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

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Spider-Man: Far From Home Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers to Avengers: Endgame’s plot. Though the fates of certain characters from that film will be absent*

Avengers: Endgame may have concluded the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, but Spider-Man’s second MCU solo outing, Far From Home, serves as something of the epilogue to Marvel’s “Phase Three,” and everything in the MCU up to this point. Far From Home obviously doesn’t share the sense of finality that Endgame had, but the effects of Endgame reverberate throughout Far From Home, letting audiences know that the MCU will never quite be the same again.

This is admittedly a little bit of a doubled-edged sword for Far From Home. It’s certainly a capable sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, but with the exception of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) himself, no one in  Spider-Man’s corner of the world seems to acknowledge the severity of everything the world (let alone the universe) is recovering from post-Endgame. Far From Home is a good Spider-Man movie (though it’s no Spider-Man 2 or Into the Spider-Verse), but it can at times feel like its scrambling to remember its placement in the wider MCU.

While past MCU films have, for the most part, taken place in or around the year they were released, Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the beginning of a new trend, as the MCU timeline currently sits in the year 2023 post-Endgame. Thanos wiped out half of all life in the universe using the Infinity Stones in Infinity War, before the Hulk used the stones to bring back everyone snapped out of existence into the current day in Endgame.

Far From Home does have some good fun with the premise, with a school news reporter mentioning how he was among those snapped out of existence for half of a decade, while his younger brother remained during those five years and is now his older brother. Some of these jokes land, but it is a little off-putting that Thanos’ cosmically catastrophic actions are almost exclusively referenced in a comedic sense. In Endgame we saw the devastation and tragedy of it all, with many people (including Captain America) seeking counseling because of the continued grief the world was suffering.

On one hand, Spider-Man: Far From Home has a Get Out of Jail Free Card for the consequences of Infinity War and Endgame being brushed to the side: Peter Parker and his friends are still in high school. If anyone is going to shrug off the fact that half of the entire universe was turned to dust and subsequently resurrected five years later, while still worrying and prioritizing their daily drama, it’s high schoolers. So the film can be forgiven when Peter Parker’s friends still go about their usual routines despite the fact that they were among those snapped out of existence for five years by Thanos. Less forgivable, however, are when characters like Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) crack jokes about the whole situation at fundraiser events. Some lightheartedness following-up the drama of Endgame is fine, but if you get too jokey with it, you risk undermining the ongoing narratives of the MCU (no one in Star Wars, for example, cracked jokes about Alderaan getting blown up by the Death Star).

Even though Far From Home’s placement after Endgame could have been handled better, its placement as a sequel to Homecoming is much more successful.

Far From Home sees Peter Parker and his classmates heading on a two-week field trip of Europe, where Peter hopes to take a break from super hero-ing as Spider-Man and confess his feelings for MJ (Zendaya), his classmate and crush. But seeing as a movie solely about Peter Parker on a field trip would probably be a bit of an underwhelming Spider-Man feature, things naturally don’t go quite so smoothly.

Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been investigating the sudden emergence of Elementals – monsters who are, naturally, based on the elements of earth, fire, water and wind – who threaten the balance of Earth. Normally in a situation like this, Fury would call on the aide of the Avengers, but in this post-Endgame time, the Avengers aren’t so easy to call upon. While the answers to the whereabouts of each Avenger will probably be revealed in their upcoming sequels, the simple fact of the matter is they are outside of Fury’s contact. Spider-Man is the only available Avenger, and so Fury, using his influence, has pulled the strings to set up Parker’s field trip to Europe, where the Elementals are spawning.

“I’d make a joke about how Mysterio looks like the Duke of Zil from Felix the Cat: The Movie, but the fact that I just explained that proves that no one would get the reference…”

A super-powered man from another dimension named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), has fought the Elementals in his own world, and is determined to prevent the creatures from causing the same levels of mass destruction to this world as they did to his. Beck has been working with Fury, and needs help if he is to stop all of the elementals, hence the need for another hero like Spider-Man.

