bag. As you could tell from a glance, the animation is cartoonishly exaggerated to the nth degree. That can be fine in some cases, and it’s not nearly as over-animated as the Hotel Transylvania movies, but something about the visual look of The Addams Family just didn’t quite work for me. I like the character designs for the Addamses themselves. Wednesday’s braids ending in nooses is a particularly nice touch, and Uncle Fester’s bulbous head leads to some fun physical comedy. But the designs for the ‘regular’ humans leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe that was the point, like the ‘normal’ people are the real weirdos, but they don’t look weird in an interesting or appealing way that catches the eye. They look more akin to the kind of animated characters you’d see in a straight-to-video movie from the late 2000s, than from a theatrically released feature at the tail-end of the 2010s.

I also enjoyed the voice cast for the film, with particular highlights being Isaac, Theron and Moretz. It’s just a shame that such a spot-on cast doesn’t have a better film to showcase their vocal talents.

I admit I had fun at times watching The Addams Family. It has its charms, but the film’s inability to find a cohesive flow between its elements, combined with the inconsistent personalities and motivations of the Addamses themselves, make it a hard movie to recommend.

Or maybe I’m just an angry Munsters fanboy.

 

4

Abominable Review

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was seen as Pixar’s big rival in the world of CG animated features. Though Dreamworks has had a number of animated hits, their habit of strictly following the template of animated features of their time (both in the 2000s and into the 2010s) combined with what seems to be a willingness to green light every last idea that enters their door (Boss Baby), made Pixar’s inevitable victory in this so-called “war” a foregone conclusion long ago. And with Disney rising to prominence in the CG animation front over the past several years, the idea of Dreamworks being a rival to either of the Mouse House’s two premiere animation brands seems all the more like a distant memory.

That’s not to say that Dreamworks has completely fallen off the map (I still quite enjoy the first two Shrek films and the Kung Fu Panda trilogy), and every now and again they still crank out a good movie.

Case in point: Abominable, a charming and heartfelt animated feature from Dreamworks Animation’s “Pearl Studio” division, a joint venture between Dreamworks and Chinese investment companies. Though even with its charms and emotional strengths, Abominable still ultimately falls short of its full potential by once again adhering too closely to Dreamworks’ rulebook.

Abominable tells the story of Yi (Chloe Bennet), a young Chinese girl who has recently lost her father. Living with her mother and grandmother, Yi has taken to performing odd jobs around town in order to save up money to go on the trip around Asia that her father had always wanted to go on, but died before he had the chance. But Yi’s world is thrown into disarray when she discovers a yeti living on top of her apartment building. Yi soon befriends the yeti, naming him ‘Everest’ (after his home), and is determined to keep him safe.

It turns out this yeti has escaped captivation from a wealthy man named Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who recently caught the creature on an expedition to Mount Everest, after having searched years for the creature following an encounter with it in his youth. Determined to prove the yeti’s existence after being called a liar his entire life, Mr. Burnish has recruited zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), as well as a small, private army, to help him reclaim the yeti.

Fearing for Everest, Yi sneaks the Yeti onto a departing ship, but in the spur of the moment, ends up accompanying Everest on his journey home. But Yi isn’t alone on her adventure to escort Everest back to…Everest. Caught in the middle of all the commotion are Yi’s friends from her apartment: Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a self-absorbed pretty boy, and his younger brother Peng (Albert Tsai).

If it all sounds a bit familiar by now, that’s because, well, it is. Abominable is ultimately a good movie, as it tells its story well and by the film’s third act, it hits the right emotional beats. But Abominable is also a movie that can feel like it came off a conveyor belt, as the story it does tell is all too familiar for animated features of today. Granted, I would rather see a predictable good movie than an original bad one, but I can’t help but feel just a handful of tweaks to Abominable’s story structure could have ascended it from being simply a ‘good’ animated feature to a great one.

