Lightyear Review

With all due respect to Woody, I think it’s safe to say that Buzz Lightyear is the fan favorite Toy Story character. With his myriad of gadgets, lasers, the ability to fly (or fall with style), and combat skills with which he saves the galaxy, it’s absolutely no mystery why Buzz usurped Woody as Andy’s favorite toy. It really was only a matter of time before Buzz Lightyear got his own movie. After twenty-seven years since Toy Story first hit theaters, Pixar has finally given Buzz such a movie in the form of Lightyear, a sci-fi adventure that serves as the in-universe movie that inspired the toy.

It’s a very fun and creative idea for Pixar to make the Buzz Lightyear movie that made Andy from Toy Story such a fan in the first place. Although it has to be mentioned that the idea technically already happened with the Disney animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command in the early 2000s. But now the origin story can be told by Pixar themselves. And as the Disney+ series Monsters at Work proved, Pixar’s creations are best left in Pixar’s hands. Being Pixar’s own take on the in-universe Buzz Lightyear concept, Lightyear is the definitive origin story for the iconic Space Ranger.

Definitive though it may be, Lightyear – while ultimately a solid and entertaining science fiction film – may not be the kind of science fiction adventure you would expect from its namesake character.

The story begins with Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and the Space Rangers of Star Command – lead by Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) – investigating an alien planet. They find that the planet provides the air and resources to make it habitable, but its monstrous creatures and plant life prove too dangerous, and Star Command issues an emergency retreat from the planet. Buzz takes control of Star Command’s ship, but a miscalculation during the escape leads to the Space Rangers being marooned on the planet.

Star Command makes the best of the situation and builds a colony on the planet over the next year. Buzz – taking responsibility for the current situation – volunteers to be the test pilot to see if he can make hyperspace, as Star Command’s primary ship won’t be able to leave the planet without it. Buzz doesn’t quite reach hyperspace, but finds that when he returns from his four minute flight that four years have passed on the planet’s surface.

Though Hawthorne objects to Buzz making any more flights, the Space Ranger is too determined to call it quits. With his robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) testing new formulas for fuel (using the method of “Crystallic Fusion” mentioned in Toy Story), Buzz continues flight after flight after flight, with roughly four years passing by with each unsuccessful test.

While Buzz has barely aged a day, his test flights have added up to him being gone a total of sixty-two years. During that time, Commander Hawthorne has passed away. Feeling he let his best friend down, Buzz is now more determined than ever, and with Sox perfecting his formula for hyperspace fuel over the past sixty-two years, Buzz finally makes a successful jump to hyperspeed. But in doing so, an additional twenty-two years have passed. In that time, the Star Command colony has been occupied by the robotic forces of a being known as “Zurg.”

Thankfully, a small band of ragtag, would-be Space Rangers have slipped away from Zurg’s occupation. This includes Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), who hopes to live up to her grandmother’s legacy; Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), a good-hearted but clumsy oaf; and Darby Steel (Dale Soules), an elderly convict trying to work off her sentence. Though this team may not seem cut out to be Space Rangers, Buzz will have to rely on them – as well as Sox – if they are to bring down Zurg’s robots and deliver the hyperspace fuel to Star Command.

I don’t want to say too much else as to avoid any major spoilers. But I have to admit that the setup to the plot as described above actually takes up a fair bit of the film’s runtime. And I imagine that may not exactly be to everyone’s liking. The whole ordeal of Buzz’s test flights provides some interesting storytelling, and is reminiscent of the recent Top Gun Maverick, with a little bit of Intersteller worked in there for good measure. It’s entertaining in its own way, but it’s probably a far cry from what you would expect from the Buzz Lightyear movie that supposedly inspired an eight-year-old’s obsession with the character.

That may be the biggest issue with Lightyear, although it’s ultimately a good movie, it seems to be the wrong kind of science-fiction story. Some might say that’s my own expectations getting in the way. But given all the information the Toy Story movies gave us on the Buzz Lightyear character and his world, I’d say Toy Story itself had those expectations. Given all the dialogue and bits of insight the Toy Story series gave us on Buzz Lightyear’s in-universe character, I think most people would probably expect a fantasy-adventure set in space, akin to Star Wars. So the more grounded science-fiction approach of Lightyear comes off as a bit jarring, even disappointing.

Yes, I understand that this movie and its characters are supposed to be separate from their Toy Story equivalents, but as is the case with many adaptations, you still expect a level of faithfulness to the source material. And bizarrely, Pixar’s own adaptation of a character they created feels strangely unfaithful to the world we’ve been teased with for nearly thirty years.

Buzz Lightyear the toy thought himself to be the actual character he was based on, and believed his undying heroism could do no wrong. So it’s kind of weird to see the “actual character” of Buzz Lightyear be depicted as he is here; making continuous shortsighted mistakes, rarely trusting others, being haunted by the past… It’s a more human Buzz Lightyear, but he seems far removed from the person that the toy Buzz Lightyear believed himself to be.

Without spoiling too much, there’s also a twist involving the villainous Zurg that I really think will prove divisive to longtime Toy Story fans. Sure, it’s a twist that makes thematic sense with the movie at hand, but it all goes back to the movie’s deviation of what Toy Story told us about these characters. It feels like a twist that belongs in a different movie, because the story itself often feels like it belongs in a separate movie. Though I didn’t predict the twist itself, I did predict that there was going to be a twist with Zurg quite a while ago, because there’s always a twist with villains these days. While I usually prefer deeper, more complex villains, I can’t help but feel Evil Emperor Zurg could have just been Evil Emperor Zurg and nobody would have had a problem with it. But evil emperors can’t just be evil emperors anymore, it seems.

That kind of sums up the issues Lightyear runs into. It wants to be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story, but simultaneously feels like it has its own sci-fi story it wants to tell that doesn’t really feel like it should be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. Pixar is renowned for the maturity they impart in their animated features, but I feel like Lightyear should have been the one time Pixar went into full Saturday Morning Cartoon mode (albeit with the trademark Pixar heart at its core). Lightyear oddly feels like a more serious, grownup sci-fi movie that just happens to star Buzz Lightyear.

If you can get passed the misplaced tone of the film, Lightyear does have a lot to offer. As you would expect from Pixar, the animation quality is top-notch. While I would argue the film needed some more lively color, it still is interesting to see Pixar tackle a more conventional sci-fi aesthetic. The bulky armors, hefty machinery and insectoid aliens all evoke a loving tribute to classic science fiction, all brought to life with the studio’s impeccable attention to detail.

The film is also excellently cast. While Tim Allen is perfect for the often-delusional Buzz Lightyear toy, Chris Evans seems to be the perfect fit for the heroic “real” Buzz Lightyear. Evans somehow manages to capture the same bravado of Tim Allen’s Buzz, but in a younger, more serious way. The supporting characters are also well cast, with particular praise going to Pixar animator Peter Sohn as Sox, who gives the robotic cat a similar “innocent robot” appeal to Baymax from Big Hero 6 or Ron from Ron’s Gone Wrong.

Another fun highlight of Lightyear is the film’s references to Toy Story, with Buzz quoting his toy-self on a number of occasions, and other little callbacks sprinkled throughout. The film is never overburdened with the references, but it’s an appreciated way to keep the DNA of the Toy Story series intact.

Lightyear is ultimately an entertaining and thoughtful science fiction movie, but I don’t think it ranks among Pixar’s best largely because it seems to be emulating the wrong kinds of science-fiction stories, given the legacy of its titular character. It may not be the Buzz Lightyear movie we expected, but Lightyear proves to be another solid entry in the Pixar canon, even if it doesn’t soar to infinity and beyond.