The film does a good job at dealing with Peter Parker’s double life, as any good Spider-Man film should. Sure, not all of the comedy works, and I still find this interpretation of MJ as well as Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) to be pretty annoying. But Tom Holland still makes for a great Peter Parker/Spider-Man, giving the character the right blend of humor and likability. Additionally, Jake Gyllenhaal’s presence enhances the film much in the same vein (but in a completely different way) that Michael Keaton did in Homecoming.

The story does have a few rough patches. Again, how Far From Home continues from where the MCU left off in Endgame could have been handled better. But as a Spider-Man sequel, Far From Home does another great job at telling entertaining, sometimes compelling stories through both of Peter Parker’s personas.

Spider-Man: Far From Home does feature a little bit of a twist involving Mysterio later in the film. Those who know about the character from the comics and other materials will definitely see it coming, but I can also imagine the nature of the twist might be divisive for some audiences. The MCU is no stranger to divisive plot twists, with Iron Man 3 in particular being a polarizing film due to its midway narrative shift. I can imagine some might feel Far From Home’s twist may bring that of Iron Man 3 to mind in some respects, though I believe the twist to be handled much better here, since it ultimately connects with established elements of the MCU and doesn’t undermine the themes the film had built up until that point like Iron Man 3 did.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is another solid installment in the unprecedented mega-franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comedy might not always hit the mark, especially when it comes at the expense of the rather serious events of the past two Avengers films. But it makes for a worthy sequel to Homecoming. Far From Home is consistently entertaining, with great action set pieces for Spidey and some good character moments for Peter Parker. And while many MCU films can feel like their events are merely stepping stones on the way to the next big crossover, Far From Home tells a nice, self-contained story, and ends with a fun tease as to where Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s story will go next (with a mid-credits sequence that includes a cameo that I won’t dare spoil here, but that I will say is the single best piece of fanservice I think the MCU has provided so far).

The film may present Spider-Man as a smaller-scale super hero (which seems a little questionable by this point), but Far From Home is another testament that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man may just be the heart of the Marvel Universe.

 

7

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

Aladdin (2019) Review

There’s a famous scene in the beloved television series Friends in which Rachel tries to make an English Trifle for dessert, but inadvertently mixes up the recipe with that of Sheppard’s pie, resulting in a horrible mix of flavors. “It tastes like feet!” exclaims Ross. Meanwhile, the simple-minded, food-loving Joey continues to eat the ill-prepared dessert with delight. “What’s not to like?” says Joey, not minding the clashing tastes. “Custard, good! Jam, good! Meat, good!”

I bring up this random scene of television because I feel like, when it comes to Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue, I’m totally Joey. While much of the internet seems to be the Ross of this scenario, bemoaning the very existence of these live-action remakes for “ruining their childhood,” I think it’s important to view and critique these remakes for what they are. And while some claim that Disney is undermining their animated films by attempting to ‘legitimize’ them through live-action, I don’t believe that’s the reason for these remakes. As an immense fan of animation, I would be among the first to cry foul if I thought Disney’s reasoning for these remakes was because they thought the animated versions weren’t valid stories and need to be live-action in order to attain that validation.

It’s true that, because Disney’s animated films tend to be timeless classics, they don’t necessarily need to be remade. But these live-action remakes are here to stay for a while, so why not view them for what they are? And what they are are more homages to Disney’s animated films than they are replacements. They’re here to provide nostalgia and fanservice for fans of the original animated versions, and to entertain.

Admittedly, the quality of these live-action remakes has varied – with the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent being particularly forgettable, while The Jungle Book was the one example that was as good or better than the 1967 original – which makes them the attempted English trifle in the aforementioned Friends metaphor. The right bits and pieces are often there, but the results may very. Still, you can’t disregard these live-action Disney remakes just because they exist, and you do have to view them as the homages that they are, and how well they may or may not pull that off.

In short: “Jungle Book, good. Dumbo, good. Beauty and the Beast, good.”