Again, there’s nothing inherently bad about Abominable. But from the main character’s story with a deceased parent, the friendly, misunderstood creature, the comic relief, and the overall pathway of the story, Abominable is very much following the proverbial animated movie guidebook. I suppose the film does attempt a bit of a twist with its villain scenario, but it seems like many animated films do that these days. And unlike in something like Frozen, where the villain twist had thematic depth that subverted Disney’s tropes, Abominable’s ‘twist’ just seems to kind of happen for the sake of it. Some might point out Yi’s lack of a romantic interest to be of note, but again, that’s become pretty commonplace for animated heroines over the past few years (and it’s something that, once again, Frozen did infinitely better).

It’s the over familiarity of it all which has plagued numerous Dreamworks animated films in the past. While Pixar – Dreamworks’s one-time rival – continue to take animated storytelling to new heights (even if they may not do so quite as consistently as they once did), Dreamworks often seems to simply make due with the status quo. Sure, not every movie can be a masterpiece, and sometimes a lighter, more familiar movie is perfectly fine (and it is here). But I worry that Dreamworks is too okay with ‘perfectly fine’ all too often, instead of aiming for something greater.

By now I’m probably sounding pretty negative about Abominable. But it should be noted that Abominable is a movie I feel bad saying anything bad about. Because it is a charming and heartwarming feature, despite its lack of originality. And I certainly found it a more enjoyable offering from Dreamworks than How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

While the third entry in the Dragon series felt overly cluttered with a small army of characters (most of whom felt pretty one-note even back in its first installment), Abominable keeps things simple and focused. We have a trio of heroes, a duo of primary villains, and a huggable yeti as the centerpiece. Yi is a likable heroine, and I applaud how the film at first presents Jin as a one-dimensional character who wouldn’t have felt out of place as a secondary character in the Dragons films, but goes through his own miniature story arc that makes him a much stronger character as the film goes on.

The film is also well animated, with memorable character designs and colorful scenery. And of course, every time the yeti uses its magic, the film provides plenty of visual splendor.

Abominable certainly has a lot going for it. Between its sharp animation, charming characters, and genuine heartfelt moments, Abominable should delight children as well as older audiences. But if you’ve seen pretty much any of the better half of Dreamworks’s animated output, you basically know everything you’re getting from Abominable, which ultimately prevents its many merits from shining as brightly as they should.

 

6

How 2019 is a One of a Kind Movie Year

This is something I brought up in my 800th blog back in the day, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out again (plus, heaven knows I could really use with more updates as of late). And this something is the simple fact that I think 2019 is shaping up to be a one of a kind year for movies.

“How so?” you may be asking. The reason is that 2019 is (quite obviously) the last year of the decade, but in an instance of “stars aligning,” many of the films being released in 2019 are appropriately bringing a close to this decade in cinema.

Take for example Avengers: Endgame, the biggest film of the year (and all time, boy does it feel good to say that). Though the first two Marvel Cinematic Universe films were released in 2008, the majority of the MCU has been the dominant force in movies of the 2010s. Year after year this decade, Marvel has released blockbuster after blockbuster in their colossal crossover mega-franchise. And though the MCU is scheduled to continue, Endgame brought everything in the MCU thus far to a grand, satisfying close. More than twenty MCU films were released during the 2010s, and fittingly, the MCU’s grand finale (up to this point) was released in the last year of the 2010s.

Similarly, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which began with The Force Awakens in 2015, will come to its conclusion in 2019 with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Star Wars movies never were good with titles). This will make it the only Star Wars trilogy to be a part of a single decade. The original Star Wars trilogy began in 1977, with the two subsequent installments being released in the 1980s. While the Star Wars prequel trilogy began in 1999, and continued into the 2000s. But the Star Wars sequel trilogy is uniquely tied to a singular decade which, in a weird way, I think makes it the most decade-defining trilogy in the franchise.

On a much smaller note, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which began in 2010 at the very start of this decade, saw its third and final installment hit theaters this year, meaning Dreamworks’s trilogy bookended the movie decade. Hell, even the Stephen King “It” duology released its second half in 2019, after the first half became one of the most unexpected success stories of the movie decade.