6

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022) Review

*Review contains minor spoilers*

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in 1988, it was a defining moment in animation history. Not only did the film meld live-action and animated characters so seamlessly it still hasn’t been matched since, but it also created renewed interest in animation itself. This renewed interest led to Disney’s ‘Renaissance’ era, in addition to inspiring other studios to throw their hat in the animation ring. Roger Rabbit’s meshing together of beloved animated characters has also had a reverberating effect, with films such as Wreck-It Ralph, its sequel and Space Jam: A New Legacy all trying something similar in more recent years. This influence even found its way into weekday and Saturday morning cartoons (remember those?), with Disney in particular creating a slew of animated programs in the late 80s and early 90s that repurposed their animated characters from yesteryear.

Goof Troop reimagined Goofy as a single father and Peg-Leg Pete as his nosey neighbor. TaleSpin featured characters from The Jungle Book in a period piece setting and focused on aviation. DuckTales – the most famous of the lot – saw Scrooge McDuck and his nephews on Indiana Jones-like adventures, much like Scrooge’s old comic books. And Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers saw the titular Chipmunks as detectives who, along with some new friends, would solve cases that were “too small” for the police to handle.

In this day and age where nostalgia (particularly for the 80s and 90s) has a strong influence on pop culture, it makes sense that we’re seeing these shows get resurrected in one way or another. DuckTales saw a successful reboot series that ran from 2017 to 2021, and now Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers has been given its own feature film on Disney+. Though it’s probably not the Rescue Rangers movie you would expect.

Rather than go for a straight feature film adaptation, this 2022 Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a satirical, meta live-action and animated hybrid movie that features many beloved characters from animation history… kind of like Roger Rabbit. So we’ve basically come full circle. The results are mostly enjoyable, even if the film ultimately can’t compete with the film that inspired it (or should I say ‘the film that inspired the show that inspired it?’).

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers chronicles how Disney’s chipmunk duo first met in early 80s (strangely ignoring the characters’ history in Disney shorts decades before then). Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) became close friends and struggled in Hollywood until getting their big break with the aforementioned series. With Rescue Rangers a big success, Chip and Dale were finally living their dream. But Dale, tired of being looked at as the goofy sidekick, tried to branch out and get a show of his own, a Bond spoof called Double-O-Dale. But Dale’s conflicting roles lead to the cancellation of Rescue Rangers, and Double-O-Dale wasn’t even picked up as a series. The Rescue Rangers cancellation caused a riff between the chipmunks, with Chip leaving Hollywood behind to sell insurance. Dale, meanwhile, continues to milk his former glory, making appearances at fan conventions. He even went so far as to get “CGI surgery” in order to stay relevant in the changing world of animation.

Fast-forward to the present, and both Chip and Dale get separate calls from their former Rescue Rangers costar, Monterey Jack (Eric Bana). Monty needs Chip and Dale’s help, as his cheese addiction has landed him in hot water with a crime boss named ‘Sweet Pete.’ If Monty can’t pay back his debt, Pete will have Monty ‘bootlegged’ (a process that alters a character to avoid copyright laws, so they can be shipped overseas and make bootlegged versions of Hollywood movies). Chip and Dale promise to pay Monty’s debt, only for Monty to end up kidnapped that same night. The police, led by the claymation Captain Putty (J.K. Simmons), are looking into it, but have their hands tied with a series of other toon disappearances. So Chip and Dale begrudgingly set aside their differences to start an investigation of their own to find their missing friend with the help of human officer Ellie Steckler (KiKi Layne). All the while, Dale hopes the team-up leads to an eventual Rescue Rangers reboot.

The setup is a lot of fun. Using a real show from yesteryear as the backdrop for a Roger Rabbit-style comedy is a really entertaining idea. And the movie is clearly having a ball with all the characters, cameos and references it can cram in. One benefit this film has is that animation has changed a lot since Roger Rabbit hit theaters, so there’s a lot more types of humor and visual styles they can squeeze in.

Not only do we have toons interacting with humans, but the toons themselves (whether existing characters or ones made up for the film) come in a range of styles, from anime to stop-motion to Michael Bay’s Transformers to the 80s incarnation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Sweet Pete’s gang even consists of “uncanny valley” CG characters like Bob the Viking Dwarf (Seth Rogen), who is based on the Polar Express/Beowulf era of motion-capture (complete with dead eyes and lifeless movements), and a polar bear based on the old Coca-Cola commercials. Perhaps best of all is that one of the minor characters in the film is none other than ‘Ugly Sonic‘ (Tim Robinson). That is to say, the original character design for Sonic the Hedgehog for the 2020 film that haunted that initial trailer, before internet backlash delayed the film for the redesign of the character. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is full of visual surprises and variety that helps keep the film’s concept fresh throughout.

With that said, there is a bit of an asterisk to all this, since most of the characters are done with CG, even when they’re supposed to be traditionally animated or stop-motion characters. The most glaring examples being Chip, Monty and fellow Rescue Rangers characters Gadget (Tress MacNeille) and Zipper (Dennis Haysbert), who are obviously created with a cel-shaded CG meant to mimic the look of traditional animation. This not only feels like a shortcut was taken, but it also kind of deflates the whole joke that Dale had cosmetic surgery to become a CG character when the supposedly hand-drawn characters around him are also CG.

That’s not to say anything against CG, of course. All forms of animation can create things of beauty and wonder. But given the premise of the movie, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that it didn’t go all out and capture the different characters with their appropriate medium (there are a few delightful exceptions, such as a quick cameo from Roger Rabbit himself. Because of course he’s in this movie).

While Rescue Rangers is often very funny – sometimes outright hilarious – it does admittedly have a few jokes that it doesn’t know when to let them go. Most notably are the constant remarks about reboots, which after a while may become as insistent as the reboots they’re commenting on. The humor can even feel a little bit smarmy at times, which is a trap the more earnest Who Framed Roger Rabbit never once fell into.

Something else I have mixed feelings about is the film’s villain, Sweet Pete. I guess this is something of a spoiler (though the trailers already blatantly revealed it, and the reveal happens somewhat early in the film), but Sweet Pete is revealed to be a fat, balding, middle-aged Peter Pan (Will Arnett). On one hand, the idea of a middle-aged Peter Pan and Arnett’s voice work are funny. But on the other hand, the idea of “evil Peter Pan” is becoming almost as cliche as the evil Superman trope. Plus, Sweet Pete’s motive is that he became bitter once he got older and Hollywood forgot him, which seems kind of weird since the Disney version of Peter Pan is still a decently popular character who shows up here and there (this origin story is made even weirder with how Peter Pan is inexplicably the only toon in the movie who has aged). It seems like Disney could have used a more genuinely forgotten character to go with the backstory, like McLeach from the Rescuers Down Under, or Gurgi from The Black Cauldron. But now I’m overthinking things.

None of these complaints are dealbreakers, however. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a fun and funny movie that should be doubly entertaining for fans of animation and the people who grew up during the time when shows like the original DuckTales and Rescue Rangers were still airing. It’s a film filled with visual delights and fun callbacks and references for fans. The smart-alecky attitude of the film holds back some of the humor, and no, it’s certainly no Roger Rabbit. But Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is certainly one of the better Roger Rabbit imitators. And it may be the only time we ever get to see Ugly Sonic in a movie.

