Artemis Fowl Review

There’s a word for movies like Artemis Fowl, and that word is… “bad.”

Based on the series of books from the 2000s – a time chock full of novels about kids thrust into otherworldly adventures in the wake of Harry Potter – Artemis Fowl was released on Disney+ in June 2020, and became just the latest in a long line of live-action fantasy/sci-fi movies from Disney that ends up failing in execution.

I never read any of the Artemis Fowl books, so I can’t make any direct comparison to the source material. But general consensus seems to be that the film strays far from the books, which I think it’s safe to assume means the books are much better than this mess of a movie.

The story here is that Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), son of filthy rich antique collector Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell), is a super genius. He even cloned a goat at age ten (why the film feels the need to point this out, I don’t know. Especially since the film fails at making the obvious gag of having the cloned goat be Artemis’s family pet). One day, Artemis’s father goes missing, and news breaks out that reveals the elder Fowl to be a world-class criminal mastermind, with many of his collected antiques and fortune being the product of several high profile heists.

“The faces I made when watching this movie.”

Oh, and also there’s an underground fairy world where Elves, Dwarves and Goblins live in secret. But Artemis’s father knew of this fairy world and stole several magic artifacts from their world so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands or something. And it turns out his kidnapper is a wanted fugitive in the fairy world, though this villain’s motives are some of the most vaguely defined I can recall in a movie.

I suppose that’s par for the course here, considering Artemis Fowl is barely defined himself. Despite being the film’s hero, his only real defining trait is his obnoxious arrogance (is it asking too much to see a humble genius in a movie for once?). Also his butler Dom (Nonso Anozie) doubles as a bodyguard. Also also, said butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) is Artemis’s best friend, but the film forgets about her for such long stretches of time that, on the rare occasion she does show up, the audience would be forgiven for not remembering she was ever a part of the proceedings. Then there’s an Elf girl named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), whom Artemis ends up taking hostage in exchange for the Elves to procure some magic artifact that the bad guy wants so he can trade it for his father’s freedom.

What’s weird is that the majority of the film takes place in and around the Fowls’ mansion. Some early scenes deviate away to show us the underground fairy world, but once the important magic characters come to the surface, the movie is almost entirely centered around a single location. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing, but doesn’t this seem like the wrong kind of movie to do that with? Here’s a movie telling us that there’s a whole other world beneath the Earth, but almost all the action takes place at one building. Artemis Fowl kind of reminds me of Glass in that regard, a movie begging to stretch its legs but feels shackled to one confined space.

Among the film’s few highlights are the presence of Dame Judi Dench as the Elf commander Julius Root, and Josh Gad as an oversized Dwarf named Mulch Diggums. But both actors are wasted in this movie, and for some reason both of their characters tend to speak in gravely whispers (something which Gad’s character even makes a joke about). I did enjoy the joke about David Bowie being from the fairy world, though.

One of the biggest issues with Artemis Fowl is its overall structure and pacing. The best way I can describe Artemis Fowl is that it’s a movie that plays out like a clip show episode of a sitcom (where a half baked plot would segue into various clips of past episodes), but there’s not even a half baked story holding the clips together here, and the clips in question just exist in a vacuum so they just kind of happen. So we have a series of things being thrown at the screen that are only connected by the characters… characters that we never get to know anything about because the movie is already throwing something else at us before anything about them can be established.

Sadly, you can’t even say the film is salvaged on a visual level. Because, despite being visual effects heavy picture, Artemis Fowl is an ugly movie.

“Okay…what am I looking at, here?”

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it seems whenever Disney attempts to make live-action fantasy or sci-fi epics, the results always blow up in Disney’s face. The only movie in this sub-category of Disney that I enjoyed in recent memory was Tomorrow Land, and even that had the same unappealing aesthetic as the rest of them (and was a notorious box office bomb). I don’t know how to explain it, but whenever Disney tries their hand at live-action fantasy or sci-fi, it just looks wrong.

The CG in Artemis Fowl looks well behind the times, with a rampaging troll looking especially 2001-esque. And the aesthetics as a whole just never look convincing. Artemis Fowl is aiming for something like Harry Potter, but looks more akin to The Santa Clause 2. The Elves look like they wear Party City versions of the Green Goblin’s costume from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, Josh Gad’s character looks like he’s cosplaying in a homemade Hagrid costume, and the villain has their face shrouded in a hood, but brings to mind a Power Rangers villain of the week more so than Emperor Palpatine. At its best times, Artemis Fowl looks garish. At its worst, it’s just unpleasant to look at.