Speaking of unexpected success stories, that brings us to Disney’s Frozen, which I think is safe to say was the movie surprise of the 2010s. Sure, you expect Disney animated films to be successful, but Frozen was on a whole other level, and with relatively little fanfare in the buildup to its 2013 release. Not only was Frozen Disney’s most iconic animated feature in decades, it became one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in history. Fittingly enough Frozen – the biggest movie/franchise to originate in this decade – will see the release of its long-awaited sequel towards the end of 2019. And though there’s nothing definitively “final” about Frozen II (that we know of yet) like there is for The Rise of Skywalker or Endgame, the fact that this decade’s biggest contribution to pop culture will be getting a sequel as the decade comes to a close just feels fitting.

While the final year of any decade has film buffs reflecting on the past ten years of cinema and trying to compile their favorites from within that time, I don’t think there’s been another instance of another ‘last year of the decade’ where the finality of it was reflected so strongly in its films. Again, I feel it’s a “stars aligning” situation, where so many individual elements just came together. Perhaps some of these “endings” to the movies of the 2010s were intentionally released at the decade’s end. But the fact that so many of them fell so neatly into place seems like an unprecedented occurrence in the movie world. I’m happy to be experiencing such a unique year in film.

Extraordinarily Late: My Favorite Film of 2018

What better time to name my favorite film of 2018 than in the deep end of August 2019?

Okay, okay, you’re probably wondering “why even do this at this point?” and that’s fair. The reason I’m still bothering to write this is quite simple…

Because I want to.

You may now be wondering why I didn’t do it sooner, and the truth of the matter is, there is no particular reason other than I’ve just been busy (hence my slower updates over the last couple of months) and when I have had the chance to update this site, I’ve been preoccupied with other things, like reviews and such. And I would have got to this sooner, except there were still some 2018 films I had wanted to get around to seeing the past few months before I made anything “official” (at least, as official as things can be on a site where I can edit things later to reflect changing opinions). And well, it took me longer than expected.

While there are still a few 2018 movies on my list…I just really want to get this done. So, as of now, and after plenty of time for consideration, I now name my favorite film of 2018! Better late than never, eh? Continue reading “Extraordinarily Late: My Favorite Film of 2018”

The Lion King (2019) Review

I have a confession to make: I’m not that big of a Lion King fan.

Don’t get me wrong, Disney’s 1994 animated feature is a good movie, to be sure. But as a Disney fan, I never understood why it was held on a pedestal as one of the best films to come out of the studio. I would say Lion King fits somewhere in the high middle-tier of Disney’s animated feature canon. It showcases captivating animation and some truly emotional moments, but it also feels like it adheres too strongly to the studio’s conventions, as opposed to transcending them.

The characters fit squarely into Disney’s archetypes, with Simba being a cookie cutter main character (with Simba’s adult form being particularly boring thanks to Mathew Broderick’s phoned-in vocals), the comic relief characters can be a little too overbearing, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t particularly care for the songs, with the exception of Be Prepared (songwriter Elton John felt he had hit a career low when writing Hakuna Matata, and though he’s long-since change his mind, I’m inclined to agree with his original stance).

Despite my feelings of the original Lion King being “good but not great,” its overall reception has made a remake inevitable in this day and age where Disney is seemingly remaking their entire back catalogue of animated classics.

There’s only one issue: while most of Disney’s recent remakes have been live-action, The Lion King’s all animal cast makes that an impossibility (certain animals can be trained to act – such as dogs or apes – but I think it’s safe to say that meerkats and warthogs don’t share that emotional range). So the remake of The Lion King is, like the original, an animated film. Only this time around, the animals are animated through photorealistic CGI, which ultimately works against the movie’s favor, as it removes the majority of the charm, personality, and overall visual appeal of the story at hand.

“I have to admit I liked John Oliver as Zazu more than I thought I would…”

There was some semblance of hope going into The Lion King remake. After all, it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed Disney’s 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which seems to have the warmest reception of all Disney’s recent live-action remakes (though I thought the new Aladdin was just as good). But there are a few key differences between Favreau’s Jungle Book remake and his version of the Lion King that helped the former and hinder the latter.