So where does Aladdin fall into this equation? I’m happy to say I think it’s the best of these remakes since The Jungle Book. But at the same time, much of the reason for that is because of how closely it follows the template of the beloved animated original from 1992, which surely won’t help justifying the necessity of these remakes to the naysayers.

The story here is more or less the same as in the 1992 film. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a thief living on the streets in the kingdom of Agrabah, whose only friend is his pet monkey, Abu. Though Aladdin is a thief, he only steals to survive, and is otherwise a selfless individual. Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), though she rarely leaves the palace due to her father’s strict rules. One day, Princess Jasmine sneaks out of the palace in disguise and meets Aladdin, and the two instantly have a connection. But Aladdin, unaware of her true identity but knowing she’s from the palace, believes someone like him is unworthy of her attention.

“Even Jafar’s parrot sidekick Iago returns, this time voiced by Alan Tudyk (because this is a modern Disney movie, so of course it’s Alan Tudyk).”

Meanwhile, the Sultan’s grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), tired of playing second fiddle and always wanting more power, seeks to overthrow the Sultan. Jafar plans to do so by claiming a magic oil lamp from the Cave of Wonders, with which he can have anything he desires. But only a chosen one can enter the Cave of Wonders ,and Jafar – being a sensible bad guy –  has been goading others to retrieve the lamp for him for some time, though all of his patsies have met an untimely end at the entrance of the cave. But when Jafar stumbles across Aladdin, he’s found his diamond in the rough. Revealing Aladdin’s dream girl as the princess of Agrabah, Jafar promises Aladdin the riches he would need to be worthy of a princess if he retrieves the mystic lamp. But Jafar betrays Aladdin, and the latter ends up with the lamp in his own possession, and with it summon the all-powerful Genie (Will Smith), who will grant Aladdin three wishes, thus setting off a fun and comedic adventure that sees Aladdin try to win Jasmine’s heart with the aide of the Genie.

The story is admittedly very familiar, with Aladdin playing closer to its animated original perhaps more so than any of the other live-action Disney remakes of recent years. On one hand, that should make the movie an easy win for fans of the original who don’t think the movie’s existence threatens their nostalgic memories. On the other hand, it also means that – as previously stated – this film won’t change the minds of those who don’t see a reason for these remakes. But if you view 2019’s Aladdin for what it is – a loving tribute to the 1992 original – there’s an entertaining movie to be had here.

That’s not to say that this Aladdin doesn’t make any changes, just that it probably could have made a few other tweaks to better justify itself and these continuing remakes as a whole. Perhaps the two biggest character differences are Princess Jasmine’s more fleshed-out character arc, and Jafar’s newly-introduced backstory.

Though I strongly disagree with the criticisms that are often aimed at Disney Princesses, it is true that Disney has made a lot of progress in creating more fleshed-out characters within the archetype in recent years. And in this day and age of Frozens and Moanas, a direct adaptation of 1992’s Princess Jasmine may have felt too simple. The new film does a good job at detailing her story and motivation, as she doesn’t simply not want to marry a prince this time around, but refuses to do so because she honestly feels she would be a better heir to her kingdom than anyone else. Meanwhile, Jafar’s new backstory gives the character a little extra dimension as to why he’s never satisfied with the power he already has, and why he always seeks more.

Most of the songs from the animated film are recreated here (with the unfortunate omission of Jafar’s reprise of ‘Prince Ali‘). But there’s one new addition in the form of Speachless, a new belter by Naomi Scott’s Jasmine that more than holds its own among such classics as Friend Like Me and A Whole New World, and actually puts up an argument to being my favorite, non-Frozen Disney song in recent years.

Another small addition comes in the form of a comedic scene in which the Genie tries to help Aladdin win over Jasmine through dancing. But seeing as Aladdin can’t dance, the Genie magically controls Aladdin like a puppet to bust out the dance moves. This scene is pretty funny, and exclusive to this version, making you wish there could have been a few more scenes like this one added into the mix.