With the way the movie wraps up, you know Disney had hopes this would lead to a series of sequels and they’d have another money-making franchise on their hands. But Artemis Fowl ends up being a cinematic cacophony: it’s nonsensically structured, the characters are paper thin, all of its events just kind of stumble over each other, its a visual effects heavy movie that fails to deliver any memorable visual effects, and the crossover between criminal mastermind espionage and traditional fantasy never once meshes, instead feeling like two unrelated entities just collided headfirst into each other. So in the end, Artemis Fowl is an origin story that is destined to lead nowhere, making the film as a whole one of its own random clips pulled from a nonexistent show.

They may have spelled it differently, but “foul” is right.

 

2

Onward Review

Pixar’s Onward has one of the more unique premises in the animation studio’s history. While Pixar has proven to be one of the world’s most consistent sources of making excellent movies – animated or otherwise – most of their concepts can be summed up in one brief word: toys, cars, fish, etc. But in the case of Onward, we have a high fantasy world in the vein of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons, but placed in a contemporary suburban setting. With this concept, Onward takes the premise of a fantasy adventure, and turns it into a kind of road trip buddy movie. The end result is one of Pixar’s finer accomplishments of recent years. One that fits nicely into the studio’s acclaimed repertoire of entertaining and touching films.

The world of Onward is littered with the usual races of high fantasy: elves, goblins, trolls, dragons, and so on. But in this world’s history, as the art of magic proved hard to master, it eventually went by the wayside in favor of the accessibility of technology. So the present day of this world isn’t too dissimilar from our own, save for the fact that we have the aforementioned fantasy creatures in place of humans.

What once might have been brave warriors going into battle on their mighty steed are now your everyday, blue collar workers riding public transport. Magical creatures such as unicorns are now more akin to “pests” like raccoons or opossums, knocking over trash cans for food. And fearsome dragons are now common household pets.

It’s a fun premise that could have come off as a bit gimmicky under less capable hands. Thankfully, while certain other animation studios may have used the premise predominantly for gags and parody, Pixar has proven very reliable with keeping such things in check, and instead use their premises for the benefit of a story, as opposed to cheap laughs. And that’s as true here as ever.

The story revolves around two elf brothers: the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is the shy, awkward type, while Barley is something of a fearless goofball, and is obsessed with the magical past of his world (and the tabletop games it inspired). Their father Wilden passed away when Barley was very young, shortly before Ian was born.

On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a surprise from his late father. This particular gift was to be given to both boys once they were both over sixteen, and not even Laurel is sure of what it is.

It turns out this gift is a wizard’s staff. Laurel mentions that when her husband grew ill, he “got into some strange things,” and it seems the old magic of the world happened to be among those things. Along with the staff is a spell, created by Wilden, which will allow him to be resurrected for a twenty-four hour time period, so that he may see who his sons grew up to be. As Barley notes, a spell that powerful would need a catalyst, which Wilden has included with the spell and staff in the form of a rare Phoenix Gem.

Barley tries for hours to get the spell to work, to no avail. Eventually, Ian – longing to meet the father he never knew – gives it a shot, and it begins to work. Slowly but surely, the spell is bringing Wilden back to the world of the living. Barley busts in and tries to help his brother, but the distraction, along with Ian’s lack of confidence, ends up making the spell go awry. The Phoenix Gem is destroyed before the spell can finish, leaving Wilden only half-resurrected. And by that I mean only his lower torso has returned to the realm of the living, which ends in a kind of blue vortex where his upper half should be connected.

Ian loses face, seemingly botching his one chance to meet his father. But Barley recalls a quest from one of his tabletop RPGs (which, in this fantasy world, are based on historical fact) that tells of a way to claim another Phoenix Gem. And so, following Barley’s knowledge of the adventure, the brothers – with Dad-legs in tow – set out in Barley’s van “Guinevere” on a quest to claim the Phoenix Gem so they can complete the spell before the twenty-four hours are up, so that they can see their father. Meanwhile, Laurel is on her sons’ trail, trying to keep them out of danger, where she is eventually allied by “Corey” the Manticore (Octavia Spencer).

It’s actually one of the more touching premises of the Pixar library (which is saying something), and again, under less capable hands this plot may have floundered. If one were to judge Onward from its marketing, after all, one wouldn’t be at fault to think – with the brothers disguising the living legs of their deceased father as a person – that it was some kind of kid-friendly version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Had this premise been under the umbrella of certain other CG animation studios, an emphasis on gags may have turned it into just that.

What makes Pixar stand out is that – despite their whimsical premises – they always try to put story and characters at the forefront. They don’t always succeed, mind you (The Good Dinosaur happened), but their track record is second only to Studio Ghibli in the world of animated features. And Onward is one of Pixar’s better films in recent years, if maybe not quite on the top echelon of the studio’s works.