The first is that, although the 2016 Jungle Book was also primarily created through CG, it had a human actor in the lead role of Mowgli, so the idea of photorealistic animals interacting with him made more sense. The other big difference is that, while the original Jungle Book contains a few songs, it would be hard to refer to it as a musical. The characters simply sang a number or two here and there, so the photorealistic animal characters in the remake could get away with being a bit expressionless when they were singing (Balloo simply sang Bare Necessities as if singing in the shower, and King Louie was voiced by Christopher Walken, so it was to be expected that he would more talk I wanna be Like You than sing it).

2019’s version of The Lion King doesn’t have such benefits. It’s an animated film that doesn’t want to be an animated film. So while the CG used to bring these animals to life may be impressive, the movie loses its soul in the translation.

Without a human to interact with, making the animals look realistic in an animated film comes across as pointless, as their limited expressions can’t convey the range of emotion that their personalities require, a feat which comes without any hiccups when making the animals look animated. And seeing as The Lion King is a full-fledged, Broadway-style musical in the same vein as the other 90s Disney films (and some of their modern ones), it really works against the film that the animal characters can barely emote. You can’t have a big musical number like those found in the original, and have realistic looking animals be the ones to sing it without it coming across as awkward and lifeless. It’s a case of having ones cake and eating it too.

Another issue is that 2019’s Lion King is a bit too similar to the 1994 original. Some have had similar complaints with Disney’s other recent remakes, but those films still featured changes that felt meaningful when they were present (the newer Aladdin, for example, gave Jasmine a much stronger character arc, complete with a badass new song). The new Lion King, on the other hand, is a whole half hour longer than the original, but I’m having trouble thinking of how that is, since it follows so closely to the original.

Yes, the story is as it always was, which is to say it’s pretty much Hamlet but with animals.

Simba (DJ McCrary) – a lion cub – is the prince of the Pride Lands, being born to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This proves to be a deep cut for Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was first in line for the throne.

Scar plans various means to retake his place as future ruler of the Pride Lands, manipulating young Simba’s ego so that the young prince – trying to prove his bravery – makes his way to an elephant graveyard, with his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) in tow. Scar intentionally kept one important detail about the elephant graveyard from Simba: it’s home to an army of hyenas who have a vendetta against Mufasa. Simba and Nala avoid a gruesome fate when Zazu (John Oliver) – a hornbill and Mufasa’s majordomo – informs the king of Simba and Nala’s whereabouts. Mufasa fights off the hyenas, leading a disappointed Scar to concoct a new plan; kill Mufasa.

I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I reveal that Scar’s plot to murder his brother succeeds (seriously, if you don’t know that by this point, where have you been for the past twenty-five years?). Scar, in collusion with the hyenas, orchestrates a stampede of wildebeests to kill Mufasa and Simba. Mufasa rescues his son and nearly escapes, before Scar personally throws his brother to the stampede below. Despite the remake’s issues, this iconic scene is still appropriately emotional.

A devastated Simba witnesses his father’s death (though not Scar’s involvement with it), with Scar planting the idea in Simba’s head that his father’s death was his fault. Simba runs away from the Pride Lands, falling under the care of Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) two slackers who, while well-meaning, are basically negative influences when it comes to teaching responsibility. Meanwhile, with Mufasa gone and Simba presumed dead, Scar takes control of the Pride Lands with the aide of the hyenas, sending the kingdom into disarray.

Honestly, if you’re among those who absolutely adores the original Lion King, you may like this remake for its faithfulness to said original. Of course, I think fans of the 1994 feature are just as likely to wonder what the point of this remake is.

Again, Disney’s other remakes have played things close to their source material, often feeling like love letters to the originals as opposed to full-on remakes. But they still found time to make changes to set themselves apart. It seems like the only major change to The Lion King is that the hand-drawn, stylized animal characters bursting with personality have been replaced with realistic-looking animal characters who, by default, can’t showcase any of that personality they had in their more vibrantly-animated past lives.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes made, just none that really amount to anything. Shinzi (Florence Kasumba), a hyena who was part of a comedic, villainous trio in the original, has been promoted to the leader of the hyenas. Not that it ends up amounting to much, since the change doesn’t really affect the plot at all, and she doesn’t get much screen time anyway. The remaining members of said trio, Banzai and Ed, have been replaced by Kamari and Azizi (Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre), who are still kind of a comedic duo so I don’t really see the purpose of the change.