7

Turning Red Review

Turning Red is a Pixar movie quite unlike any other that has come before it. The feature film debut for director Domee Shi (who previously directed the 2018 short “Bao”), Turning Red takes the emotional core of Pixar films, and combines it with a coming-of-age story about puberty, culture clash, and a love letter to the early 2000s. The end result at once feels like a personal story on Shi’s part, as well as Pixar’s funniest and weirdest film to date.

Uniquely set during 2002, Turning Red tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl living in Toronto, Canada. Mei is obsessed with the boy band 4Town, an obsession she shares with her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). But Mei is rarely able to see her friends anymore, as she helps her strict mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), in running the family temple. That is when she isn’t working hard to get straight As to keep her mother happy. The fact that Ming disapproves of Mei’s friends and musical interests makes things all the more difficult, to say nothing of Mei’s growing interest in boys.

Ming discovers that Mei has developed a crush on an older boy, leading to a particularly embarrassing situation for Mei. This proves too much for her to handle, and the next morning, Mei awakes to find she has transformed into a giant red panda! Calming her emotions transforms her back into her human self (now sporting red hair), but whenever Mei gets too excited, she transforms back into the red panda.

It turns out that Mei’s family has a spiritual connection to red pandas, and every female member of her family goes through the transformation when they reach a certain age. There is a ritual that can be performed to seal away the red panda spirit, but it can only be done during a Red Moon, the next of which is still a month away. In the meantime, Mei will have to try to keep her emotions in check if she doesn’t want to unleash the panda and cause a ruckus. But that’s much easier said than done when going through puberty and always trying to be perfect for an overbearing mother. To further complicate things, 4Town will be having a concert in Toronto a week before the ritual!

The plot may sound silly, but it’s in the best way possible. Turning Red has a lot of fun not just in the scenario of Mei’s transformation, but also in its setting. I think this is the first Pixar film to directly mention its time period (The Incredibles was vaguely set in the 1960s, while some others were in the non-specific present day of their release). And boy, does Turning Red love to flaunt its love of the early 2000s! Not only is its depiction of boy band culture equal parts homage and spoof, but Mei also carries a Tamagotchi, we get glimpses of VHS tapes and DVDs, and we even get to hear a snippet of The Cha Cha Slide by DJ Casper. Suffice to say Turning Red has a lot of fun reveling in its nostalgia for the time. It’s so 2002 that the only things missing are references to Playstation 2 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Something else you’ve probably deduced from the plot synopsis is that Mei’s transformation occurring the same time she’s hitting puberty is certainly no coincidence. In fact, the first time Mei transforms into the panda she hides from her parents, who mistakenly believe Mei has just had her first period. The film is wonderfully honest and unapologetic with such subjects. It’s as much about Mei’s body changing in a natural way as it is about her changing in a supernatural way. And it works so effortlessly you wonder why past children’s films have been so skittish to tackle such subjects (it should be noted that Turning Red never actually uses words such as “period” while still making the subject overt which, as Seinfeld taught us, makes things all the funnier).

It’s also fun to see a Pixar movie focus on a clash of cultures. Mei is fully respectful to her Chinese heritage and traditions, but her love of boy bands and the youth culture of Toronto baffles her mother, creating a bigger rift between the two.

I’ve heard some people say these elements “don’t feel like a Pixar movie.” But that’s exactly what I love about Turning Red. It feels so different from anything else Pixar has made while (crucially) still retaining the heart and emotion the studio’s storytelling is known for. If anything, the differences Turning Red makes to Pixar’s norms is the greatest testament to the quality of Pixar movies that we’ve seen in quite some time. Turning Red is proud to be a Pixar film, but it’s also rebellious and unafraid to do its own thing within the Pixar canon.

This is seen in the animation itself. Turning Red retains the top-notch computer animation of Pixar but fuses it with anime influences and additional hand-drawn effects to make it look unique among its Pixar peers. Pixar’s characters have never been more exaggerated or expressive than they are in Turning Red, which leads to some great visual comedy. The character designs themselves are simple, but fun and memorable. The whole movie just pops with color. It’s a constant visual delight.

Turning Red is the most fun and original Pixar movie in quite some time. Domee Shi seems to have infused the film with her own personal experiences and humor, which gives the film a unique tone and overall feel among Pixar features. This is, after all, the only Pixar film in which The Simpsons is referenced, and in which the characters say words like “crap.” Where it falls in the echelon of Pixar greats is beside the point, because Turning Red is so busy doing its own thing that it’s basically in its own, separate category.

I was gutted when Disney announced Turning Red would be the third Pixar film in a row to be skipping theaters and heading straight to Disney+. I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen. On the plus side, being on Disney’s streaming service will make repeat viewings that much easier. And this is the kind of movie you’ll want to watch over and over again.

Turning Red is sweet, emotional, hilarious (I’ve never laughed harder at a Pixar movie), sometimes surreal and always charming. It’s Pixar’s best film of the last few years. It’s so much fun.

Cruella Review

Disney’s recent fixation with remaking their beloved animated films into live-action features has been met with a mixed reception. To be fair, not all of these live-action remakes have missed the mark (I rather enjoyed 2016’s The Jungle Book and 2019’s Aladdin). But Disney turning the idea of remaking their animated legacy as live-action films into a kind of sub-genre seems superfluous. Disney’s animated films are (mostly) considered timeless, very few of them are actually asking for a remake. And with the possible exception of the aforementioned Jungle Book, I don’t think any of these live-action remakes have been as good as the animated movies they’re adapting.

Interestingly, in 2021 Disney released Cruella, a live-action film about the villainous Cruella de Vil character from 101 Dalmatians. I say that’s interesting for two reasons: the first reason is that Disney already made a live-action remake of that movie in 1996 which starred Glenn Close as Cruella. The second reason (and perhaps as a consequence of the first reason) is that 2021’s Cruella isn’t really a remake of 101 Dalmatians, but an origin story for the Cruella de Vil character, with Emma Stone in the title role.

Personally, I don’t think Cruella de Vil needed an origin story. But to be fair, Cruella is actually a pretty entertaining movie. Though I’m not too sure who its intended audience was meant to be.

Cruella is set in 1970s London (the change in decade is a notable alteration from the animated original, seeing as that film was released in 1961). A young girl born with half-black, half-white hair named Estella has a gift for fashion, but has a notorious mean streak, with her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham) giving her the moniker ‘Cruella’ to address the less ideal half of her personality. When Estella’s behavior lands her in trouble, her mother hopes to transfer her to a better school, but lacks the money to do so. So Catherine stops by the notorious Hellman Hall to ask for a loan from her old friend and former employer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). While there, Estella is chased by the Baroness’ three dalmatians, who end up knocking Catherine off a cliffside balcony to her death…

Before I go on, I have to stop and address this. Disney movies often feature the death of a parent or guardian, going all the way back to Bambi. Usually, these moments are appropriately sad and meaningful. But I gotta say, death by dalmatian pushing someone off a cliff… now THAT’S a new one. And is this supposed to justify Cruella’s disdain for dalmatians down the road or something? As if someone hating dogs could ever be justified.

As ridiculous as this moment is, the story does pick up. So let’s move on.

Estella, now an orphan, flees Hellman Hall, accidentally leaving behind the necklace her mother passed down to her. She ends up meeting two orphaned boys, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and she becomes something of their surrogate sister. The three grow up living as conmen and petty thieves. One day, on her birthday, Estella is gifted an entry-level job at a department store by Jasper and Horace, as they believe Estella is too talented and deserves better than what life with them can provide.