The subplot with Laurel and the Manticore could have been given an extra scene or two, as it often seems forgotten for long stretches of time. But on the plus side, the main story is consistently delightful. The film does a great job at making both Ian and Barley into relatable, sympathetic characters. Perhaps this is giving me a bias in favor of the picture, but I couldn’t help but see parallels with me and my oldest brother with Ian and Barley (Though my  brother is much smarter than Barley, and I’m not nearly as competent as Ian). The story revolving around these brothers just wishing to spend a day with a deceased parent is quite touching. Pixar has a strong track record when it comes to making their stories feel personal, and Onward feels among the most personal of all of them.

As stated, the main plot successfully takes advantage of the film’s setting and premise by merging a fantasy adventure with a road trip buddy movie to surprising effect. It’s delightful to see how the filmmakers weave these two genres together. You get the feeling that the folks at Pixar must’ve had some fun figuring out how a fantastic journey translates with contemporary life. It’s a lot of fun.

The animation, as you would come to expect from Pixar, is top notch. The contemporary scenery like gas stations and freeways may seem to subdue the fantastic elements of the movie somewhat, but that’s kind of the point. This is a world where magic only just exists anymore, it makes sense for the fantasy element to be underplayed, visually speaking. Though with that said, I still hope Pixar delves deeper into a fantasy world for a feature down the road, since it allows for endless possibilities that aren’t attached to a specific motif (think of how limited the world of the Cars movies feels, because it’s a limiting premise. Going full fantasy would remove such shackles entirely and could set the animators’ imaginations loose).

Point being that Onward is a captivating film to look at, even if it may not reach the peak of the studio’s visual splendor (that honor still probably has to go to Inside Out which, no surprise, featured Pixar’s most abstract concept). I do wish the character designs for some of the background characters and creatures would have received a little more love however, as it seems the elves are the only prominent fantasy race Pixar managed to make their own. Though extra credit in character design has to go to the final obstacle of Ian and Barley’s quest which, without spoiling too much, is one of the more humorous giant monster battles in movies since the Ghostbusters faced off with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.

Onward is a splendid film that further extends Pixar’s legacy of quality animated features. It tells a compelling story about brotherhood with its two memorable lead characters, and uses its unique premise to deliver both fun and emotion to great effect. Onward is another shining (Phoenix) gem in Pixar’s crown.

 

8

Frozen II Review

When Frozen was released in 2013, Disney had no idea what they had. What seemed to be planned as simply the “two princesses” Disney movie – with most of the marketing focusing on the comic relief – ended up being a worldwide phenomenon the likes of which Disney Animation hadn’t seen before. Disney found themselves unable to keep up with the demand for the merchandise surrounding the film, its songs instantly became iconic, and fans – adults and children alike – would dress up as the characters. It was a pop culture landmark whose impact was more akin to the likes of Star Wars than a Disney animated film.

It was an earned reputation as well. Frozen was a terrific movie that gained its popularity organically. Audiences fell in love with it, and through word of mouth, it continued to grow. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, its characters quickly became some of the most beloved in cinema history, and it connected with audiences around the world (being particularly popular in Japan).The world couldn’t get enough of it.

Making a sequel seemed to be an inevitability on Disney’s part, but thankfully, the studio didn’t simply churn one out as quickly as possible. While other animation studios these days green light multiple sequels immediately after a decent opening weekend, Disney didn’t pull the trigger on a sequel to its biggest homegrown hit for well over a year, and even then, it didn’t officially begin production until a few years thereafter.

After over six years with only two short films to tide audiences over, Frozen II has finally become a reality. Thankfully, it’s a sequel that’s well worth the wait. Frozen II brings back the iconic characters and provides musical numbers as beautifully infectious as those of the original, while simultaneously setting itself apart from its predecessor in some incredibly bold ways.

Frozen II is set three years after the original, though its opening moments take us back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood, where their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) tells the princesses how he became the king of Arendelle. When he was a young boy, Agnarr travelled with his father to an enchanted forest found far north of Arendelle. The forest was home to the spirits of nature: earth, fire, wind and water. This forest also served as the home of the Northuldra people, who lived in harmony with the magic of the forest. Under orders of the king, Arendelle constructed a mighty dam in the forest as a gift of peace for the Northuldra people. But the celebration was short-lived. During the festivities, something went wrong, and a battle broke out between the people of Arendelle and the Northuldra. During the fighting, the former king of Arendelle was sent plummeting off a cliff, while Agnarr was knocked unconscious.