The cast is also enjoyable, with Massoud and Scott giving memorable performances as Aladdin and Jasmine. Though Kenzari’s Jafar may take a while longer to get used to. His performance is solid in a number of ways, but Kenzari is too soft-spoken in the role. When you remember this is the same character who in 1992 had a distinct regality in his voice which could quickly melt away into a howling cackle courtesy of Jonathan Freeman, the new Jafar seems nonthreatening by comparison (which may explain the absence of Jafar’s musical bit from the original).

Of course, the big question is how good is Will Smith’s Genie? While no one could ever replace Robin Williams (whose vocal performance as the Genie in the 1992 film is one of the great voice-over performances in cinema), I’m happy to say Will Smith makes for an entertaining alternative. Smith’s performance of the Genie often pays homage to Williams, without being derivative of it. As was the case with the original film, the Genie is far and away the standout character, and Will Smith does his own thing as the Genie that does justice to the role that Williams’ made so iconic.

If you’re one of those people who disregards Disney’s recent remakes by default, well then I pity you for not giving things a proper chance. Aladdin certainly won’t sway those who are dead-set against the mere existence of these remakes, and the film’s over familiarity might not win over the more reasonable detractors, either. But if you’re just looking for a fun Disney movie, the 2019 Aladdin delivers just that, with plenty of spectacle and great musical numbers. Fans of the 1992 original willing to give this remake a chance might even have the most fun with it, given that the film often plays more like a loving tribute to the original than a remake trying to better its source material.

In short: “Aladdin, good!”

 

7

Avengers: Endgame Review

*Caution: though this review only contains minor spoilers in regards to Endgame’s plot, it does consist of major spoilers to the ending of its predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War*

It’s rare that I see a movie that I feel won’t be replicated. But Avengers: Endgame is one such film. After eleven years and twenty-one previous features, Endgame brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it to a grand, satisfying close.

Yes, there will be plenty more super hero films in the future, and yes, the MCU will very much continue on. But I honestly can’t see another movie series – even the future MCU itself – managing to pull off an overarching storyline that lasts longer than a decade and culminates after this many films. Endgame marks the conclusion to an unprecedented achievement in filmmaking, one that I simply can’t see happening again on this scale.

Endgame begins a few weeks after the events of Infinity War. The evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) has succeeded in his perceived destiny. He collected every Infinity Stone, and with their limitless power, wiped out half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. The Avengers failed, with half of the super heroes being turned to dust along with half of the rest of the universe. The heroes lost, Thanos won.

As you can probably guess, Endgame takes a more somber tone than the past Avengers films for this reason. While in the past, the Avengers movies served as the means to wrap up collective chapters for their heroes, Endgame is instead largely based on how the surviving heroes cope with the fact that their failure lead to such devastation.

The remaining Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy) include Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Okoye (Danial Gurira). Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) also returns to action, after his family is among those turned to dust by Thanos. And Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) shows up whenever she deems it convenient for herself.

I won’t divulge too much of the plot in detail, because Endgame takes so many bonkers twists and turns that going into any specifics beyond the first few minutes would feel like a spoiler. Suffice to say, however, that the Avengers look for a means to undo the catastrophic damage Thanos has done to the universe, and just might find a way once Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the Quantum Realm, which he’s been trapped in since the mid-credits sequence of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Despite having missed out on the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang was only in the Quantum Realm for a brief time by his perspective, leading him to believe the Avengers may be able to find a means to manipulate the Quantum Realm to go back in time to gather the Infinity Stones themselves and save the people Thanos wiped out. Not-so-spoiler alert: The Avengers find a way to time travel using the Quantum Realm.

Before you ask the obvious questions that may come to mind when the good guys build a time machine to stop the bad guy, it should be stressed that Endgame makes a point that its concept of time travel works very differently than what we’re used to seeing in movies. And while its idea of time traveling doesn’t always make sense (why is it only Back to the Future got it right?), it does ultimately work for the story that’s being told here.

Time travel is admittedly a risky move on any franchise, as it has often been used as a cliche that’s employed at the point when filmmakers “jump the shark.” But in the case of Avengers: Endgame, it works wonderfully. As the culmination of a decade-long, twenty-two film story arc, Endgame has earned the right to dive headfirst into whatever insane direction it pleases. And I’m happy to say that Endgame is the most flat-out insane feature in the entire MCU.

