The Lion King

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Cute cubs and cool tech. That’s what’s most impressive about the new version of The Lion King. And the voice work, particularly Seth Rogen and John Oliver.

The Lion King has been a gold mine for Disney. The original film in 1994 was that year’s 2nd biggest film behind Forrest Gump and the stage productions on Broadway and elsewhere have run for decades will still be performed when you and I are long gone.

So don’t ask why this new version was made. It was made because computer animators are ridiculously adept with natural-looking renderings. It was made because director Jon Favreau and crew did such a good job with 2016’s The Jungle Book remake. And it was made to allow a more contemporary cast of voices.

The 1994 version remains a classic. But the new telling of the same story provides a fresh take for fans of the original with new versions of The Lion King’s classic songs. For a new generation, this is their version.

The appearances and the movements of all the animals are stunningly realistic. At some points, this film resembles a Disney nature film. The baby lions Simba and Nala are cuter than your own cute kitty at her/his cutest. If they sold plush toys at the theater, you’d want to get one on your way out.

Regarding the voices: I missed Robert Guillaume’s wonderful work as Rafiki the mandrill from the original and Jeremy Irons’s menacing voice as Scar. Other than those characters, the new voice acting crew is does a nice job.

Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter are the voices of the mature Simba and Nala. John Oliver is Zazu, a bird. (If you watch his Sunday night HBO show, it’s weird to hear him without an occasional F-bomb.) Seth Rogen is Pumba the warthog. Billy Eichner as Timon the meerkat is just a strong as Nathan Lane was in the ’94 TLK. Hakuna Matata, indeed.

The great James Earl Jones is Mufasa in both versions. Couldn’t find anybody to replace him!

If the first version hadn’t been made in 1994, would this new version have the impact in 2019 that the original had? I think probably not. But that’s a discussion you can have in the car on the way home from the movie.

Then have it again in 20 years when the hologram version is presented in your family room with a whole new cast of voice actors. The Lion King, you see, has its own Circle Of Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dumbo

Dumbo poster

Where’s the magic? Where’s the delight? Where’s the fun? It’s not here.

Tim Burton’s live action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film Dumbo is lacking in the qualities that have made Disney films special. Burton’s Dumbo is just okay, not special.

Yes, the CGI version of the baby elephant with big ears looks real. When he flies, the depiction looks good. The technical aspects of Dumbo are solid.

Yes, the cast is star-studded. Max Medici (Danny Devito) is the owner of a struggling circus that plays small towns a century ago. Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is the circus performer returning from WWI minus a left arm. V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) is the Barnum-like showman who brings Medici’s circus to New York. Colette (Eva Green) is Vandevere’s girlfriend and star acrobat.

Yes, there are cute kids. Nico Parker is a charmer as Millie Farrier, Holt’s daughter. Son Joe Farrier is played by Finley Hobbins. (Mrs. Farrier is deceased—yet another Disney dead mom!)

Yes, there is a message about turning a perceived handicap into an advantage: Dumbo’s deformity gives him the ability to fly.

Yes, there is spectacle. The Medici circus, with its variegated cast of performers (animal and human), works hard to entertain in its tent and on the midway. When Dumbo’s extraordinary talent is revealed, the circus goes big time to Dreamland, a giant amusement area like Coney Island.

Yes, all the pieces are there. And yet, something’s missing. As one who grew up with Disney films and TV shows, I recall being emotionally invested in so many of their stories and characters. It didn’t happen for me with this newest version of Dumbo.

Interestingly, in the film’s production notes there is a quote from director Tim Burton in which he admits that as a kid he did not like the circus. To his credit, Burton’s Dumbo is not as gratuitously weird as his films sometimes are.

With live action versions of Aladdin (May 24) and The Lion King (July 19) in the pipeline, one can only wonder if they will recapture the Disney magic that the animated versions from the early 90s had.

 

 

 

 

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Lego 2

As surprisingly great as the first The LEGO Movie was, the latest LEGO movie, by comparison, is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not bad. It just lacks the magic that the first film delivered with its story, its songs, its characters and its surprises.