These changes are few and insignificant. Most of the dialogue, and even camera shots, seem barely altered from the original. Though I will admit, bringing back James Earl Jones as Mufasa is a respectable decision (it’s one of those roles that simply can’t be recast, like J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson). Though at least one other actor from the original should have reprised their role, as Jeremy Irons is sorely missed as Scar. Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best to make Scar menacing, but his performance lacks the elegance, regality and vanity of Irons’.

Speaking of Scar, here’s where we get to the remake’s one big change from the original’s soundtrack… Be Prepared has been butchered! The once iconic villain song has been reduced to a single verse, with Chiwetel Ejiofor talking  through most of it in place of singing. Rumors suggest that Jon Favreau wanted to cut the song altogether, before settling on “merely” gutting it. Of all the songs to cut/edit, why was Be Prepared the one considered for the chopping block? In the original film, it’s the song that best expresses the character singing it. Personally speaking, I would have labelled Hakuna Matata – the song in which a warthog sings about farting – as the one musical number most in need of reworking.

Other than that baffling change, most of the songwork is more or less the same as it was in the original, with the obvious difference of them being sung by their new actors. There is one new addition to the soundtrack during the course of the movie (plus one during the credits) in the form of “Spirit” by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. While the new musical addition to the live-action Aladdin, Speechless, was a real show-stealer (I would even say it’s my favorite Aladdin song, despite not being in the original), Spirit is kind of forgettable. And despite the fact that Beyoncé voices the adult version of Nala, Spirit is merely a background number, and not actually sung by the character (which always seems kind of underwhelming in a musical).

While the voice work is mostly solid (despite my complaints with Ejiofor’s Scar mentioned earlier, they are only relative to Jeremy Iron’s performance from the 1994 film), the film actually repeats one of the shortcomings from the original in that Simba’s adult self (voiced this time by Donald Glover) is the most boring performance in the film. Both versions of The Lion King are filled with so much great voice work, yet the main character (at least in his adult form) is the one who stands out as bland in both versions!

I will say, much to my surprise, that I really enjoyed Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Both actors reportedly ad-libbed many of their lines, and seem to be playing the characters in a way that suggests both Timon and Pumbaa are aware they’re in a remake (at least to some degree). The film also gives Timon and Pumbaa something of a nihilistic element, with their “life is a straight line” outlook directly clashing with the “Circle of Life” philosophy Mufasa taught Simba.

Normally, I’m dead against nihilism, but what worked here is that – while many works in this cynical time depict nihilistic concepts as some kind of profundity or intellectualism – Timon and Pumbaa’s new worldview is the butt of a joke, one that highlights the shallowness and simplemindedness of nihilism (in one particularly funny scene, a naive Pumbaa, after hearing how Simba was taught about the Circle of Life, retorts with something along the lines of “That’s nonsense! If everything I did affected that guy, and that guy, and that guy, our carefree, do-what-we-want lifestyle would be pretty selfish and terrible”).

2019’s Lion King definitely has its merits. But of all Disney’s recent remakes, it also feels like the most unnecessary. The other remakes were live-action tributes to their animated counterparts, maybe tweaking certain story elements here and there, adding new dimensions to characters, or simply finding meaningful ways to mix things up a little. But 2019’s Lion King is as close to simply giving the original a new coat of paint as Disney could have gotten. If you’re among those who adores the original Lion King, that might not be so bad. But it goes without saying that this is the inferior version of Disney’s beloved classic. Yes, the CG used to bring these animals to life is impressive, but in focusing too much in emulating real life, this Lion King remake misses the point of animated storytelling and – ironically enough – robs the story of life.

Some of the positive elements of the original still shine through, the voice work is mostly solid (Donald Glover and Beyoncé being the exceptions), and I might actually like Timon and Pumbaa more after this remake. But despite being a half hour longer than the 1994 film, it’s hard to say what exactly pads this 2019 version’s runtime, as the changes made seem so minimal.