Though the job isn’t much, it opens the door for Estella’s dreams. Eventually, she winds up getting a job as a designer for none other than the Baroness herself. Though her dreams seem to be coming true on paper, the reality of it is much less of a dream, as the Baroness rules her empire with an iron fist. While Estella seems to manage the hardships (and verbal abuse) for a while, her attitude shifts when she realizes the Baroness has her mother’s long-lost necklace. Estella enlists the help of Jasper and Horace – as well as their dogs Buddy and Wink – to try to steal the necklace back (Estella’s argument being that the necklace is technically hers), which eventually escalates into a rivalry with the Baroness. Estella will stop at nothing to bring the Baroness’ empire down, both from the inside and outside of it, adopting her old moniker of ‘Cruella’ when she starts a rival fashion company of her own. But the deeper the rivalry goes, the more the Cruella persona begins to take over Estella’s life.

The film basically plays out like The Devil Wears Prada taken to the extreme. And to be perfectly honest, Cruella ultimately is a fun movie, due in no small part to its cast, Emmas Stone and Thompson in particular elevating their characters and their rivalry. And it’s an appropriately fun movie to look at, due to its emphasis on fashion as well as its setting. I was actually surprised in how much I ended up enjoying Cruella and how engrossed I got in the rivalry between its titular anti-heroine and the Baroness. With that said, there are still a few questionable elements in the film.

First and foremost, try as it might, Cruella can’t quite justify why Cruella de Vil needed an origin story (other than to separate this film from the 1996 live-action remake, I guess). During many of the earlier scenes of the movie, whenever Estella was getting a tongue-lashing from the Baroness, I couldn’t help but think the movie could have worked just fine if Cruella had been in the Baroness’ role, and Estella could have instead been the character Anita from the animated film. Seeing as Cruella and Anita were described as ‘schoolmates’ in the 1961 original, changing that history to that of boss and employee would at least explain the mysterious age gap between the two characters from the animated film. That’s certainly not a knock on Emma Stone’s Cruella, of course. It just seems like the movie could have cut out the middle man.

Anita does show up in the film (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as a gossip columnist who ends up helping Cruella in her schemes against the Baroness. And if you’re wondering, her future husband Roger shows up as well (Kayvan Novak), as the Baroness’ lawler.

Maybe the reason Disney opted for an origin story for Cruella was that it was the only way to make a movie about Cruella and still have the audience root for her? Cruella de Vil was always one of Disney’s most popular villains, but she’s one of the least likable of the lot when you think about it (her goal in the animated film was to skin a bunch of puppies to make a fur coat, after all). They couldn’t exactly make a movie about Cruella as depicted in the animated film and still expect the audience to cheer for her. I guess the origin story was Disney’s way of having their cake and eating it too. But, like Maleficent, it does make me wonder how fans of the character would take to the film, if they had to change Cruella so much in order to make her the central character (though the results here are much better than they were in Maleficent, and at least in this movie Cruella’s personality ends up closer to her animated counterpart by the end, whereas Maleficent never did in either of her live-action films).

Maybe some fans of Cruella de Vil will like the movie, and maybe some won’t. But I don’t think younger fans of 101 Dalmatians will much care for it. I guess, to be fair, the film is rated PG-13, so it is probably made with older kids and teenagers in mind. But that again makes me wonder why Disney would adapt 101 Dalmatians in order to make such a movie. Cruella is a movie for teenagers based on a movie for kids about that movie’s villain in which that villain is now a good guy. I guess it’s not impossible to make that odd concoction work, and I have to admit that Cruella does mostly work. But I think it still suffers a bit of awkwardness from that identity crises (do I need to point out “death by getting knocked off a cliff by a dalmatian” again?).

I don’t think Cruella reaches the same heights as the Jungle Book or Aladdin remakes, but it’s maybe a better movie than you’d expect. Emma Stone and Emma Thompson really make the film engaging, and the supporting cast help carry things as well (I especially like Hauser as Horus, who is the most faithful to the animated character).

Cruella is a curious little oddity for Disney fans, and a fun movie in its own right. It may be a bit ridiculous at times, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

6

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Turns 30!

Goodness gracious, what’s with November and making us feel old?! Xbox and GameCube turned twenty, the Wii turned 15, the Super Nintendo turned 31 just yesterday, and now, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast turns the big 3-0! Beauty and the Beast was released thirty years ago today, on November 22nd 1991.

Beauty and the Beast was the second proper film of the “Disney Renaissance” era, after The Little Mermaid (The Rescuers Down Under doesn’t count). The Little Mermaid may have kickstarted the Broadway musical-style of Disney film, but Beauty and the Beast took it to new heights, and ensured it was here to stay (well, there was that period in the 2000s when Disney left the musical behind, and perhaps not coincidentally it was considered another dark age for the studio).

Although the earliest Disney films were (and are) praised by film buffs and historians, Beauty and the Beast was really the first “prestige” animated film in that it broke a number of barriers for the medium’s recognition. Notably, it became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, in addition to four other nominations. Though there are a few caveats to these in that three of those nominations were for Best Song (a credit to the film’s stellar song work, but it shows that the Academy refuses to nominate animated films in other categories). The fact that only two additional animated features have been nominated for Best Picture since, and the creation of the Best Animated Feature Oscar ten years later is more damning evidence that the Academy was never going to give animation a fair chance. And suffice to say, Beauty and the Beast didn’t actually win Best Picture. But at the time, this was a huge deal, and those caveats apply to the Academy Awards, not the film itself. Because Beauty and the Beast really is a great movie.

Beauty and the Beast appropriately became the first Disney film to have a Broadway musical adaptation, which ran until 2007. The film also saw a tenth anniversary release in select theaters in 2001, which even incorporated a previously deleted scene/song. It was then given a modestly successful 3D re-release in 2012 during Disney’s brief “re-release our classics in 3D” phase of the early 2010s. Perhaps we should look back at that time more fondly, since a few years later, Disney would begin full-on remaking all their animated classics into live-action movies, with Beauty and the Beast receiving this treatment in 2017. To be fair, it was one of Disney’s better live-action remakes, only really suffering by having the wildly miscast Emma Watson (who was autotuned to high heaven) in the leading role of Belle. The rest of it wasn’t so bad though.

“It just doesn’t have the same charm, does it?”

While some of Beauty and the Beast’s standing as one of the best animated films has been muted somewhat with the rise of Pixar and more awareness to Studio Ghibli, it doesn’t take away from what a delightful film Beauty and the Beast still is. The story and characters are still among Disney’s best, and the same can be said of the film’s animation and those ever-so catchy songs. Simply put, Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney Animation’s greatest achievements (I personally would consider it Disney’s best animated feature up until Frozen’s release in 2013). It’s a true Disney classic!

Happy 30th anniversary, Beauty and the Beast!

Now I’m off to listen to that soundtrack again…

Home Sweet Home Alone Review

Home Sweet Home Alone is a new Disney+ exclusive movie, and the sixth – yes, sixth – entry in the Home Alone franchise. The first two Home Alone films, released theatrically in the early 90s, have become holiday classics that people watch annually during Christmastime. They made Macauley Culkin a household name, as he starred as Kevin McCallister, a young boy who was accidentally left, well, home alone around Christmas. A duo of bungling burglars, Harry and Marv, tried to rob the McCallister home (and other nearby households) while the family was away for the holidays, only for Kevin to foil their efforts with a series of cartoonish booby traps that left Harry and Marv beaten and battered.

The original Home Alone was a massive hit. The immediate sequel was more of the same, but set things in the big city of New York. The sequel was less liked by critics, but audiences still embrace it as another annual viewing to this day.