“Welcome back, Hawkeye.”

With such a varied cast of characters now having the ability to go back in time, Endgame uses the premise to not only bring out the best comedic aspects of its heroes’ personalities, but also to create a story that simply couldn’t have existed in any other movie. Endgame makes various callbacks and recreations of the past films in the MCU (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively), and finds ways to remix and recycle elements from the mega-franchise’s history all while telling a story of its own. It’s a beautiful example of a story actually benefitting from fanservice, with every callback to the Marvel films of yesteryear not only providing a nostalgic glee, but also serving as a piece to the overall puzzle that is Endgame’s storytelling.

Like the preceding Avengers films, Endgame is an exceptional action feature, with every set piece and battle sequence delivering on their staggering promise. The final battle specifically – without giving too much away – is the most ludicrous, ridiculous and fanservice-heavy battle scene I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderful.

Endgame can be a really funny movie at times. Just because the film takes place after the doom and gloom finale of Infinity War doesn’t mean Marvel has lost its sense of humor (especially where Tony Stark and Scott Lang are concerned). But Endgame is ultimately (and appropriately) the saddest and most emotional film in the MCU. It’s everything you love about the Avengers, now with the heart of a Pixar movie.

It is only fitting that, as the series has moved forward, it has also matured and become more serious. Yes, there’s still plenty of action, humor and fanservice to be had in Endgame. But it also has a poignancy about it that makes it feel unique among all the MCU films, which only adds to its status as a fitting finale.

How often is it that we can say a movie franchise has a satisfying conclusion, anyway? It seems like most trilogies lose their footing when it comes to the third entry, and the franchises that go further than that still falter around the same point. But here we have a twenty-two film series, and its grand finale is more than likely the best film of the entire lot. It delivers on all the entertaining aspects of its many predecessors (oftentimes outdoing them), while adding a new sense of emotional weight and depth to the series. Endgame proves to be a surprisingly melancholic and reflective story.

While Endgame may feel like a perfect conclusion to the MCU (so far), it isn’t quite a perfect movie, with at least two elements that feel…off.

The first is that Thanos’s role has been largely reduced. It’s not a total loss considering Josh Brolin had his chance to shine as the character in Infinity War, which was the ‘Thanos movie.’ Much like how the first Avengers film reused Thor‘s Loki to fill the antagonist role as to keep its focus on the heroes coming together, Endgame pulls off something similar by reducing Thanos’s screen time now that we’ve gotten to understand the character. But without spoiling anything specific, I can’t help but feel the means in which Endgame removes Thanos from much of the plot, and how he finds himself back into the proceedings in the third act might feel a bit cheap to some audiences.

Again, that’s forgivable. And depending on who you ask, they may not mind that Thanos has taken a bit of a backseat. Less forgivable, however, is the character of Captain Marvel. One could say she’s this Avengers film’s token “short end of the stick” character (similar to Hawkeye in the original, or Vision in Infinity War), given that she does very little in the movie despite Infinity War’s post-credits scene hyping her up. But unlike the less fortunate characters of past Avengers movies, I’m actually glad Captain Marvel has such a limited presence in the film, because she’s far and away the most unlikable character in the entire MCU.

Between her obnoxious arrogance and her eye-rolling ability to basically do anything, the film gives audiences absolute zero reason to care about the character. The filmmakers of the MCU have – in a shoehorned attempt to capitalize on social movements – backed Captain Marvel into a corner. Either her presence undermines every threat the Avengers face since she can just overpower anyone, or her absence makes her seem like the single most selfish person in the universe, given that she’s supposed to be helping the Avengers save the universe. Essentially, in going overboard and forcing Captain Marvel to be a strong female hero (something the MCU already accomplished – and infinitely more organically – with the likes of Black Widow and Scarlett Witch), they’ve instead turned Captain Marvel into an entirely unrelatable deus ex machina. But again, at least she’s barely in the movie.