If the original Lion King had a voice, Jon Favreau’s version is merely an echo.

 

5

Toy Story 4 Review

When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 (eleven years after Toy Story 2), it seemed to mark the end for the series that made Pixar Animation Studios famous. Toy Story 3 was a fitting, emotional end to the journeys of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (the perennial John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Their owner, Andy, was grown up and heading off to college, and the ending saw him passing down his beloved childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. Given the overall reception of all three Toy Story films, an argument could be made that it was the best trilogy in film history.

It was a bit concerning then, when Pixar eventually announced that they were creating a fourth Toy Story feature, especially since the studio has fallen under some criticisms for its reliance on sequels during the 2010s (though in all honesty, most of their sequels have retained the studio’s high quality). Considering how conclusive of an ending Toy Story 3 was, a continuation seemed entirely unnecessary. It was all too easy to get a bit cynical and assume that Pixar simply saw more dollar signs in the property and nothing more. Combine that with some notable production issues, and things were looking grim for the continuation of the Toy Story franchise.

Thankfully, not only does Toy Story 4 prove to be one of the few fourth entries in a series that can hold its own, but in doing so it beautifully puts that aforementioned cynicism in its place. Toy Story 4 is a delightful and entertaining film that retains the series’ emotional storytelling. Though with that said, Toy Story 4 does nonetheless fall short of all three of its predecessors.

While Toy Story 3 acknowledged the eleven year gap between it and the previous entry, Toy Story 4 – for the most part – takes place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3. The exception being the film’s opening, which takes place nine years in the past (which I guess would make it two or three years after Toy Story 2, depending on when exactly the rest of the film takes place). This opening explains why Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – the porcelain doll who served as Woody’s love interest in the first two films – was absent from the third entry.

After another daring rescue of one of their fellow toys, Bo Peep was packed in a box, and given away to a friend of Andy’s family. Woody briefly considers leaving with Bo Peep, before he remembers his loyalty as Andy’s toy, and the two are then separated (preventing a time paradox for Toy Story 3 in the process).

Fast-forward to the present, and the toys have found a new home as Bonnie’s toys. Though Woody has been having a harder time adjusting to the change than the rest of the gang, with Bonnie often leaving him in the closet while she plays with the other toys.

When Bonnie is frightened to start kindergarten, Woody – desperate to keep her happy – sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to help cheer her up. When no one sits at Bonnie’s table for arts and crafts, Woody gathers a number of discarded items and sneaks them onto Bonnie’s table.

With a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, glue and googley eyes, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly raises Bonnie’s spirits. Much to Woody’s surprise, Forky soon comes alive, much in the same vein as he and his fellow toys. Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy, but having been created from trash, Forky still believes himself to be trash, and is dead-set on throwing himself away. Determined to keep Bonnie happy, Woody spends day and night preventing the suicidal utensil from throwing himself away.

This proves especially difficult when Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, bringing her toys along for the ride (as kids do). During one especially tiresome night for Woody, Forky manages to jump out of the RV, leaving Woody to give chase.

Woody reunites with Forky, and manages to make the utensil understand his place as a toy. But getting back to Bonnie will prove to be a difficult task both physically and emotionally. Bonnie’s family is at an RV park sitting next to both an antique store that serves as the home of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a doll determined to steal Woody’s voice box at any cost – and a traveling carnival, where Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (who has become a lost toy), leaving him to question what he truly wants.

Considering how conclusively Toy Story 3 seemed to end the series, it’s actually a little surprising that Pixar managed to concoct a plot as strong as they did for Toy Story 4. It manages to be consistently entertaining and delivers some genuinely emotional moments. There are, however, a few cracks in the foundations of Toy Story 4’s plot.

The first issue is that – aside from Woody and Bo Peep – the returning characters have very little presence in the story. Even the heavily-marketed additions from Toy Story 3 get minimal screen time. The worst example of this is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie have seemingly nothing to do throughout the film!