After Macauley Culkin aged out of the role, you’d think the series would be good and done with. It wasn’t exactly a big fantasy franchise with a world of characters and deep mythology to explore. Kid beats up criminals at Christmas. That’s it. Audiences liked the first two, there didn’t need to be more.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, more Home Alones were made. They were various forms of standalone sequels and reboots, none of which featured anyone from the original cast. The third film was theatrically released, though after that it was straight to TV for the series. In this day and age of streaming services, it’s much less of a sting that Home Sweet Home Alone was released straight to Disney+, and in all fairness, it probably is the best installment since the first two films (but that’s a low hurdle to jump). Despite a solid effort, Home Sweet Home Alone still can’t escape the shadow of the first two beloved entries.

The story here is (what else?) a kid winds up being left home alone during Christmas, and has to fend off some burglars with some cartoonishly violent hijinks. Okay, I guess I should specify a little more, since the film at least tries to alter some elements of the formula.

In this entry, the kid is Max Mercer (Archie Yates), an English boy whose family has recently moved to the United States. Max and his mom (Aisling Bea) stop by an open house so Max can use the bathroom. The open house belongs to the McKenzie family, notably husband Jeff (Rob Delaney) and wife Pam (Ellie Kemper). The McKenzies are reluctantly selling their house (they haven’t even told the kids yet) as Jeff has recently lost his job, and Pam’s salary alone isn’t enough for them to keep their home. While Max is in the McKenzie house, he notices a box of old dolls, which Jeff inherited from his mother. Max and his mom note that the dolls are probably worth some money, particularly one malformed doll with an upside down head.

Jeff wishes his family could keep their home, and after doing some research on the dolls, realizes they are indeed worth good money, with the upside down-faced doll in particular being a rare misprint worth a small fortune. With that doll, the McKenzies can keep their home. The only problem is the doll has gone missing! Jeff suspects Max took the doll during his visit, and so tracks down the boy’s home. But by that point, everyone in the Mercer family has left on their vacation to Tokyo. Everyone, that is, except for Max, who fell asleep in a car in the garage to avoid all the noise of visiting relatives.

Through a typical Home Alone series of events, the Mercers are already on their way to Japan before they realize they’ve left Max behind. Meanwhile, Jeff and Pam, desperate to save their home, plan on breaking into the Mercer house in order to retrieve the missing doll, not knowing that Max is still inside. Max manages to overhear the McKenzies outside plotting their eventual break-in, and after misunderstanding a joke (Jeff mentions selling “an ugly little boy,” referring to the misprint doll), Max believes the McKenzies are planning to kidnap him. He wants to call the police, but fears his mother may get arrested for leaving him home alone, and so instead sets an elaborate series of booby traps in his house to beat the crap out of the McKenzies.

That’s kind of a bit of explanation for a Home Alone movie, don’t you think?

I suppose, to be fair, the movie is aiming for something more lighthearted, giving the “antagonists” a bit of sympathy so there can be a little heartwarming get-together once the misunderstandings are inevitably cleared up. It’s well intentioned, but the problem is making the “burglars” of a Home Alone movie into sympathetic characters works against the appeal of the franchise.

One of the reasons Home Alone appealed to young audiences is because the third act features a clever kid outsmarting some bad grownups. Though Kevin McCallister’s traps were often (cartoonishly) violent, you didn’t feel bad for laughing because Harry and Marv deserved it. They were jerks who broke into family homes and stole stuff during the Christmas season (with Marv going a step further and flooding the homes they stole from by clogging the sinks and turning them on full blast). They were simply bad guys. The audience delighted in seeing Harry and Marv get their comeuppance at the hands of Kevin McCallister. By contrast, Jeff and Pam McKenzie are a husband and wife simply trying to retrieve a family heirloom they think was stolen from them so they can save their family home. It’s a lot harder to laugh whenever Jeff and Pam get smacked in the face with a bag of flour. Or fall down a staircase. Or get their feet set on fire.

So, in a roundabout way, by trying to make Home Alone more family friendly (the kid isn’t in any real danger) they’ve actually made it less appropriate because now we’re laughing at the misfortunes of good people. Admittedly, I may be overthinking this a bit, but I do think Home Sweet Home Alone’s good intentions in this area are ultimately misguided for the material.

Something to note about Home Sweet Home Alone is that it actually does take place in the same continuity as the original two films. Kevin’s older brother Buzz McCallister is now a cop in Max’s neighborhood (with Devin Ratray reprising the role), and the Mercer family uses the “McCallister Home Security System.” The obvious implication being that Kevin grew up and started the home security company, which I found hilarious. The film isn’t overburdened with references to the original Home Alone movies, but what’s here is appreciated. Though it is a bit disappointing that Macauley Culkin didn’t have a cameo after rumors (and false confirmations) suggested otherwise ever since Home Sweet Home Alone was announced.

“Buzz McCallister is now like the Nick Fury of the Home Alone Cinematic Universe.”

If I’m being honest, I expected much worse from Home Sweet Home Alone. Perhaps the overreactions of people in the age of social media simply made me fear the worst. But Home Sweet Home Alone is more bland and forgettable than it is outright horrible. Making the burglar “antagonists” sympathetic characters while still expecting us to laugh at the pain inflicted on them is the movie’s only egregious misstep. The rest is simply stuff we’ve seen done better in the first two movies. I admit I found some of the jokes to be funny, and Archie Yates is a cute kid who can carry the material (he was arguably the best part of Jojo Rabbit). Young audiences might get a kick out of the movie. It’s just that, of course, they’d be better off watching the original. Or even Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

5

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the twenty-fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By now these Marvel films are so frequent, that it may be easy to take for granted the fact that they’ve been mostly good. Shang-Chi is the second of four MCU movies being released in 2021 alone, and it comes after we’ve already had four different Disney+ series set in the MCU in recent months. Amidst so much Marvel-ness, a movie like Shang-Chi (which harkens back to the superhero origin stories of the MCU’s early days) could have been drowned out as the rest of the MCU seems to be aiming for grand scale epics. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only stands on its own two feet, but stands tall among its MCU contemporaries. It may not exactly reinvent the Marvel formula, but Shang-Chi manages to improve on it in a few key areas.

Although the film’s hero is the titular Shang-Chi or “Shaun” (Simu Liu), the film’s backstory centers around his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung).

Over a thousand years ago, Wenwu discovered the Ten Rings, mystical artifacts that granted him superhuman strength and abilities, as well as immortality. With them, he became a warlord and established his army, which he dubbed “The Ten Rings” after the source of his power. As centuries passed, the Ten Rings organization adapted with time, eventually becoming more of a terrorist organization than an army. But their goal was still the same: bringing down nations and give Wenwu more power.

In 1996, Wenwu had begun searching for a legendary village called Ta Lo – which serves as a kind of gateway to a dimension of mythical creatures – in hopes to conquer this new world. Wenwu finds the entrance to Ta Lo, but is confronted by its guardian, a woman named Ying Li (Fala Chen). Ying Li has powers of her own, granted to the people of Ta Lo by its dragon protector. Despite the power of the rings, Wenwu is defeated by Ying Li. But the two quickly fall in love, with Wenwu making return visits to the site just to see Ying Li again. Her love changes him to the point that he removes the rings and abandons his organization so he can start a family. But the people of Ta Lo frown on the relationship, and won’t allow Wenwu access to their village due to his dark past. So Ying Li leaves her people (and her powers) behind in order to be with him. Shang-Chi is born to the couple a few years later, followed by a daughter named Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

When Shang-Chi and Xialing were kids, a tragedy struck that cost them the life of their mother. With Ying Li gone, Wenwu fell back into his old ways, reclaimed his organization and put the rings back on. Shang-Chi became just another assassin in training to his father. Xialing became ignored by Wenwu, who claimed his daughter reminded him too much of his late wife to even look at her (she would learn to teach herself the same techniques Shang-Chi was learning in order to survive the world her father created). Eventually, Shang-Chi couldn’t handle life under his father any more, and so he left, leaving his sister behind.