The spirits, angered by the fighting, sealed off the forest with an impenetrable fog, and went into a deep slumber, thus trapping everyone already inside the forest, and preventing anyone else from entering. Luckily for Agnarr, a “mysterious voice” rescued him from the forest before the fog fell. He then returned to Arendelle as its new king. Agnarr ends his tale by warning Anna and Elsa that the spirits of the forest could reawaken, and should that happen, to expect the unexpected.

Fast-forward to the present (three years after the first film, and six years after Anna and Elsa’s parents died at sea). Elsa (Idea Menzel) is now the beloved queen of Arendelle, while her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is its equally-beloved princess. One day, out of the blue, Elsa begins hearing a mysterious voice calling out to her. The same mysterious voice that rescued her father all those years ago. The voice seems to have a connection to Elsa’s magical ice powers, as she is the only soul in the kingdom who can hear it.

As the voice persists to haunt Elsa, it eventually draws out an inner power within her, and Elsa ends up reawakening the spirits of the enchanted forest. This results in a bit of chaos in Arendelle, with all traces of fire and water vanishing from the kingdom, while the movement of the earth and a powerful wind force all of Arendelle’s residents out of the kingdom. The citizens of Arendelle (or “Arendellians” as we learn) take refuge with the magical trolls, whom inform Elsa that she must travel to the enchanted forest, calm the spirits of nature and uncover the secrets of the past in order to restore peace to her kingdom.

Anna, ever the adventurer and always willing to stand by her sister, accompanies Elsa on her journey, as does Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and lovable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who now has a permafrost body to prevent him from melting. Lead by Kristoff’s reindeer-drawn sled (good ol’ Sven has to be involved as well), the group make their way to the enchanted forest, where Elsa’s magic allows them to penetrate the fog to enter the woods. But the group quickly realize they can’t get back out unless Elsa accomplishes her mission and permanently frees the forest.

While the characters are as endlessly likable as ever, and the film remains a musical, Frozen II is a very different movie from its predecessor. Not only does it meld into action-adventure territory, but it also takes on a darker, more mature tone (while younger children can still very much enjoy it, Frozen II seems to acknowledge that the kids who watched the original are now six years older, and the narrative has fittingly grown up alongside them). While the first film may have been a fairy tale, Frozen II doubles down on fantasy logic in both its narrative and world-building.

At first glance, these elements may make Frozen II seem alienating to fans of the original. But by being so radically different from its predecessor (while still, of course, retaining the characters we all grew to love), Frozen II is not only following the path of all the best sequels, but is actually the perfect kind of follow-up the original Frozen could have asked for.

Frozen has become so popular and so engrained in pop culture over the years, that we might actually forget why it gained that status in the first place. Frozen was all about bucking trends. It celebrated the things we love about Disney movies, while dismantling the cliches and outdated elements. It turned Disney archetypes into fleshed-out characters, who dictated the direction of the story, instead of being directed by it.

Disney could have gone the easy route with this sequel, and simply repeated the same beats as the original. It would have been easy money, to be sure. But by going in a very different direction narratively and tonally, it’s not only a brave, intelligent sequel, but it’s also – in a roundabout way – keeping in spirit with its predecessor by being different than it.

Sequels so often get derided for being “more of the same,” but Frozen II should be viewed as one of those rare sequels that justifies the artistic merits of franchises. Just because we’re revisiting a familiar world and characters doesn’t mean we can’t be given new stories. And Frozen II very much provides us with a different story.

Admittedly, this sequel is a bit more plot-focused than the original’s character-driven narrative, with the opening moments delivering the necessary exposition, but this isn’t an inherently negative thing. The only issue is that after we get the backstory with Agnarr retelling the events of the enchanted forest to Anna and Elsa, we immediately enter the brunt of the plot with Elsa beginning to hear ‘the voice’ as soon as we’re reintroduced to her. It’s not a big deal, and the film definitely delivers more than a few great character moments, but the story may have benefitted further if we got a few such moments before jumping into the plot. But that may be my love of the original film and its structure talking.

The characters are as likable as ever. Anna and Elsa remain Disney’s strongest lead characters, and Frozen II still wisely puts them and their sisterhood at the heart of the story, albeit in a very different way than the first film. While the original had Anna in the protagonist’s role trying to connect with Elsa – who more or less filled the role of antagonist – here both sisters are on the adventure together. This allows the film to showcase their interactions more, which brings more out of both characters.

Olaf still serves as the film’s primary comic foil, but again, in a different way than what the first film did with the character. In the original, Olaf was determined to experience Summer, being gleefully naive to how the hot Summer weather would affect a snowman such as himself. Here, Olaf’s character arc is all about growing up. Being the de facto ‘kid’ character of the lot, Olaf is – in his own words – dealing with “the increasing complexity of thought that comes with maturity.” While Olaf’s newfound inquisitiveness is mostly played for laughs, it does echo the film’s overall themes of maturity.