I understand that Woody is the main character of the series, but the original Toy Story presented both Woody and Buzz with equal prominence in the narrative, and Toy Story 2 beautifully continued that trend, with Buzz Lightyear reminding Woody the importance of being a toy, just as Woody had taught him in the first film. Toy Story 3 reduced Buzz Lightyear’s role to mere comic relief, which was one of my big complaints with the third installment. But instead of rectifying this gross misuse of one its best characters, Pixar has doubled down with the underutilization of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 4.

It would seem the filmmakers at Pixar have misjudged one of their greatest creations in Buzz Lightyear, focusing only on the comedic aspects he brought to the first two films, and associating the series’ heart with Woody alone (did they forget the “I Will Go Sailing No More” scene from the first movie?). The Toy Story films released in the 1990s starred Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but the latter half of the series has foolishly relegated its deuteragonist to a bit part.

“Visual dramatization of Pixar shoving Buzz and Jessie to the sidelines.”

And poor Jessie, whose introduction in Toy Story 2 brought a new emotional depth to the series, literally only has a single scene in which she does anything in this fourth installment. At what point, I have to wonder, did Pixar forget that the heart of the Toy Story films was shared between its main characters, and decided that only Woody boasted stories worth telling?

Buzz may have had a reduced role in Toy Story 3, but at least there, it didn’t have a direct affect on the story at play. But here, Buzz Lightyear’s minimal role prevents the film from resonating as much as it should. Without spoiling anything, the direction the plot takes in its third act really required the classic Toy Story characters (specifically the main ones like Buzz and Jessie) to have bigger roles in order to achieve its full impact. But because Pixar forgot how to properly implement them into the plot, the story at hand suffers a bit.

“Bo Peep gets her own sidekick in the form of Giggle McDimples (ally Maki), a Polly Pocket-esque police officer.”

Toy Story 4 seems to place a greater emphasis on its new characters, which includes not only Forky and Gabby Gabby, but also a duo of carnival plush toys Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure whose over-the-top antics and boisterous personality often steal the show. I don’t have anything against the new characters (though at times, Bunny and Ducky can feel more like a means to get Key and Peele in the movie than they do genuine characters), but it’s a shame to see the old Toy Story cast get tossed aside.

Pixar has made a few sequels which focused on the secondary character of the original (Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, Dory in Finding Dory, and Helen Parr in Incredibles 2), which worked to great effect in adding to those characters and distinguishing the sequels from the originals. So it seems weird that Toy Story has failed to do something similar by its fourth entry. Especially when you remember just how great of characters Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are. Even if Woody were destined to be the main character once again, I do have to reiterate that Buzz and Jessie (and the returning characters in general) needed a bigger role in the story in order to really hit a homerun with the direction the story takes.

“Credit definitely has to go to Gabby Gabby’s character design which, depending on the situation, can be either sympathetically cute or creepy.”

Still, the new characters have their charms. Forky, Bunny and Ducky are all cute and add some good humor to the proceedings, and Duke Kaboom, again, is a highlight of the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is Gabby Gabby, whose own story arc may be more emotional than Woody’s this time around.

“It seems weird to suddenly put the relationship between Woody and Bo Peep at the forefront…”

The film also places a strong emphasis on its re-introduction of Bo Peep. Toy Story 4 can on occasion feel like it’s giving itself a pat on the back for Bo Peep’s newfound independence, and while it’s nice that Pixar decided to give its original female character an actual personality this time around, Pixar themselves seem strangely ignorant to the fact that they had already accomplished so much more through a female character in the form of Jessie. Why not promote the character Pixar got so, so right from the get-go, instead of bringing back a character who had so little presence in the series they were left out of the third film, and try to bring more out of them at the expense of the stronger characters? Again, it’s nice that Bo Peep has more to do this time, but because it comes at the expense of Jessie, it feels self-defeating.

This reflects what I think is the fundamental problem of Toy Story 4: with how Toy Story 3 ended, Woody’s story felt completed. He saw Andy grow up and move on, he faced his greatest fear of loss/abandonment, and found new purpose with Bonnie. It felt like it completed what the first two films started (the first film having Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy usurped by Buzz, and the second having him contemplate living in a museum forever instead of facing the pain of heartbreak as Andy grows up).