Fast forward to the present day (which I believe is currently 2023 in the MCU), and Shang-Chi, as Shaun, has been living a mostly normal life in America. He’s become a chauffer at a fancy hotel alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina), with whom he often spends long nights goofing off. That is until one day, when assassins sent by Wenwu confront Shang-Chi during a bus ride, leaving him no choice but to reveal his past (and fighting abilities) to Katy (as well as providing one of the MCU’s best set pieces in quite some time). Wenwu is after both siblings, so Shang-Chi – with Katy in tow – sets out to find his sister and uncover his father’s plot.

For anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I think it’s safe to assume is pretty much everyone at this point) the story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings won’t feel like anything new. It follows the established Marvel formula pretty closely. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out in at least two key areas.

The first are the action scenes. As enjoyable as these Marvel movies are, I have to admit their familiarity can extend beyond their narrative structure, and even bleed into the action sequences. They’re almost never boring, but many of the MCU’s action scenes can feel a bit deja vu, as if Marvel has found its safe spot with its action, and doesn’t wish to tread new waters with it. But Shang-Chi is one of the exceptions, with beautifully choreographed fighting sequences, and big set pieces that dare to do something visually distinct from the rest of the pack (pointing again to the bus sequence, where one moment has the audience peaking in on the action from the windows).

The other area in which Shang-Chi stands out is in its villain. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a pretty persistent villain issue, with the baddies not being nearly as memorable as the good guys (kind of a reverse of the superhero movies from before the MCU, in which the villains often outshined the hero). If an MCU villain isn’t some rich guy with the same powers as the hero, it’s another underdeveloped bad guy from the deep reaches of space (see Ronan the Accuser or Malekith). Very few of the MCU’s bad guys could be called “interesting,” with perhaps the only examples so far being Thanos, Erik Killmonger, and Adrian Toomes/Vulture (okay, and I suppose Loki… at least until his own series turned him into the most passive and boring hero in the MCU). But I think Wenwu is arguably the best of the lot.

Wenwu is the MCU’s proper adaptation of the Mandarin character (mercifully retconning the ridiculous twist on the character from Iron Man 3. And don’t worry, Shang-Chi addresses that whole situation brilliantly). But Wenwu certainly transcends his (outdated) comic counterpart. Wenwu is a villain who’s ruthless but sympathetic, powerful but pitiable. While audiences were expected to understand where Thanos was coming from, with Wenwu you actually kind of feel for him.

Without spoiling too much, Wenwu’s ultimate goal is to be reunited with his late wife. He’s a man who’s lived for over a thousand years, but only the small handful of years he spent with Ying Li meant something. Despite living centuries with power as his only ambition, he willingly gave up that power when he found someone he could love. The problem is he could only love that one person. And the fact that that love didn’t extend to his children after his wife’s passing is part of what makes him a villain.

Though the movie is well cast all-around, I do feel that Tony Leung’s performance as Wenwu deserves special mention as one of the best in the MCU dating all the way back to the first Iron Man.

There are other, smaller things I like about the movie: the titular Ten Rings are one of the more fun super powers the Marvel movies have provided. Wenwu wears five rings on each arm (they’re more bracelets than rings, really), and can shoot them off and bring them back with his mind, they can link together to make a whip or shield, or just hover around him like some kind of magic satellites. Conversely, Shang-Chi himself doesn’t seem to have any actual super powers. He’s a really good fighter, but doesn’t have any powers in the traditional sense. I thought that was a fun little twist on Marvel norms.

I also kind of like that Shang-Chi is a (mostly) self-contained origin story. I feel like that’s what Marvel should have focused on for a while after Avengers: Endgame, though Shang-Chi is only an exception here, as Marvel seems hellbent on fast-tracking the next Endgame-level scenario (*Cough! Loki! Cough!*). So enjoy these more standalone MCU features while you can.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be familiar Marvel territory in a lot of ways (which isn’t too bad of a thing, given Marvel’s track record), but for both hardcore fans and the more casual Marvel audience, the action scenes and villain may make it stand out in the Marvel canon, no matter how many movies and TV shows they churn out.

7

Free Guy Review

Free Guy is a comedy with a fun premise: a video game NPC (Non-Player Character) slowly realizing he is, in fact, a video game character, and wanting something better out of life than what his programming entails. All of which is influenced by his unrequited love for the avatar of a player.

The NPC in question is simply named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller in a video game called Free City, which is basically Grand Theft Auto crossed with Fortnite (the destructive open-world of the former, and the garish, unharmonious elements of the latter). Guy lives a simple life: he wakes up, says hello to his goldfish, puts on the same suit, gets the same cup of coffee, and walks to work with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) – a security guard at the same bank – before spending the rest of his day on the ground as the bank is continuously robbed day and night.

Naturally, in a game like Free City, the bank in which Guy works exists solely as a mission for players to rob in order to get in-game currency and experience points. The players are known to the NPCs simply as “Sunglasses Guys,” with their eyewear being the movie’s physical representation of the players’ Heads-Up Display. The NPCs understand that there’s something different about the Sunglasses Guys, as they can’t fully communicate with them or do the things they’re able to do, but since it’s always been a part of their lives, they just accept it. The robberies at the bank are so frequent, that poor Buddy has never once done any real security work, as he hits the ground by default as soon as a player kicks in the door. To Guy, Buddy, and everyone else at the bank, getting robbed is part of their daily routine.

Things begin to change when, during one of his daily walks to work, Guy becomes smitten with a Sunglasses Woman named Molotov Girl, who is the avatar of Millie Rusk (both portrayed by Jodie Comer). Guy still goes to work, but can’t get the girl of his dreams out of his head, and wishes to meet her. So when the bank is inevitably robbed again, Guy doesn’t have the patience for it. Guy stands up to the bank robber, accidentally killing him in the process (he can respawn later), then takes his sunglasses, to the absolute confusion of everyone else at the bank.

Once outside, Guy tries on the sunglasses and sees his world in a whole new light: He can see the locations of missions in his immediate area, the NPCs and Sunglasses Guys have their levels displayed overhead, and health and power-ups are scattered all over the place. These are all only visible when he has the sunglasses on, so it’s like a cute video game version of They Live.

With his (literal) new outlook on life, Guy hopes to reunite with Molotov Girl and make a connection with her. But it won’t be easy. Free City is already a dangerous place as it is, but the developers of the game – particularly their boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) – believe Guy is the result of a player hacking the game to control an NPC, and make it their mission to make life in the game as difficult as possible for him, seeing as they can’t trace him to any actual hacker to punish him otherwise.

That’s the base premise of the story, and in that regard, Free Guy is a whole lot of fun. There are, however, some added details to the plot that I have more mixed feelings about.