The story in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is less coherent than in its 2014 predecessor. The songs, while amusing, don’t come close to those in the earlier film. The characters Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) are back as the focus of the meandering tale.

Other voices you may know include Tiffany Haddish, Nick Offerman, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Cobie Smulders, Jason Mamoa (Aquaman!), Ralph Fiennes and Bruce Willis, among many more.

The interaction between the imaginary LEGO world and the real world is not quite as emotional as the live action bit in the first movie. (That segment with Will Ferrell was truly touching.) Maya Rudolph is the real-life mother as the narrative shifts back and forth between the two settings in this newest film.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is colorful and the animation is impressive. It will make you chuckle and it will make you happy. Just don’t expect to be blown away like many of us were by the first The LEGO Movie.

 

 

 

 

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

You need this movie. Mary Poppins Returns will make you smile. It will make you happy.

Unless you’re a hard-edged grouch. Or a person who thinks nothing could ever capture the magic of the original Mary Poppins. Hey, the new version brings some new and different magic.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Well, not often. Director Rob Marshall successfully brought Chicago and Into The Woods to the screen in this century, but the big movie musical is a rare bird these days. He was a natural choice to bring Mary back.

Mary Poppins Returns has trippy visuals, catchy songs and a pair of lead actors who are perfect. Emily Blunt in the title role blends the prim and proper Poppins temperament with a touch of whimsy. Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack delivers a thousand-watt smile and big time charisma.

Set in early 20th century London, the Banks kids from the original Mary Poppins are grown now. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three kids. (“Dead mom,” you know, has become a Disney trademark.) The children are cute but not sickeningly so. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, is unmarried and provides a vague romantic possibility for Jack.

The family is about to lose their house during an economic “slump” because Michael took out a loan and failed to pay it back. Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is foreclosing on as many homes as he can. Something has to be done to save the home! Of course, the nanny who mysteriously reappears plays a big role in getting the mission accomplished.

The film’s highlights are the fantasy segments and the songs. Blunt’s “Can You Imagine That” is an earworm. Miranda’s performance (with a company of dancers) of “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is a showstopper. It’s the song that will likely lead into intermission when the inevitable stage version appears. (Although the sight of all the lamplighters marching down the street carrying lit torches triggered a Charlottesville flashback for a brief second.)

The film has just enough of Dick Van Dyke to satisfy fans of the 1964 original Poppins film. Julie Andrews chose not to do a cameo. Her spot was taken by Angela Lansbury. Nonagenarians rock!

Meryl Streep’s turn as Mary’s cousin Topsy and the song she shares with the cast are less than great but her wacky upside down curiosity shop has strong possibilities as a future attraction at Disney parks. Topsy’s over-the-top Russian accent elicits a comment from Jack which may be an inside joke about Meryl’s proclivity to employ accents in her many roles.

Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat film for the whole family. (Rated PG.) If you can stand a little bit of goodness and light and joy and fun in your life, don’t miss it.

The LEGO Batman Movie

In a movie that’s more fun than funny, The LEGO Batman Movie centers around Batman’s (Will Arnett) relationships: With longtime villain The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), with Robin (Michael Cera), with Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and with Albert (Ralph Fiennes).

From all the live action Batman movies, particularly those directed by Christopher Nolan, we know that Batman/Bruce Wayne has an austere personality. Despite his wealth and luxurious surroundings, he is a private individual whose innermost thoughts are known to few.

The LEGO Batman Movie takes viewers inside Wayne Manor for a peek at Batman’s private life which includes an affinity for romcoms—one in particular. You may be interested to learn Batman enjoys eating Lobster Thermidor.

The film also touches on the rivalry between Batman and Superman (Channing Tatum) and a device Superman has that transports evildoers to the “Phantom Zone.”

The LEGO Batman Movie is ever kinetic with an abundance of energy and over-the-top effects including many explosions. As with 2014’s The Lego Movie, the depiction of characters both well known and unknown via Legos is exceedingly clever.