Aside from Thanos’s questionable means of entering and exiting the story when necessary, and the utter unlikability of Captain Marvel, pretty much everything else about Avengers: Endgame is top notch. It brings out the best of so many aspects of the MCU, and ties it all together with a stronger emotional weight than ever before.

Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue. But I honestly can’t imagine it recreating what has been done here in Avengers: Endgame. The fact that Marvel managed to successfully string together twenty-two movies over eleven years, and bring it all to such a satisfying conclusion is nothing short of a miracle in movie making. There will surely be more Thanos-level baddies whose story arcs will branch across the MCU. But I can’t imagine Marvel (or anyone else) replicating things to this scale again.

For those who have watched the MCU since its humble beginnings with Iron Man in 2008, you’d be hard-pressed to ask for more from a grand finale than what you get here. And for those who yearn for the more innocent early years of the MCU like Iron Man, I imagine that’s what we’ll be going back to for a while as the series rebuilds itself after this most fitting end.

The MCU has grown up alongside its fans, and seeing it reach its apex is a bittersweet rollercoaster. Avengers: Endgame is not only the ending we all hoped it could be, given its unprecedented build-up, but it should also rank as one of the best blockbusters of all time.

 

9

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

Age of Ultron, the 2015 follow-up to The Avengers, is an interesting movie, but not always for the right reasons. While 2012’s Avengers was a simple, focused showcase of action and fanservice, Age of Ultron seems unsure of what it wants to be. The Avengers movies should be the apex of their respective “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating the individual story arcs of the heroes of the preceding films, and giving a justifiable reason for them to collectively close those chapters of their stories. Age of Ultron, however, rarely seems like the follow-up to what its predecessors were building towards, and often seems preoccupied with hyping up the movies to come. Combine that with a villain’s story arc that feels rushed into the proceedings, and Age of Ultron is the Avengers film that feels all over the place.

Age of Ultron reunites the Avengers: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They’ve successfully raided the fortress of the Hydra commander Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who was in possession of Loki’s staff (spear, scepter, whatever) from the first Avengers film. It’s here that the Avengers first encounter Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), twins who have been given superhuman powers by the experimentations of Strucker (Wanda has telepathic/energy powers, and Pietro can run at super speeds).

Later, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discover that the gem on Lok’s staff possesses an artificial intelligence, and in secret from the rest of the team, decide to utilize it to finish Tony Stark’s dream of the “Ultron” global defense system.

Things don’t go as planned, however, and Ultron gains a sentience that – after instantaneously developing knowledge of the world via the internet and various databases and archives – determines that humans are in need of extinction. Ultron destroys Stark’s beloved AI, J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany), and takes control of many of Stark’s machines, creating an army of robot bodies for himself. Ultron (James Spader) sets out to bring about human extinction, and recruits Wanda and Pietro – who only wish to defeat the Avengers and are unaware of Ultron’s true intentions – to his cause. Naturally, it’s up to the combined efforts of the Avengers to put a stop to Ultron’s evil plot.

The idea that the Avengers needing to save the world from an evil robot may not sound too complex of a plot, but thanks to a few creative missteps, Age of Ultron ends up feeling overstuffed and confused as to where it wants to go. There’s still entertainment to be had with Age of Ultron, but it falls considerably short of its predecessor by not studying what made the first Avengers work so well.

The first of Age of Ultron’s great sins is Ultron himself. Though Spader gives a good performance – adding a touch of humor to the mad machine’s menace – the character often feels lost in the shuffle. The original Avengers worked so well largely because it resurrected an established villain. Loki had his introduction in Thor. His character, motivation and power were all introduced in that film. By bringing Loki back for The Avengers, the film didn’t need to take the time to establish him as a threat, and instead could focus almost entirely on the idea of the heroes teaming up to stop him.

