The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King Poster

Director: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson

Cast: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan, and Alfre Woodard

Like with most good things, there comes a point where the end must eventually come. The Lion King live action remake is officially that moment in terms of these cinematic cover versions of classic Disney animated films, where the wheels have finally come off. And this is coming from a guy whose power went out on the hottest day of the year, so he took his family to the movies for some sweet air conditioned relief. In other words, I was an easy audience to impress.

But impress it did not. Jon Favreau returns to direct his second of these live-action remakes after the 2016 hit The Jungle Book, a film that kind of jump started this whole remake-craze at Disney. I guess it’s also fitting that he also helms the one that starts its descent.

The Lion King opens with a live-action rendering of the opening scene from the 1994 animated film. It is starkly identical to the original, where animals all gather around Pride Rock to view the presentation of the newly-born king to be, Simba set to the excellent song, “Circle of Life.” This opening does succeed at programming the audience for nostalgia, and it is quite impressive how exact the animators were able to recreate this scene with life-like CGI creatures. Bringing back James Earl Jones to voice Mustafa serves a comparable purpose, setting the table for what could be a nice mix of old and new. Unfortunately, this similarity to the original does not end here, to the point where I’m not sure exactly what screenwriter Jeff Nathanson is really responsible for beyond that of the original screenplay from 1994. The Lion King sticks to the script more than any of these remakes have to date.

The plot of The Lion King remains Hamlet, Disneyfied. The brother of the king, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), desires the throne to the pridelands for himself leading him to hatch a plan to murder the king and his son, steal the queen, and usurp the throne. Simba (voiced first by JD McCrary and later by Donald Glover) escapes Scar’s minions; however, he blames himself for the death of his father and leaves the pridelands. In exile, Simba embarks on a journey of self-discovery eventually discovering the true meaning of duty and courage.

Ultimately, this film sounded like a slam dunk. Beloved story, cutting edge special effects, creative director, and some of the greatest talents of their generation. Ultimately, all of these talents are wasted including the two hugest entertainers on the planet, Donald Glover and Beyoncé (who voices the adult Nala, Simba’s childhood friend). Arguably the most impressive piece of entertainment to come from this movie is actually off-screen: The companion soundtrack The Lion King: The Gift, curated by Beyoncé. The music of the original film written and performed by Tim Rice and Elton John was always the keystone to that film, so arranging for the musical giants of Glover and Beyoncé made a lot of sense. That being said, their efforts on screen do not really deliver, while as a soundtrack off-screen they actually do. Aladdin, released earlier this year, did a far better job of creating a more sonorous experience even with arguably lesser musical content.

All in all, The Lion King is very rote, stale, and unimpressive (aside from the visual effects, which are stunning). The decision to play it so safe with this film is a real disappointment and the result is a clunky film with no personality. The only highlight comes in the form of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan’s portrayal of Timon and Pumba, Simba’s meerkat and warthog companions. They represent the only segment of the film that attempts to find some fresh territory by playfully riffing on the nostalgia of their characters (and some other Disney favorites) while also truly entertaining the full audience from young to old.

Timon, Simba, and Pumba
Timon, Simba, and Pumba in the new live-action remake of The Lion King

This is also one of Disney’s more frightening and violent films in terms of younger viewers, and the decision to make it live-action only emphasizes the violence and danger. The hyenas are also more disturbing, which is a head scratcher because they are laughing hyenas. The hyenas do not even laugh; this is low-hanging fruit. While an attempt was made to add a layer of humor to their characters, one of which is voiced by comedian Keegan-Michael Key, that decision felt like an afterthought. An afterthought that should have been obvious when Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg did such a good job voicing two of them in the original animated film.

Hyenas
I’m not laughing…

The Lion King is a forgettable rehash that could have been a wonderful update on a classic. When these films do not bring something new to the table, it is hard to see them as anything but a shallow attempt to take our money with familiar branding. And that may have been their goal all along with these films, but if you want me to have a Hakuna Matata attitude about these things, at least make me feel the love. C

The Lion King is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 58 minutes.

Man Caves, Movies, and Muscles!

Man Caves

The decisive right of passage for any adult male is the inevitable construction of the “man-cave.” Though its name suggests prehistoric connotations of Neanderthal-like quality wherein a man might exhibit all of his stereotypical gruffness, the truth of the matter is that a man-cave is a place in the home devoid of any and all purpose other than comfort. It is not for cooking, not for showing, not for entertaining, not even necessarily just for a man. The man-cave, conceptually, should be nothing more than an immersion of interests without the pressure of “fitting in” with the rest of the home’s décor.