If Toy Story 4 had to exist, it should have been Buzz and Jessie’s movie.

I was at the D23 expo’s animation panel in 2015 when the basics of the plot were first announced. When they were first describing Toy Story 4, Pixar referred to it as a “standalone sequel.” That seemed to make sense. The overall arc of the first three movies had ended, but Toy Story 4 could be its own little adventure starring the beloved toy characters. Pixar then announced that the film would be “a love story…” which – given Buzz and Jessie’s budding romance in the previous two movies – briefly indicated that they might be the focus of Toy Story 4, which would have further justified the continuation of the series. But then I remember when the panelists continued with “the love story between Woody…and Bo Peep.”

“He’s the hero the franchise deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

I remember being somewhat baffled at that point. Didn’t Woody already get the spotlight to himself in Toy Story 3? And wasn’t Bo Peep left out of that installment entirely? Again, why take things in this direction when they already had a love story blooming on the side in the second and third films (a romance which, by the way, is never so much as brought up in Toy Story 4)?

Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel particularly “standalone” by the end of things, either, as it seems to find more ways to try to close the series as a whole. This also puts things in a weird spot. Toy Story 3 was a fitting end to the series, but a standalone sequel could justifiably stand on its own merits. But by trying to conclude the series again, it feels like the Toy Story saga has two different third acts (which kind of cheapens Toy Story 3, when you think about it).

By now I may be sounding a bit negative, but I have to emphasize that these complaints are all relative to the exceedingly high standards set by the Toy Story series. The first three films are all among Pixar’s best, which in itself is a hefty claim. Toy Story 2 in particular, is a perfect movie.

Toy Story 4 is still a well made feature with strong characters and storytelling, and it certainly does the best job it could with all the tools at its disposal. But it’s an undeniable sting to see so many of the classic Toy Story characters get the shaft, especially since a story focused on Buzz and Jessie would have justified this entry all the more. At the very least, giving them more to do would have made Woody’s latest story arc more meaningful.

To be the weakest of the four Toy Story movies isn’t too bad of a detriment, however. It just means that Toy Story 4 is a highly enjoyable movie whose older siblings happen to be all-time greats. I watched Toy Story 4 a few times in preparation for this review, and greatly enjoyed it every time I saw it. But it’s also the only Toy Story film that wasn’t constantly buzzing in my head afterwards. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, but it somehow doesn’t resonate and stick with you like the preceding three films did (and still do).

Yes, Toy Story 4 is more than a good enough film that it should silence the hypocritically predictable cynics who cried fowl at its very existence (can we just admit that sequels can be art just as easily as original films now?). It tells a solid story that makes the best with what it has, and does so with some of the most colorful and vibrant animation yet seen in a Pixar film. But the fact that Pixar saw fit to stretch out Woody’s story arc while making the rest of the returning cast less important than ever doesn’t exactly justify the necessity of the series continuing past Toy Story 3’s conclusion.

While the Toy Story series is known for bringing adult audiences to tears, I feel that Toy Story 4 – though delivering on emotion – is only able to go so far with it. It creates something similar to what the other films did in regards to tugging at the heart strings, but only to an extent. We’ve seen Woody go through such existential crises before, so to see his inner turmoil boil back to the surface seems redundant, and somewhat undoes some of the development the preceding films gave him. Perhaps if Buzz or Jessie were given a chance in the spotlight, Toy Story 4 might have felt less like it’s treading familiar ground (even this entry’s Randy Newman song, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, seems like it’s going through the motions, and feels like the film rushes to get it out of the way early on).

Toy Story 4 is an interesting case. Yes, it is indeed a really good movie that I greatly enjoy. But it also seems like Pixar missed an opportunity here to delve deeper with the other Toy Story characters, which would have made the continuation of the series feel more earned. For all its merits, with the story Pixar chose to tell through Toy Story 4, it feels more like Toy Story 3-2. On its own, Toy Story 4 is a winner. But when you remember what it’s a following act to, it does fall short of its series’ exceedingly high standards.

 

7