Kristoff does admittedly get something of the short-end of the stick in the storyline, but I suppose not everyone can get the same time in the spotlight. Kristoff’s story arc this time around is his attempt to work up the courage to propose to Anna, with every such attempt falling apart in one way or another. It’s a fun sub-plot, and it does get to showcase Kristoff’s character (including giving him a proper musical number all to himself, after Jonathan Groff got shortchanged in that area in the first film), but he is left out of most of the film’s third act.

Another great thing about Frozen II is how it handles its returning characters. It’s often easy for sequels to turn their characters into exaggerations or parodies of themselves, or to seemingly hit a reset button and undo the developments their characters went through in their first go-around. But Frozen II instead enriches the key players of its franchise. The film acknowledges how the the characters have grown from the events of the first film, while also staying true to their personalities.

Elsa, for example, may no longer be ruled by the fear of her powers, and is now willing to embrace the world and people around her. But Elsa still has a solemn and melancholic aspect to her, and still showcases a vulnerability and social awkwardness that is unique in movies, Disney or otherwise. Anna, meanwhile, is more worldly after everything she went through in the first film, but she’s still a bit naive when it comes to personal interactions (which humorously plays into Kristoff’s fumbling proposal attempts). This character growth goes back to what makes Frozen II such a special sequel: it doesn’t try to simply replicate the original, but instead builds upon it.

There are a few new characters introduced once the story enters the enchanted forest, the most prominent of which being Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), a Lieutenant who served Arendelle under Anna and Elsa’s grandfather who has been trapped in the forest ever since that fateful day. Another commendable aspect of Frozen II is how it so easily avoids the pitfall of so many animated sequels of overemphasizing new characters at the expense of the returning ones. The new characters who are present in Frozen II help enrich the world and story of the film, but they all play the roles they need to without overstaying their welcome, as opposed to needlessly playing roles that are already covered by the established characters (no talking sporks or swashbuckling cats in this sequel).

Frozen II is a visual wonder. While the first Frozen showcased snowy landscapes, Frozen II’s setting of the Northuldra forest is drenched in an Autumn pallete. There are a lot more Earthy-colored environments this time around, while Elsa’s ice powers, as well as the purple flames that emanate from the Fire Spirit, keep the hues of the original film intact. Between its gorgeous environments and many magical happenings, Frozen II is an astonishingly beautiful film. And much like the story itself, the art direction and settings distinguish this sequel from its predecessor. There’s not a moment in Frozen II that doesn’t look like a work of art.

The voice cast is every bit as enjoyable as they were in the first film, and remains among the best vocal cast of any animated feature. Josh Gad provides charm and warmth to Olaf without making him too cutesy. Jonathan Groff gives Kristoff heart and humor. And most notably, Kristen Bell and Idena Menzel are perfect in the roles of Anna and Elsa. Bell has a unique combination of heroism and innocents to her performance that brings Anna to life, while Idena Menzel’s unrivaled ability to capture both vulnerability and raw power in her voice make her the one and only person who could’ve voiced a character as unique as Elsa.

Also new to the cast is Evan Rachel Wood as Anna and Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna. Though her role is primarily in the film’s opening flashback, she proves to be another stellar addition to the Frozen cast.

That brings us to Frozen II’s songwork. Frozen II is the first musical sequel in the entire Disney canon (those straight-to-video cash-grabs of the 90s and early-naughts were created by third-rate subsidiaries of Disney). As such, Frozen II had a unique uphill battle. Making a sequel to a beloved film is a difficult enough endeavor in itself, but how do you follow-up something like Let It Go?

I’m happy to say that, somehow, songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have done the impossible and created a selection of songs that match those of the original film. The songs of Frozen II vary wildly, from its opening lullaby sung by Queen Iduna (“All is Found”) to an 80s power ballad (Kristoff’s aforementioned musical number, “Lost in the Woods”). Every major character gets a new song, all of them catchy and infectious in the best way. We even get an ensemble (“Some Things Never Change”). And perhaps knowing that recreating Let It Go simply wouldn’t be  possible, Frozen II avoids having to deal with said comparison by giving Elsa two musical numbers, thus making them more likely to be compared to each other, as opposed to their indelible predecessor. While all of the songs of Frozen II are great, it’s no surprise that Idena Menzel’s vocals make both of Elsa’s songs (“Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself“) the biggest highlights.

As a fan of the original film, I was excited for Frozen II, but admittedly a little cautious. How exactly could Disney (or anyone) make a worthy follow-up to a film that was such a pleasant surprise to begin with? It turns out any such cautions were misplaced. Frozen II retains the spirit of the beloved original, and much like said original differentiated itself from Disney traditions, Frozen II differentiates itself from its predecessor. The beloved characters and terrific songwork return, but the story, its structure and its tone are unique to itself.