By contrast, Ultron’s introduction in his titular movie feels insanely rushed. At no prior point in the MCU was Stark’s idea for any global defense system (let alone one named ‘Ultron’) ever brought up. Age of Ultron rapidly presents the idea as something Stark and Banner have discussed before, sees them create the AI, and shows Ultron gain sentience and go berserk all in a single scene. The film then scrambles to make Ultron a viable threat that warrants the necessity of the Avengers to reunite.

Ultron would have worked so much better as a villain if he had a proper build. Perhaps if Stark’s idea for Ultron – and his and Banner’s work on the project – were established in a previous film, then Age of Ultron could have simply seen the AI go rogue and become the villainous robot he was destined to be. As it is, Ultron’s very presence feels rushed into the film, and because his entire arc is presented in a film that already had to continue the arcs of each Avenger (in addition to introducing Wanda and Pietro, as well as Vision, an artificial super being with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s conscience), it makes Age of Ultron feel more bloated than epic.

The other big issue with Age of Ultron is that much of it is sidetracked with hyping up the future of the MCU. Every MCU film hints and teases at what’s to come in the mega-franchise, but the Avengers films should serve as some form of closure. Sure, the original Avengers brought us the initial glimpses of the MCU’s big bad in the form of Loki’s cosmic benefactor, but it did so on the side. The Avengers linked to the greater mythology of the MCU through that one element, but it was underplayed, with the film otherwise bringing a sense of closure to “Phase One” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Age of Ultron, by contrast, features an entire subplot of Thor having visions of the Infinity Stones, and the big bad who wishes to claim them. We even get a few teases of Black Panther with the presence of Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) and several Wakanda name drops.

2012’s Avengers wrapped up everything that preceded it with a nice little bow, while giving a small hint of the future. Age of Ultron, unfortunately, is so preoccupied with hyping future installments that it’s own story – which already didn’t have the luxury of being built up in previous films – flounders because of it.

With all this said, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t an all-out bad movie. It still contains some top notch action set pieces that should satisfy any super hero fan (though none of the action scenes here match up to those of the original Avengers). And the returning Avengers still have their distinct personalities, with plenty of fun quips and one-liners still present (one particularly funny running gag involves the technicalities of Thor’s hammer, and how only the “worthy” can lift it).

There’s still fun to be had with Age of Ultron. There are plenty of moments that provide some good, solid entertainment. But when it faces the inevitable comparison to its predecessor, it falls considerably short. The first Avengers could have been a disaster with all the elements it had to juggle, but it miraculously weaved them all together in a way that delivered a satisfying coming-together sequel of all its involved parties. Age of Ultron simply didn’t repeat what made its predecessor such a roaring success.

The Avengers films should be the culmination of what all the preceding MCU features build towards. But Age of Ultron doesn’t continue what any of its predecessors started, and is so busy being a hype machine for future MCU installments, that it simply doesn’t live up to its status as an Avengers film.

 

5

Marvel’s The Avengers Review

In 2008’s Iron Man, its now-trailblazing after-credits sequence featured Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the organization S.H.I.E.L.D., confront Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Fury would utter the line “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative.” This was the first tease of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a bold concept that sought to link different Marvel movie franchises together as part of one singular mega-franchise.

Having multiple narratives take place in a shared mythology was something that comic books (and to a lesser extent, video games) had been doing for decades. But such a concept seemed too monumental a task to undertake in the movie world. Comics and video games provided easier means for creators to spread out their own works. But movies would require different creators to work on different films (often simultaneously), giving each their own unique vision, while also weaving them into a coherent whole.

Iron Man was followed by The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), each one featuring teases and hints of a greater franchise shared between them. The Marvel Cinematic Universe came to fruition with the release of The Avengers in 2012.

The Avengers brought together the stars of the five previous films: Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, mercifully replacing Edward Norton from the 2008 film), in addition to two other heroes featured in the previous films, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The heroes are all brought together when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) – the villainous brother of Thor – is transported to Earth, and absconds with the Tesserect, an all-powerful energy sourcewhich was being studied by S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki, under instruction from a mysterious cosmic despot, is equipped with a magic weapon that can control the minds of others (the film humorously can’t decide if this weapon is a spear, staff or scepter). Loki takes control of several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (including Hawkeye) and one Dr. Selvig (Stellen Skarsgard), and makes off with the Tesserect, destroying the S.H.I.E.L.D. base in the process. A desperate Nick Fury decides now is a grave enough situation to finally act of the Avengers Initiative.