I have recently begun the formidable undertaking of transforming my basement into a lair worthy of The People’s Critic’s name. Obviously, its design is based on gloriously accentuating a single focal point that is as large a projected movie image as possible. Comfy seats, a big screen, carpet, popcorn machine, mini-bar – everything was in place for the laziest and most epic screening room I could imagine (and afford). Once that task was accomplished, however, a funny thing happened. The lonely treadmill that was the previous, albeit ignored, focal point in the basement suddenly yearned for a new purpose and I guiltily sitting on my comfy leather couch watching The Dark Knight Rises for the fifth and time climbed aboard with a zeal for exercise previously unknown to me. My heart pumped as Batman and Bane battled it out; my adrenaline kicked in to high gear as Bruce Wayne fought to escape The Pit…and then there’s Catwoman! The next thing I knew, exercise and movies were deeply intertwined; free-weights, a jump rope, and a rowing machine suddenly joined the once lonely treadmill as the man-cave evolved into a theatrical gym with no membership costs.

The Nautilus T614 Treadmill is my recommendation.

In the past seven months, I’ve worked out to 35 complete movies. While many are action/adventure films, others are dramas, comedies, westerns, and sci-fi/fantasies. I don’t say all of this to be pretentious or to brag. Rather, I want to establish some element of credibility before providing a list of the top 10 movies to work out to, since I am not a person who is known for or claims to know much about exercising.

The List:

A note before I begin. All of the films on my list I had seen prior to watching them while exercising. Unless it stars Jason Statham (which several of them do), I find the experience is much richer if you’re familiar with the film ahead of time.

10.  The Transporter, The Transporter 2and The Transporter 3 – 3 movies? I know, I’m cheating right out of the gate, but they do star Jason Statham. Still, these movies are made for this kind of list and while not necessarily “good,” (especially in the acting category – That’s right Transporter 3, I’m talking to you) they are the perfect series to show your treadmill who’s boss.

9.  Cloud Atlas – What? That’s right, this nearly three hour Wachowski sibling brain scramble of a film is one of two films on this list that if seen REQUIRE at least a second viewing, so why not set the treadmill to “Walk in the Park” and hit those free weights every time Tom Hanks shows up as another character.

8.  The Departed – One of the best films you can watch anywhere, but it’s the great use of music that earns it a place on this list.

7.  Rambo First Blood: Part II – I resisted the urge to cheat again and include First Blood, but really this is the Rambo movie to see, but avoid Rambo 3 in all circumstances.

6.  Death Race – Jason Statham returns to the list in a remake of the 1975 camp classic, Death Race 2000. This one is worse than the original and yet much better for the purposes of this list! Lots of heavy metal, explosions, cars racing, and Ian McShane.

5. The Dark Knight Rises – This is the one that started it all for me. So you want to be Batman? This movie is the Rocky III of the Dark Knight series. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just know Batman ain’t in fighting shape; he’s a little worse for ware, which of course leads to several training montages that allow YOU to train with Batman himself!

4.  The Wolf of Wall Street – This is probably where I lose my woman audience. Like The Departed, Scorsese fills this movie with great music choices, which I think is key to a good work out movie. It’s also a party on film and a bit of a man’s movie, but with a 3 hour running time, it’s not easy to find time to watch it.

3.  Mulholland Drive – When I listed Cloud Atlas, I mentioned there are two films on this list that REQUIRE at least a second viewing; this is the second one. Certainly one of David Lynch’s finest achievements, this bizarre Hollywood mystery offers so much to interpret, it is easy to get caught up in it and lose all track of time. Beware, Lynch originally planned Mulholland Drive to be a television show, but when that deal fell through, he rewrote it as a film.  He used some footage already shot, thus he has specifications for aspect ratio and volume. If you can’t meet the volume requirements, the movie might be too quiet to watch while using any noisy equipment.

2.  No Country for Old Men – Certainly one of the finest films ever made. This dark, intense allegory for violence is beautifully filmed by the Coen Brothers and presents a film virtually devoid of score and music yet absolutely hypnotizing.

1.  Minority Report – Throw Minority Report on the screen and as the intensity builds, so will your muscle. This one was made in 2002, 5 years B.iP (Before iPhone), but watch how realistically Spielberg imagined some of the futuristic advances.

So there it is, a fun list to help make exercise less of a chore and more of an event. I included the full list of all 35 movies I’ve watched so far in the order that I watched them below. PLEASE consider adding to this list here or on my Facebook page!

The People’s Critic’s Full List of Workout Movies

  1. The Dark Knight Rises
  2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
  3. Magnolia
  4. Boogie Nights 
  5. 300
  6. The Departed
  7. Children of Men
  8. Royal Tenenbaums
  9. Death race
  10. The Transporter
  11. The Transporter 2
  12. The Transporter 3
  13. The Bourne identity
  14. Rambo: First Blood
  15. Rambo: First Blood Part II
  16. Sin City
  17. The Bank Job
  18. The Matrix
  19. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  20. The Avengers
  21. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
  22. This is the End
  23. Mulholland Drive
  24. Cloud Atlas
  25. Paul
  26. The Wolf of Wall Street
  27. Unforgiven
  28. Midnight in Paris
  29. Midnight Cowboy
  30. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  31. No Country for Old Men
  32. Minority Report
  33. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  34. King of New York
  35. Baby Driver

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man Far From Home poster

Director: Jon Watts

Screenwriters: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers

Cast: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, and Cobie Smulders

Spider-Man: Far From Home is the follow up to 2017’s Sony/Marvel Spider-Man reboot, Spider-Man: Homecoming. However, this time around it is also the first glimpse at “life-after-Endgame” in the Marvel universe, which gives it a little more gravitas.