Frozen II is an ideal sequel, then. One that creates a wonderful continuation to the stories of the characters audiences have grown to love, while telling a story of its own. Frozen II is the best sequel of recent years, and is such a strong and unique film of its own that I find this to be a rare instance of me wanting to see where Anna, Elsa and company can go next with a third chapter in their story.

Frozen II could have been an easy sequel that road the coattails of the original. Instead, Frozen II follows its own advice, venturing into the unknown to create the best animated sequel since Toy Story 2. Frozen has become so endearing that we can’t – ironically enough – let it go.

Frozen and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Review

2019 has certainly been a busy year for Disney, and that is notably true of the Mouse House’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics. Dumbo and Aladdin both received live-action makeovers, while the Lion King got its own Not-Actually-Live-Action-But-Disney-Likes-To-Pretend-It-Is remake. Capping off the quartet of theatrically released Disney remakes of 2019 is a sequel to one of Disney’s earlier efforts in adapting one of their animated features of the past to a contemporary live-action film, 2014’s Maleficent.

You may be wondering if Maleficent needed a sequel. And the answer is no, it didn’t. Nor do I believe there was any particular demand for one. But that’s okay, not every movie has to be “necessary” to be enjoyable, and even though Hollywood still likes to believe there’s a stigma to sequels (because how dare these movies make them money?), there have been plenty of great movie sequels over the years. While Maleficent: Mistress of Evil may not be among those great sequels, it is a serviceable one that is on par with its predecessor. So if you liked the first Maleficent, then Mistress of Evil isn’t going to take anything away from that, even if it doesn’t necessarily improve on anything. Unnecessary it may be, at the very least, Mistress of Evil’s standing as a sequel to the 2014 film at least means it’s a live-action adaptation of a Disney animated film that isn’t a direct remake. So that’s something.

Appropriately set five years after the first film, Mistress of Evil sees its titular Dark Fairy, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), having become something of the adoptive mother of Aurora (Elle Fanning). Although Maleficent cursed Aurora into an eternal slumber, she ended up breaking her own curse with “true love’s kiss” (the mother/daughter spin on the material actually being pretty novel). Despite her good deeds, all people remember of Maleficent’s story is that she cursed Aurora, and she is still feared among many kingdoms.

Maleficent has crowned Aurora queen of the Moors (the magical forest realm), and soon enough, Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) from the human kingdom of Ulstead, proposes to Aurora, and the two are set to be wed. Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent’s raven-turned-manservant, informs the dark fairy of Aurora’s betrothal, which doesn’t sit too well with her. Maleficent still doesn’t believe in love, though she wants Aurora to be happy more than anything, and so agrees to meet the king and queen of Ulstead.

That’s right, the sequel to the movie centered on one of Disney’s most iconic villains is about meeting the in-laws. Strange as it may sound, it’s a fun premise for a fairy tale, even if Shrek 2 beat it to the punch by fifteen years (though considering there’s not really been another such fairy tale since, and this film centers around a villain, it’s still covering pretty fertile ground).

As you might expect, things don’t go so well. Though Phillip’s father, King John (Robert Lindsey) is alright, his mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), has a not-too-subtle prejudice against magic folk. Ingrith brings out the worst in Maleficent, who then goes into full villain mode. When it appears Maleficent has placed a sleeping curse upon King John, she is exiled from the kingdom, and Aurora’s faith in her mother figure is shaken. The king’s curse – and the framing of Maleficent – are Queen Ingrith’s doing, as she plots to start a war with the Moors. Suffice to say, meeting the in-laws escalated quickly.

The plot is a bit silly, but it’s well-intentioned. On the plus sides, Aurora is finally given the opportunity to develop as a character (it only took the sequel to the remake to get there). The performances – particularly of Jolie, Pfeiffer and Fanning – are memorable. And as stated, it’s kind of nice to see these familiar characters featured in a different story than that of Sleeping Beauty. On the downside, the plot takes a largely unnecessary detour when Maleficent goes into exile and encounters the remaining Dark Fairies of the world, and as much as this series has tried to subvert Disney traditions, both Maleficent and now Mistress of Evil feature the Mouse House’s oft criticized “evil parent” archetype more prominently than perhaps any of the studio’s animated features ever did (I speak not of Maleficent, but of King Stephen in the first film, and Ingrith in this sequel).

