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 cute kitty at her/his cutest. If they sold plush toys at the theater, you’d want to get one on the 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 superb.

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 and is just a strong as Nathan Lane was in the ’94 TLK.

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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Penguins

penguins movie

Penguins are my favorite non-human animal. I never get tired of watching penguins. So, yes, I love this movie. I would love Penguins even if it sucked but, happily, it does not suck.

Disney has, for decades, told animal stories by constructing narratives around the filmed actions of nature’s creatures. This storytelling involves giving certain animals names and relating some of their actions to human behavior. This format was a staple of the old Disney TV shows and now is reprised in Disneynature films.

In Penguins, the central figure is a penguin named Steve. He migrates across Antarctica to breeding grounds where he builds a nest out of rocks and finds a female partner named Adeline. They incubate eggs, birth chicks, feed the youngsters and introduce them to the world and its dangers.

Penguins is filled with glorious shots of penguins on land, on ice and in the water. The way they pop up out of water always tickles me whether I see it at Sea World, the St. Louis Zoo or in this film. Their almost circular leaps as they move through water (similar to those of dolphins) are also fascinating and something not observed when they are in captivity.

Ed Helms of The Office and The Hangover movies is the film’s narrator. Along with his straight reading of the script he provides several ad-libbed reaction sounds to on-screen events.

How did the filmmakers get so close to obtain this footage? Action shots of the crew run alongside the movie’s closing credits, showing the men and women and their equipment as they record the activities of the penguins and their predators.

Like many of the best movies for young kids, Penguins has a short run time: just under 80 minutes. It is a film that makes me happy.

Now if Disneynature would just make a film about my second favorite non-human animal, manatees, I would be even happier.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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 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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zootopia

Zootopia looks great and has spectacular voice work, but it lacks the magic that would elevate it to the top rung of Disney animation work. Zootopia’s plot exposition and message causes it to fall short in the pure fun and laughter departments. But don’t let those slight qualms stop you from seeing it.

Judy Hopps (Gennifer Goodwin) is a bunny whose farmer parents (Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake) encourage her to set her personal ambition bar low and settle. Judy, however, wants to move to the city of Zootopia and join the police force.

Zootopia looks like a cross between Shanghai and the Capitol in The Hunger Games. This fauna universe is divided into zones that include a rain forest, a desert and a wintry world, as well as the downtown area. It’s a city where all the animals coexist peacefully because the predators have somehow mellowed out.

After Judy becomes an officer, her boss Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) limits her work to issuing parking citations. She does her best, writing hundreds of tickets each day. On the street, she encounters a nemesis, soon to become an ally, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a fox.

Zootopia has two main messages. #1. Don’t get in a hurry when you visit the license office—especially in Zootopia where the DMV is staffed by sloths. (See trailer at top of this post.) #2. You can overcome stereotypes and be who you want to be. Judy, a bunny, is typically too small to be a cop. And Nick, a fox, turns to a life of deception because, well, foxes are scheming hustlers.

The film’s story centers around a group of predators who have reverted to their violent ways and are being caged on the edge of town. What’s causing them to go back to their instinctive states? Judy goes to work to solve the mystery and Nick pitches in.

Since this animal world is a metaphor for our human society, I wonder who the suddenly-wild-and-dangerous-again predators are supposed to represent. I don’t dare speculate here for fear of offending a particular race or ethnic group.

A few more of the talented voice cast members who populate Zootopia are Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk, Octavia Spencer and, as a singing Gazelle called Gazelle, Shakira.

Zootopia, like the best animation efforts of the past few decades, has fun stuff for adults as well as kids. I suggest you view the film as a light amusement and don’t worry about messages or metaphors. Zootopia is not an all-time great, but it’s pretty good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Maleficent

Like many of the fairy tales we heard as youngsters, Disney’s Maleficent contains some plot elements that are head-scratchers.

We meet the young Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) when she’s an innocent girl fairy, living an idyllic life of flapping her wings and flying around an apparent paradise. She shares this happy universe with a number of creatures that look like refugees from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies.

She forms a friendship with a human from the neighboring land of kings and queens, young Stefan (Michael Higgins). As they grow into teenagers, they continue as chums. But when they become adults, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie with cheeks sharp enough to slice bread) and Stefan (Sharlto Copley, who we met in District 9) see their relationship take a strange turn.

The dictionary definition of maleficent (“doing evil or harm; harmfully malicious”) gives a clue that things may not always continue to be goodness and light for her.

The king of Stefan’s home kingdom leads an ill-fated invasion of the fairyland and his guys are turned back thanks to Maleficent’s power. The king declares that whoever gets Maleficent’s wings will be king when he dies. Stefan, her old friend, sneaks in and manages to do the dirty deed and gains power while Maleficent loses some, but not all, of hers.

She places a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora (the remarkably cute Elle Fanning) that dooms her to go to sleep at age 16 and not be awakened until she gets a kiss that comes from true love. Aurora is raised in the woods by 3 fairies, characters that should be charming and memorable, but somehow lack those qualities.

Maleficent is always hovering nearby, monitoring the child’s growth. She has her sidekick Diavil (Sam Riley) alongside, turning him into whatever creature she fancies. He could pass for Orlando Bloom’s less good-looking younger brother.