It turns out Millie is a former Indie developer who helped design a game called Life Itself alongside Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), who now works for Antwan’s company. Life Itself was to be a game about watching its characters grow and learn organically without player influence (sounds pretentious enough to be a real Indie game), but Keys’ and Millie’s studio was bought out by Antwan, killing Life Itself in the process. Keys just kind of gave up on his dreams and now works on Free City for a paycheck, but Millie believes Antwan stole the code for Life Itself and used it in Free City. So she plays the game as Molotov Girl to try and find proof of Antwan’s theft. It probably won’t take very long to connect the dots that Guy is actual proof of Life Itself’s code hidden being hidden within Free City, and that he not only grew and learned as Life Itself intended, but managed to gain sentience.

I don’t know, I’m a little disappointed that the film felt the need to give an explanation as to why Guy is able to defy what he’s supposed to do in the game. Movies these days seem to have a compulsive need to feed audiences every detail (God forbid we have to use our imaginations), and it kind of takes some of the fun away from a concept like this. Imagine if Wreck-It Ralph had to develop an entire side story just to explain why Ralph could go against his programming. It’d be totally unnecessary. Sometimes “because it’s a movie” should really be all the explanation you need.

The more serious elements of the “real world” side story is where Free Guy starts to fumble a bit (including a kind of cheesy budding romance between Millie and Keys). I could also live without the cameos from real life Twitch Streamers and YouTubers, which I think were meant to make things feel more authentic, but only end up reminding me of how annoying and obnoxious those areas of gaming are. There are a few references and cameos from real video games, such as Mega Man’s Mega Buster and the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, but they are surprisingly few. I would have rather seen more of the cameos from actual games, instead of the internet personalities who play them. Additionally, because Free Guy was produced by 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) around the same time of the Disney buyout, the film also gets in a big fanservice-heavy moment featuring a few other Disney-owned properties. While this certainly works better and is far more crowd-pleasing than the Twitch cameos, it does make me wish all the more that the references to actual video games got the same kind of love and attention.

Still, Free Guy is funny and charming enough that it ultimately wins out. I especially like Ryan Reynolds in the role of Guy, who makes the bumbling NPC an innocent and naive hero who’s all too easy to root for. At the expense of being hated by a lot of people, I feel Ryan Reynolds’ schtick as Deadpool can get a little grating after a while, but here the act never wears thin. Jodie Comer makes for a great foil, and seeing as her character is the one who bridges the film’s two worlds, she gets a nice double act to play.

I also like the film on a visual level. Free City certainly looks like it could be a modern video game (for better or worse), and the video game setting allows for some fun visual effects. The film additionally features a solid musical score courtesy of Christophe Beck (who manages to sneak in a piece from one of his previous film scores that I won’t spoil here). Free Guy even has a surprisingly life-affirming message through Guy’s story, which is probably the more serious element of the plot the film should have focused more on, instead of all the real world hullabaloo.

The plotlines with the human characters may detract a little from the silly innocence of the “video game NPC falls in love with a player character and ditches his programming” premise that the film sold itself on. But whenever the film gets back to that premise, and we see the lengths Guy will go to in order to win Molotov Girl’s affections, and the turmoil he goes through the more he learns about the world he inhabits, Free Guy is a winner. It’s fun, funny and heartfelt, and even has a bit of originality going for it. It’s not too often those things come together these days.

7

Jungle Cruise Review

Disney adapting its iconic theme park attractions into movies is not a new concept. It was an idea spawned in (when else?) the 1990s, when a TV movie based on Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror aired as part of the revived “World of Disney” program in 1997 (though the TV movie omitted references to the Twilight Zone, making it a movie based on a ride based on a TV show that ignored the TV show). After a few unsuccessful tries to make this unique sub-genre work, Disney finally hit the mark when they adapted Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 with one of the surprise hits of its decade. Pirates grew into such a large movie franchise (one that really helped Disney out in the days before they bought Marvel and Star Wars), that you would be forgiven if the movies are what you first think about when you hear the words “Pirates of the Caribbean” as opposed to the original ride. The Pirates movies became so big, that Disney would even adapt elements from them into the ride (bizarrely replacing the section of the ride that inspired the plot of the 2003 film in the process, though it’s thankfully been brought back in recent times)!

So Disney continued the Pirates franchise, while the “Disney park attractions turned into movies” concept as a whole kind of fell by the wayside. However, a planned movie based on the beloved Jungle Cruise attraction has been gestating for quite a while. At one point the movie adaptation of Jungle Cruise was set to star Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, effectively bringing their Toy Story chemistry to the realms of live-action. While that version of Jungle Cruise never came to light (unfortunately), the film found its footing once Dwayne Johnson came onboard, which eventually brought in Emily Blunt as well. And after a few delays of its own (we all know why), the Jungle Cruise movie finally arrived in late July of 2021.

The good news? The Jungle Cruise movie is actually a lot of fun! The bad news? After a point, it begins to feel derivative of the Pirates movies, which takes away some of its earlier charms.

The story here takes place in the midst of World War 1, and focuses on a legend of a tree – dubbed the “Tears of the Moon” – whose petals can heal all injuries and ailments, hiding somewhere in the Amazon. An English botanist, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) has firmly believed the stories of the Tears of the Moon since childhood, and has made it her life’s mission to recover its petals to revolutionize modern medicine and aide the British soldiers during the war. She is joined in her ventures by her uptight younger brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitewall), and has frequently butted heads with the chauvinistic Royal Society, who refuse to accept her into their ranks. After the Society denies Lily access to an arrowhead artifact that she believes is key to finding the tree, she simply steals the arrowhead instead (it’s for a greater good). This makes her cross paths with Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat who also seeks the tree.

Lily and MacGregor then set out on their adventure, with the only thing missing being a skipper who can guide them through the Amazon. They find such a skipper in Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson), who hosts “Jungle Cruises” and manufactures dangers during said cruises to charge his passengers extra money. And true to the ride, Frank makes countless bad puns throughout (one of the film’s highlights).

With the Houghtons aboard Frank’s boat, the trio set sail on an adventure to find the legendary tree, all while Joachim remains in pursuit.

Sounds good, right? It’s a simple setup: A period piece (much like the original ride itself) that serves as a throwback to Holywood’s early adventure movies, with the added extravagance of contemporary set pieces we’re more accustomed to in a post-Indiana Jones world. It’s good old fashioned popcorn entertainment, and it’s a lot of fun.

So where does it go wrong? By adding so many supernatural elements into the plot that it loses some of its own identity and its initial appeal.

The magical tree that can cure anything is well and fine. That’s the central plot device of the movie, and gives the goal of the adventure a sense of mystique. But when a group of cursed conquistadors come into the picture (and largely overshadow better villain Prince Joachim in the process), the film begins to feel like an unofficial entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The undead conquistadors bring with them a great deal of backstory which needs explaining. So not only do these villains feel out of place, the added plot that accompanies them slows down the adventure from time to time. One particularly exposition-heavy sequence which explains the history of the conquistadors slows down the proceedings so much, it brought to mind similar moments from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (albeit it isn’t that bad).

“Dude, we already had a German Jesse Plemons following our heroes in a submarine as the bad guy! Did we really need undead conquistadors as well?”

Now, I’m conflicted here. I love fantasy stories, and in this day and age when we have superhero movies always feeling the need to explain away something like magic as being “not really magic, but a really advanced science,” and in which movies have a compulsion to make things “more grounded,” I crave fantasy and magic in movies like never before. But I don’t think the Jungle Cruise movie was the place for it. It worked for Pirates of the Caribbean, since the ride itself mentions “cursed treasures” and features talking skeletons. But Jungle Cruise is a ride about, y’know, the jungle! There’s plenty of adventure to be had in the jungle itself. Did we really need a group of undead conquistadors thrown into the mix?