It’s that aforementioned sub-plot with the other Dark Fairies that is the film’s biggest undoing. Not only does it give us even more characters in an already crowded movie, but it also takes too much time to explain things that really aren’t necessary. For example, we find out that Dark Fairies are descendants of the Phoenix, and that Maleficent is the most powerful Dark Fairy  because she’s a direct descendant of said flaming bird monster. Like, why is that important? Why do we need an explanation for why Maleficent is the most powerful fairy? Why can’t  her magic just be the strongest and that’s all there is to it? And why a phoenix? Given the Maleficent character’s long-standing association with dragons, why not make it a dragon since the first Maleficent movie already denied us of that?

Am I getting sidetracked? Not any more than the movie itself.

The other big problem is, like the first movie, the visual effects still leave a lot to be desired. It’s not bad CG per se, but the creatures just look artificial. They don’t meld into the picture with the live actors, they stand out as visual effects in a garish way. This time around, Aurora’s fairy godmothers; Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville) no longer take on their human forms, so we’re stuck with seeing their uncanny valley versions throughout the entire movie. And a new character – a hedgehog-like creature called Pinto – joins in the proceedings, along with a mushroom creature. They’re obviously supposed to be filling the role of cutesy animal sidekicks, but the cuteness never shines through the glaringly artificial CG. It’s a similar complaint I have to the Harry Potter series, where every magic creature is unpleasant to look at. Though I suppose the creatures here aren’t all outright grotesque, so I guess the Moors are a step up from Hogwarts.

With all these complaints, however, I admit I still had some fun with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Again, the performances are good and it’s nice to see the characters working in some form of new material. And even when the Dark Fairy sub-plot enters the realms of gobbledygook, it’s at least the kind of needless nonsense I can have fun with (I actually got a kick out of the whole Phoenix stuff, pointless though it may be).

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is not a great movie, or a particularly good sequel. But y’know, if you liked the first film, Mistress of Evil does give you more of what you want. And I don’t think it’s any worse than its predecessor, either. It’s a perfectly serviceable sequel for its fans, if maybe not anything more. But hey, that certainly beats whatever Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was.

 

5

Maleficent (2014) Review

Disney has, in recent years, been leaning heavily on remaking their back catalogue of animated classics into live-action features. And while some of these remakes have been good (The Jungle Book, Aladdin), overall they beg the question as to why such remakes are necessary. If there’s one category of film that’s going to prove timeless, it’s Disney animated films, they never really needed to be remade.

Though credit where it’s due, the first two live-action Disney remakes of this decade were not only spread out by four years (compare that to 2019, in which we’ve seen four live-action Disney remakes in one year!), but they also attempted new spins on their source material more so than being straight-up remakes.

The first, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, while ultimately a bit of a jumbled mess, attempted to be something of a sequel to the original Disney animated film (or the Lewis Carol story itself). The second, 2014’s Maleficent, was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but from the perspective of its iconic villain.

Given how marketed Disney has made their villains over the years – and with Maleficent probably being the one most promoted as the “big bad” of Disney – the idea of making a movie entirely built around Maleficent made sense. Unfortunately, such a concept also risked changing the image of Maleficent entirely. It was unlikely that Disney would make a film about an entirely evil character, despite the fact that had been Maleficent’s appeal for decades (she was certainly more of a reason to watch Sleeping Beauty than Princess Aurora ever was). And, well, seeing as we rarely see the character marketed as Disney’s ‘big bad’ anymore, I think it’s safe to say that 2014’s Maleficent changed the general outlook on the character.

That’s not innately a bad thing. But it is the product of the film not so much being “Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s perspective” so much as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that paints Maleficent in a more sympathetic light, if that makes sense. She still looks the part of Mistress of Evil with her long horns, black robes, and penchant for being surrounded by green fire, but Maleficent never really feels like a villain in her titular movie, which kind of seems to defeat the purpose of building a movie around Maleficent to begin with.

That’s not to say that the film is a total bust, with its first half hour actually doing a pretty good job at setting up its story, and Angelina Jolie melds into the role of Maleficent with ease. But once the story enters the territory of Sleeping Beauty proper, the film feels rushed and cluttered. And some of the visual effects, while not bad on a technical level, can look too artificial.

The film begins by explaining that Maleficent is a dark fairy from the Moors, a magical forest realm that neighbors a human kingdom. When she was young, Maleficent befriended a human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, and the two eventually fell in love. But as they grew to adulthood, the two also grew more distant as they become more entrenched in their respective kingdoms’ differences.