Eventually, most of the characters live happily and others get by as they can. As mentioned, some of the things that happen are head-scratchers. For instance, just when we think we have Maleficent figured out, she changes her mind—like with that curse thing.

Maleficent is a good-not-great movie, with many wonderful and amazing images. Director Robert Stromberg’s lengthy movie resume is mainly as an effects guy. He does an excellent job of mixing live action by human actors with computer-generated effects.

But the big question remains: Is this movie too scary for little kids? I say yes. As an overprotective dad, I might’ve rated Maleficent PG-13. But it has been deemed PG. This ensures that a good number of little kids will have nightmares. Thank the MPAA, mom and dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monsters University

Happy news! Pixar has made an excellent movie. Monsters University reclaims the magic. After the messy Cars 2 and the merely passable Brave, MU does what the best Pixar movies have always done: tell a great story in an entertaining way.

Does Monsters University break new ground? No. (Well, there are a few new monsters.) But two of Pixar’s most likeable characters, Sulley and Mike, return to the screen in a prequel (or, if you prefer, “origin story”) to 2002’s Monsters, Inc. Voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, respectively, the duo is revealed not to have been chums from the beginning. In fact, there were hard feelings and resentments between the two. But circumstances in the film dictate that they team up to reach a goal.

Both wash out of Scare School at the U (for different reasons) and seek redemption in the school’s annual Scare Games. They make a deal with the stern headmaster Miss Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) that if their team wins the Scare Games, they’ll get back into Scare School.

The Scare Games are clever and entertaining. Will these underdogs and their fellow MU misfits make it through to the finals? Will they find the redemption they seek? Think you can guess what happens? Maybe not.

MU is a cute and funny film that will make you happy. Whereas Monsters, Inc. was a bit more about Sulley, Monsters University leans more toward Mike and his challenges. MU has a final act that takes them from the University all the way to the story that is told in Monsters Inc.

Regarding Pixar, Disney and branding: 2012 was confusing. Brave, a Pixar branded film looked like a Disney branded film whereas Wreck-It Ralph (officially a Disney film) had the story, look, voice-acting virtuosity and whimsy that have been Pixar trademarks. That branding may be further muddied later this summer when a Pixar-looking movie called Planes appears as a Disney nameplate movie. Disney, of course, owns Pixar.

Regarding John Goodman’s distinctive voice: My daughter was working at a busy retail establishment during last holiday season here in St. Louis. She said she heard Sulley’s voice and looked around. There was John Goodman standing in her checkout line.

At the end of every Pixar film, a list of babies born to production staff during the making of the movie is evidence of the time and effort that goes into making such a film. Sadly, at the screening I attended the film cut off before getting that far into the credits. That’s one reason to see it again. Another is that Pixar movies, for me, tend to improve with repeat viewings. Monsters University is rated G.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is a stroke of genius. The movie and its entry into the entertainment marketplace are beautifully conceived.

Congrats to director Sam Raimi for assembling a movie that pays respectful homage to the 74-year-old classic The Wizard of Oz, without infringing on its copyright. Oz the Great and Powerful is pure escapism for young and old alike.

Congrats to Disney for producing a film that will generate sequels, theme park rides, video games and much more. Disney stock, trading near all-time highs recently, may soar to greater heights in the wake of Oz’s release.

Wicked has sparked new interest in the Oz saga during its 8 year run on Broadway (and via road companies in the US and abroad). But a Wicked movie won’t come until 2014 at the earliest. So Oz the Great and Powerful gets to reap all the Oz love for now.

From its seemingly low-tech black and white opening credits to its similar color closing credits, Oz the Great and Powerful brings one delightful element after another to the screen. Many scenes, characters and costumes seem fresh and new, filled with color and creativity.

But, on closer inspection, we note the similarities to The Wizard of Oz. The movie begins in black-and-white and transitions to color after a tornado. Characters from the “real life” part of the movie appear in the fantasy part, though in different guises. There are witches (good and bad), munchkins, even flying monkeys. (You’ll love flying monkey Finley, voiced by Zach Braff.)

James Franco, it turns out, was a terrific choice to play Oz. The character refuses to take himself too seriously until circumstances demand that he shoulder some responsibility. Franco is obviously having fun with the role.

The witches are portrayed with wholesome sexiness—nothing sleazy, but certainly some eye candy for the guys. Mila Kunis shows up in black leather pants, wearing an outrageous red hat with an enormous brim. Her sister witch is Rachel Weisz whose claw-like black and white manicure gives a clue to her disposition. Michelle Williams looks positively angelic in white.

The film’s climax reprises yet another bit that we’ve enjoyed since 1939 in that other Oz movie. It may seem that I’m regarding OTGAP almost as a remake when I mention that the two main things that are missing from the original The Wizard of Oz are Dorothy and classic songs. (Speaking of derivative, a couple of the witchy catfights may make you think of Harry Potter versus Valdemort faceoffs.)

Despite its just-a-bit-too-long runtime of 2:10, Oz the Great and Powerful maintains a good pace and loses its energy only a time or two. Don’t wait for the DVD or Netflix. This is a film to see in the theater, in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find. Don’t miss it!