It’s a simple enough setup, but that’s part of why the film ends up working so well. It never overthinks what it needs to be, and wisely understands that the literal plot isn’t what needed all the time and attention in this particular instance. The important thing was how to bring all these characters together and how they interact with one another.

Naturally, there is conflict among our heroes, with their differing personalities butting heads with one another, particularly Captain America and Iron Man (the former being the ideal selfless hero, and the latter, while still ultimately good, is an arrogant showman). Thor, being from another world and still having sympathy for his vengeful brother, is often at odds with the earthly heroes. And there’s always the lingering tension that Bruce Banner can, at any minute, become the monstrous Hulk. It’s Nick Fury and Black Widow who have the coolest heads among them, while Hawkeye gets the short end of the stick as a mindless zombie under Loki’s control for most of the film.

There was something truly special about seeing all these heroes come together on the big screen back in 2012. And even though the MCU is omnipresent nowadays, there’s still a lot of charm exuding from this first Marvel hero get-together.

Another reason The Avengers works so well is that it functions as a proper sequel to all parties involved. The Avengers can be enjoyed on its own merits (another big plus), but it made the wise decision to utilize assets established in all five of its preceding films in order to tell its own story. The joining together of the different heroes is obvious, but re-using an established villain in Loki was a brilliant move. As the bitter younger brother of Thor, we already know his personality, his desires, and his goals. He’s an established threat powerful enough to justify the coming-together of all these heroes. And after his defeat at the hands of his brother in Thor’s titular film, Loki is more determined than ever, and wishes to enslave the Earth as a petty means to get back at his brother. Even the plot device Loki wishes to use, the Tesserect,  was first introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger.

None of these aspects simply feel recycled, however, and instead The Avengers uses these established characters and elements to build its own narrative. Some of the characters, including (if not especially) Loki, even became more fleshed out with their appearances here. As stated, there’s not a whole lot to the storyline other than “good guys need to team up to stop the bad guy,” but that’s part of why The Avengers works as well as it does. The previous five installments of the MCU gave us the stories of these characters, and Avengers was to be their big, fanservice-heavy collective sequel. It’s not an origin story like its predecessors, but one big action movie that happens to star the heroes of five previous super hero films.

The action set pieces remain some of the best not only in the MCU, but of the entire movie decade. It’s final battle – which sees Loki summon an army of aliens called Chitauri into New York City – is an extensive battle sequence that ramps up the excitement as it goes on. It should rank as one of the best battle sequences in movie history, and was inarguably the best since The Lord of the Rings trilogy gave us the battles of Helms Deep and Minas Tirith.

But The Avengers is also a very funny movie, which adds to its entertainment value. This is a rare example of a movie which gives each of its distinct characters the opportunity to ease the tension with one-liners and witty quips. Naturally, the sarcastic Tony Stark dishes out the most zingers, but the humor is successfully spread throughout its cast, playing uniquely into each of their distinct personalities. It’s a genuinely funny movie.

The MCU would naturally mature over time, with appropriately more dramatic storytelling. But the first gathering of the Avengers was just all-out entertainment. And there’s something that remains delightful about that. It hints at the largest threat of the MCU (Loki’s mysterious benefactor seems important), but only does so in small doses, and wisely keeps its focus on the individual heroes needing to set aside their differences for a greater good. It’s a rare instance of a big blockbuster in the 2010s knowing exactly what it needs to be, and doing just that.

Yes, the MCU has grown up a lot in the seven years since The Avengers was released. And the heroes have now shown up so frequently in each other’s movies that seeing them all join together here may not seem as mind-blowing as it once did. But The Avengers is still perhaps the ideal go-to entry of the MCU for those simply looking for a consistently good time.

 

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