And, as with its predecessor, you don’t have to have spent time playing with Legos to appreciate The LEGO Batman Movie. Although, having watched my two sons and my grandson play with Legos for hours, I have a warm spot in my soul for these wonderful building blocks (and their accessories).

Whereas the earlier film ended with a heartwarming live action father/son interaction, the new release does not contain such warm and fuzzy emotion wrangling. The 2014 film exceeded expectations and delivered surprise after surprise. The LEGO Batman Movie does not outpace expectations but comes close to fulfilling them. As noted at the top, it’s fun if not overwhelmingly funny. (Although the four 12-year-old girls sitting behind me at my screening—and giggling often—might beg to differ.)

The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Walk

The Walk is a technical marvel. The reality created onscreen—that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are standing and a man is walking between them—is awe-inspiring.

Viewed on the IMAX screen in 3D—the recommend way to see this one—watching the recreation of Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) completing this real-life high wire walk is thrilling.

Back in the 60’s, Cinerama (with its 3-screens surrounding the viewer) was an immersive experience that caused some moviegoers to have slight motion sickness. Dramamine may not be necessary for The Walk, but if your acrophobia is acute, be prepared to be just a bit uneasy.

Surprisingly, The Walk also touches emotions. There’s the exhilaration of Petit and his crew successfully pulling off the stunt. There’s also the shared anguish we all feel for the buildings and their destruction on 9/11/01. Seeing the buildings standing tall in the distance during Petit’s narrations delivered from the Statue of Liberty recalls their prominence in the New York City skyline. It feels good to see the World Trade Center as it was before the attack.

Director and co-writer Robert Zameckis tells the story of a driven young Frenchman who plans and executes his amazing 1974 walk between the two buildings. Petit is a street performer who, at a young age, sees circus performers on high wires. He seeks guidance from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) a veteran of the high wire. His team of “accomplices” includes romantic interest Annie (Charlotte LeBon), Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and Jean-Louis (Cesar Domboy).

The best “true story” movies are the ones that create tension, anticipation and yes, suspense, even when the moviegoer already knows the outcome. A prime example is Apollo 13. The Walk is similarly successful in building up for 90 minutes to the big event, revealing the intense preparation and the recon work to scope out the buildings. In his 1974 walk, Petit was on the wire for 45 minutes. In The Walk, he is on for 15-20 minutes, but each moment, each step is fraught with perceived danger.

Go for the visual thrills, stay for the emotions. I dined at Windows on the World in the North Tower four months before the 9/11 attacks. I visited Ground Zero in Summer 2002. But even if you’ve never been to New York City, you felt the kick in the gut that the U.S. suffered that day. The computer-generated depictions of the towers in the film moved me.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star of The Walk. But the World Trade Center plays a major supporting role.

Inside Out

Okay, Pixar is back. They’ve made a great movie again. Inside Out has many things to like and will appeal to audiences of all ages. Unless you are a total curmudgeon, you will be charmed.

The concept, in case you’ve missed the zillion or so TV ads for the film, is a trip inside a young girl’s mind where her various personified emotions face off with one another. It’s a fresh expansion of the old “devil versus angel” bit (fighting for control of a character’s conscience) we saw in numerous mid-20th century cartoons.

Inside the head of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) reside Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Riley’s preteen life is jarred when her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) move from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Riley’s interior world features: a giant control panel where the five emotions interact, a huge repository of memories (each depicted by balls of various colors) and her islands of personality (representing family, hockey, goofball behavior, etc.). It’s a clever depiction of the many facets of thought that rule our brains.

Inside Out is funny early and late with touchy, feely stuff in middle and, naturally, toward the end. The film moves at an acceptable pace, though portions of the film’s middle section (when Joy and Sadness go deep into Riley’s psyche) become a bit tedious.

Among the voice actors, Amy Poehler as Joy is the film’s perfect anchor. Lewis Black as Anger takes full advantage of the many good opportunities to make his presence known. The others handle their roles adequately. Richard Kind gets silly while voicing Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.