The king of the human kingdom wages war on the Moors, but is mortally wounded in the ensuing battle by Maleficent. The dying king is returned to his kingdom, and declares that whomever can kill Maleficent will marry his daughter and become his successor. Stefen (Sharlto Copley), having grown consumed by his ambitions, takes advantage of the opportunity and his history with Maleficent. Stefen finds the dark fairy, and feigns to rekindle his friendship/romance with her. Stefen’s deceptions are dark, to say the least, as he drugs Maleficent with a sleeping potion with the intent on murdering her. Though memories of his friendship with Maleficent prevent Stefen from completing the dark deed, and decides to cut off Maleficent’s wings and takes them back to the kingdom as a trophy. Believing Stefen has successfully killed Maleficent, the dying king passes his crown down to him.

Meanwhile, Maleficent awakes in shock and horror at the loss of her wings. The depth of Stefen’s deception and cruelty have turned her into the ruthless ruler of the Moors, who transforms the once colorful forest kingdom into a place of dark magic, with walls of deadly thorns preventing humans from stepping foot in the Moors again.

Maleficent keeps an eye on the human kingdom by means of her raven-turned-manservant, Diaval (Sam Riley), who spies on Stefen’s kingdom for the dark fairy. One day, Diaval returns to Maleficent with news that King Stefen and his queen are to have a christening for their child, and Maleficent sees this as an opportunity to exact her revenge for Stefen’s betrayal. Maleficent appears at the christening, where she places (an oddly specific) curse on Stefen’s child. On her sixteenth birthday, Princess Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, resulting in a death-like sleep. Stefan pleads for mercy, and Maleficent retorts by adding the caveat that the curse can only be broken by “true love’s kiss” which Maleficent doesn’t truly believe exists.

To protect the princess, she is sent away to live in hiding with three fairy godmothers: Knotgrass the red fairy (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit the green fairy (Juno Temple), and Flittle the blue fairy (Lesley Manville). During the next sixteen years, the fairies (disguised in human form) raise Aurora (Elle Fanning), but the lost princess has an additional guardian in the form of Maleficent, who keeps a watchful eye over the girl for…some reason. Pretty soon, Maleficent grows fond of Aurora, and tries to undo the curse, to no avail (she said only true love’s kiss can break it, and she meant it). Meanwhile, Stefan’s paranoia of Maleficent’s curse drives him insane, to the point that he forgets the very reason he feared the curse to begin with.

Unfortunately, it’s the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora that ends up being the movie’s downfall. It’s a nice twist on the Disney fairy tale to center the story on a mother/daughter relationship, but the problem is said relationship just never feels believable.

Again, I stress that the first half hour (which covers up to about the point the curse is placed) is actually well done. It does a good job at painting both Maleficent and Stefan as tragic figures in different ways. Maleficent’s downfall comes across as sympathetic, and Stefan’s betrayal – as well as his reason for slipping into insanity – resonate well. And you have to commend the filmmakers for treading some seriously dark ground for a Disney movie (the scene in which Stefan drugs Maleficent and steals her wings is alluding to exactly what it sounds like). It certainly succeeds in making Maleficent sympathetic despite her villainous actions.

The problem with Maleficent as a film is that, once the storyline veers into the familiar Sleeping Beauty territory, it seems to thrown too many elements together all at once, and rushes through key plot points, to the point that some characters, such as Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaites) end up becoming bit players, and just like the original, we barely get to know Aurora as a character (you’d think rectifying the character’s presence would be a key reason for a remake). Hell, even Maleficent’s transformation into a dragon – probably the most iconic imagery of the original animated film – is undone and rushed through, and she’s not even the one who fills the dragon role in her own film (it’s one of the many forms she changes Diaval into during the film).

Maleficent is a two-plus hour film trapped in an hour and a half running time. The strong pacing and character moments are present in the first half hour, but the rest of the film feels so rushed going through the paces, that the story and characters end up suffering. The key victim, again, is Maleficent and Aurora’s relationship, which is supposed to be the heart of the movie. I’m still not sure why Maleficent decides to watch over Aurora as a kind of secret godmother. And her growing love for Aurora, which should be the crux of the film, just doesn’t resonate.

Then there are the visual effects. The visual effects of the film have a strangely garish look to them. They don’t look bad or outdated, just… fake. The Moors is home to many a fairy tale creature (the tree guys are pretty cool looking), but they all really stand out as visual effects. I know people love to belittle CG as looking “fake” in movies, but that’s often an overblown complaint fueled by nostalgia for the pre-CG days. But in Maleficent, I can understand the complaint a bit. It doesn’t look technically bad, just overly artificial. And the less said of the three fairy godmothers and their creepy uncanny valley, the better.

These Disney live-action remakes are so commonplace today, and stick so closely to the originals, that you sometimes forget that the earlier efforts were aiming for new spins on the material. And while Maleficent ultimately stumbles, it can be appreciated for what it attempted to accomplish through one of Disney’s most iconic villains.

 

5

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

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.

 

6

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!”

 

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