I give the film some credit for making each of the conquistador villains distinct from one another (one is made out of snakes, there’s one made of mud, another one twigs, and my favorite is made out of honey and bees, which is a fun idea for a bad guy). But these guys clearly feel like they belong in another movie. And once they become more prominent in the proceedings, it takes something away from the throwback charms Jungle Cruise otherwise has.

When Jungle Cruise embraces those throwback charms, it’s a whole lot of fun. We get exciting action set pieces, a sense of adventure (which is kind of rare in movies today), and a fun villain in Plemons’ Prince Joachim. Go ahead and call me a sucker, but I was also delighted by the references to the Disneyland ride, though it probably gets to the Backside of Water bit too early in the film. That’s the kind of thing you really have to build up to in a movie!

Sadly, as fun as Jungle Cruise is, the fact that Disney apparently didn’t have enough faith in it to stand on its own two feet, and had to dip back into the Pirates of the Caribbean well with it, does make it feel like a missed opportunity. Had Jungle Cruise leaned completely into its Jungle Cruise-ness, it could have been something special. We already have Pirates of the Caribbean. Let Jungle Cruise become its own thing.

6

Raya and the Last Dragon Review

Raya and the Last Dragon is the fifty-ninth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In recent years, Disney has seemingly reclaimed their crown from sister studio Pixar as the leading force in animated blockbusters, reaching new critical and commercial heights with the likes of Zootopia, Moana and, of course, Frozen. Disney Animation has never been as creatively robust and varied as they are now, and that remains true of Raya and the Last Dragon, which sees Disney try their hand at an action-adventure film with greatly entertaining success.

Disney has admittedly attempted some action-oriented animated features in the past, most notably in the early 2000s with Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Though it’s safe to say neither of those films are remembered as Disney classics. But with Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney seems to have found the right balance of making a satisfying action film with all the making of a Disney classic.

Perhaps I should say “most” of the makings of a Disney classic, as Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a musical, like most of Disney’s best works. But as far as Disney’s animated non-musicals go, Raya and the Last Dragon is among the best, maybe even the best of the lot.

Set in the Southeast Asian-inspired world of Kumandra, the story of Raya and the Last Dragon begins five-hundred years before Raya herself enters the picture: Kumandra was once a unified continent in which humans lived in harmony with magical dragons. This all changed when evil spirits called “Druun” appeared, and turned every living thing they touched to stone. The Druun spread like wildfire, engulfing human and dragon alike. Eventually, only one dragon remained, Sisu (Akwafina), who concentrated all her magic into a gem that cleansed the world of the Druun and revived all the humans, though the dragons remained stone, and Sisu herself disappeared. The people of Kumandra then had a power struggle for the “Dragon Gem” and split into five tribes, each named after part of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Heart, being the epicenter of Sisu’s last stand, is where the gem remains.

Fast-forward five-hundred years, and the other tribes still envy Heart over its possession of the Dragon Gem. Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart and protector of the gem, still believes in a unified Kumandra, and hopes to make peace with the other tribes. Benja invites the leaders of the other tribes to Heart for a feast as a sign of goodwill. All seems to be going well, with Benja’s daughter, a young Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) becoming fast friends with the princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan). But after Namaari wins Raya’s trust, Raya – who is training to be the Dragon Gem’s next guardian – shows Namaari the location of the gem. Namaari alerts the other members of Fang, and when Benja goes to defend the gem, the other tribe leaders follow him. A struggle ensues between the tribes for the gem, which results in Benja being injured, and the gem being broken into five pieces. Each tribe takes a piece, but the damage has been done, and the gem’s fracturing has reawakened the Druun, who once again begin turning humans to stone, including chief Benja himself.

The remaining members of each tribe use their gem pieces to repel the Druun, and find refuge around water (which the Druun also hate), but the majority of people have already been turned to stone. Fast forward six years, and Raya, now a young woman, has been on a quest to track down Sisu, who is rumored to still be alive, in hopes that the dragon can fuse the gem back together and heal the world.

Given that the name of the movie is Raya and the Last Dragon, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Raya does manage to find the resting spot of Sisu, and summons the dragon. After filling Sisu in on the situation (the dragon still thinks it’s the same day from five-hundred years prior upon awakening), Raya and Sisu set out to claim the other pieces of the Dragon Gem so they can set the world right. All the while, Namaari, hearing of Raya’s quest, hopes to stop Raya and claim the Dragon Gem for Fang.

That may seem like a lot of backstory for a Disney movie, but I kind of like that about Raya and the Last Dragon. Between Raya and Frozen II, Disney seems to be giving their films legitimate worldbuilding and lore (while not letting such things get in the way of the story at hand, which is crucial). We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when everything in a Disney movie was built around the moment when two hot people would make-out.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon from this point has a simple adventure structure, but there’s nothing wrong with that when things are executed this well. And in typical Disney fashion, the film introduces us to a number of memorable characters, and has a nice message about trust to boot (having been betrayed by Namaari, resulting in the world’s ruin, Raya has a hard time believing in her father’s more positive outlook on the world, which clashes with Sisu’s childlike optimism).

Along their adventure, Raya and Sisu are joined by different colorful characters from the different tribes: Boun (Izaac Wang) is a ten-year old boy from Tail who captains the group’s boat, which also doubles as a restaurant. Noi (Thalia Tran) is a baby from Talon who, along with her three monkey-like companions, is a con artist. And Tong (Benedict Wong) is a warrior with a heart of gold from Spine with a peculiar manner of speech. And of course Raya has her own animal sidekick in the form of Tuk Tuk, a kind of giant armadillo/chipmunk hybrid whose sounds are provided by Alan Tudyk (because who else would it be in a modern Disney movie?).

This may seem like a lot of characters to juggle, and while some of them could do with a little more screen time, Raya and the Last Dragon actually does a nice job at giving this diverse group of ragtag heroes their own distinct personalities.

The characters are a lot of fun, and so is the adventure they find themselves on. Disney has long-since showcased that animation is the ideal medium for the film musical, but Raya and the Last Dragon is among the rare animated films – like Castle in the Sky or even the Kung Fu Panda movies – that shows that action sequences may also be best suited for animation. The real world has its limitations, and special effects can get distracting, but animation creates a reality of its own, allowing for the action to only be limited by the filmmakers’ imaginations.

Whether it’s one-on-one fight scenes or chase sequences, Raya and the Last Dragon provides some exhilarating set pieces. And it’s all perfectly suitable action for younger audiences too. More cynical people might balk that such things would dumb the action down, but that isn’t the case. Children deserve a variety of movies as much as anyone, so it’s great that something like Raya and the Last Dragon can produce these elaborate, creative set pieces and still present them in an accessible way for its target audience. Atlantis and Treasure Planet could feel like they were “trying to be cool” through their action, which might explain why they don’t exactly feel timeless. But Raya and the Last Dragon feels like it has the heart of a Disney classic, but presented in an action-adventure film, as opposed to the musical we’re accustomed to. Raya should prove to be an exciting movie for audiences of all ages.

The animation is similarly captivating. The visuals of a lot of big budget animation studios can kind of blur together these days, but Disney has found a way to still make its character designs stand out. And with the Southeast Asian-inspired setting, the world of Raya has a distinct beauty from other Disney fare. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, especially when Sisu is performing one of her feats of magic.

Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney’s current hot streak of modern animated classics, and does so in a way that makes it stand out from the pack. It may not be the best film Disney has put out in recent times, but Raya and the Last Dragon is that rare, satisfying action film that still manages to have a beating heart. That in itself is worth celebrating.

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