The cynical voices inside my head are urging me not to succumb to the sappy sweetness and manipulative storytelling of Inside Out, designed to diddle with my softer emotional side. But those directives are being drowned out by the upbeat voices that are encouraging me to give in to the gooey, warm, fuzzy feelings Inside Out evokes. This cool head trip requires no drugs to get you high. Welcome back, Pixar!

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland should be a slam dunk. It’s Disney. It’s George Clooney. It’s Brad Bird (director). It’s nostalgia. It’s the future. But, like an errant jet pack, it goes off course.

Not to say that Tomorrowland isn’t entertaining. It is. But it could’ve been great. And, sadly, it’s just okay.

The concept has merit, but there’s just too much “business” going on and not quite enough real meat on the bones of this message movie. And, in case you don’t get the message, it is pounded into you: Yes, we have big problems in our world. But rather than complain about them, you should get busy solving those problems.

Frank Walker (George Clooney, with stubble) opens the film by talking about the future and how attitudes toward the future have changed since he was a kid.

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is shown attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair and showing off the jet pack he’s invented. Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes the device but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) helps deliver him (and the jetpack) into Oz, um, I mean, Tomorrowland.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is busted while trying to sneak onto the grounds at Cape Canaveral. She finds a cool pin among her personal effects when her rocket scientist dad (Tim McGraw) bails her out. The pin takes her to Tomorrowland.

Upon her return, she visits a collectables store and asks the clerks (Keegan-Michael Key and Katherine Hahn) about the pin, thereby setting in motion a sequence that echoes Men In Black.

With guidance from Athena, Casey meets up with Frank Walker and they begin their mission to get back to where they once belonged.

Tomorrowland bogs down on more than one occasion in preachy dialogue. And for a PG-rated movie, there are a couple of things that might freak out a small fry—such as when a little girl is hit by a speeding truck. Oh, she bounces right up, but the shock resonates.

For those of us who’ve made a few journeys around the sun, Tomorrowland comes off as idealistic pap. We’ve rolled our eyes at futuristic visions for decades.

For the younger, bright-eyed optimists of the world, this great big beautiful Tomorrowland is manna from Disney heaven. If your cynicism level is zero, you’ll eat Tomorrowland up like warm gooey butter cake.

The Boxtrolls

 

The Boxtrolls is the best looking animated film to hit theaters in years. A combination of labor-intensive stop action filming and post-production CGI has brought forth a movie that’s filled with images of characters and settings that are brilliant in every sense of the word.

We are 20+ years into the Golden Age of Animation, which began with Disney megahit musicals (Aladdin, Lion King), gathered momentum with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and hit light speed with Pixar’s Toy Story. After those fallow decades when, because of TV’s less demanding visual needs, animators did their work on the cheap, studios began to deliver strong product and earned huge returns.

As has been shown over and over during this Golden Age, good looks and technical advances help the cause, but ultimate success still rests on a good story. Strong voice acting helps as well. The Boxtrolls hits the mark on all counts.

Boxtrolls are weird little creatures who live beneath the village of Cheesebridge. They come out at night and salvage junk to use in their underground lair. Because they wear boxes (and can hide within them, like a turtle in a shell), they are called boxtrolls. They may remind you in some ways of the minions in the Despicable Me movies.

A young boy called Egg (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) mysteriously appears among the boxtrolls who raise him as one of their own. Egg leads the boxtrolls to their confrontation with Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) who is the town’s boxtroll exterminator.

Snatcher’s burning desire is to share in a cheese tasting with the town’s elite. He has, however, a cheese allergy and his physical reactions are displayed with hilarious effects.

Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of cheese connoisseur and leading citizen Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), helps Egg expose the true nature of Snatcher’s work and reveal the good side of the boxtrolls. Other voice talents include Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Tracy Morgan.

The Boxtrolls, co-directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, comes from the Laika production company, the outfit that produced Coraline and ParaNorman.

For fans of animated film, The Boxtrolls is a “must see.” All the creative work comes together beautifully in a movie that is filled with delights. Happily, the technology does not overwhelm the storytelling but, instead, enhances it. I’ll say it again: Brilliant in every sense of the word.