We rejoin Peter Parker (Tom Holland) post-second-snap as the world [*Spoiler Alert for those Spider-Man fans who somehow have not seen Endgame yet] mourns the loss of lead-Avenger, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). We learn that the five-year period between Thanos’s vaporization of half of the world’s population and then the fateful reversal of that action where vaporized humans were restored has been lovingly coined as “The Blip.” We also learn that those returning from the Blip have not aged while those who did not vanish are five years older. This is very bizarre to the youth at Mid-Town High School as the vanished are forced to start the grade over that they vanished from, while the younger students they knew in middle school are now a grade above them. It’s a psychological field day!

Peter is ready to return to life as a kid and take a break from saving the world (and the neighborhood). His class is embarking on a class trip to Europe, and he sees this as the perfect time to make his feelings clear to MJ (Zendaya). The only thing standing in his way is that dorky little Brad Davis (Remy Hii), who did not blip, is now hunky, handsome, older Brad Davis, and he’s into MJ as well.

But it all can’t be wine and roses because this is a Marvel movie! We discover that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) have been investigating strange seismic activity in remote parts of the world only to witness a mysterious new character, known as Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) battle and slay a vicious otherworldly beast. Fury instantly takes a liking to Mysterio who is from an alternative dimension of Earth where these creatures (known on his Earth as Elementals) exploit the elements of earth, water, wind, and fire until they ultimately deplete the planet (cue Captain Planet!) They destroyed his Earth and he is determined to not let them destroy ours. As you can guess, the next seismic disturbance is in Italy, exactly the place where Peter and his class are first visiting on their class trip leading Fury via Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to enlist Spider-Man in plans with Mysterio to save the planet from destruction. Can’t a kid get a break?

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a lot of fun, and for my money is the finest Spider-Man movie of them all. This could be recency bias, but this film is neck and neck with Sam Raimi’s celebrated 2004 film Spider-Man 2. The first hour gets to breathe as a teen comedy, joyously following Peter’s conflicted path of pursuing MJ and thwarting Brad all the while avoiding Happy and Nick’s attempt to draw him into the fight against the Elementals.

The second hour meets the superhero quota of action and spectacular visuals. Director, Jon Watts is developing a visual style with these films, emulating the John Hughes teen comedies with Homecoming, but now seeming more comfortable building his own brand with Far From Home. One particular scene of purposeful disorientation for the characters and the audience is handled quite masterfully.

Now, I’ve been purposefully vague regarding several of the main events of this film because like the best of the Marvel films, Spider-Man: Far From Home has some tricks up its sleeves. Tricks that I would compare to those in one of my other favorite Marvel sequels, which will remain nameless so not to spoil anything (curious folks can click this link). I will say that Mysterio is a welcomed agent in the MCU; a mostly forgotten character who was completely ignored by all of the other film iterations of Spider-Man, but is damn near brilliant to include in today’s era of technology. Gyllenhaal is also excellent as Mysterio’s alter ego Quentin Beck, and the treatment of Mysterio/Beck, while different from the comics in many respects, is actually quite faithful to his character; they even nailed the costume. I still have my Mysterio trading card from the 1991 Marvel Universe Series 2 set.

Mysterio Trading Card
1991 Marvel Universe Series 2 Mysterio Card
Shot of Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio
Gyllenhaal as Mysterio in Spider-Man Far From Home

I sat grinning like an idiot through the first hour of this film because I was just so pleased that after all Spider-Man has been through cinematically, it’s culminated in something that just hits the mark so well. The second hour manages to do the business of big summer blockbusters without losing too much of the steam it builds in its first act. It also succeeds at carrying the franchise to the next phase, whatever that might be, by shifting some things around that will no doubt become vital to the ongoing saga of the Marvel films. One of these things is of course buried after the credits, so be sure to A) See Captain Marvel before you see this film, B) Be up on your Spider-Man film history, and C) stay through the credits of Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Spider-Man: Far From Home gives off a sense of things being in flux, which is precisely the right tone this film needs to have moving into Phase 4 of the MCU. More importantly, this movie is just a pleasure to watch, especially if you’re a Spidy fan, so calm your ‘Peter Tingles,” and get out there and see it! A-

Spider-Man: Far From Home is rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes.

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 Poster

Director: Josh Cooley

Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, and Christina Hendricks

When Toy Story 4 was announced, I was one of the first voices to express that this will be the sequel that nobody needed. I will now eat those words, as Toy Story 4 is as creative, delightful, and enjoyable as its predecessors, perhaps even a top 3 Toy Story film.

Toy Story 4 starts out in full awareness of its arrival nine years after the previous installment. Clearly, there is no expectation that a children’s film will have deep complex call backs to its previous franchise entries, but a series is a series. The film opens with a flashback from nine years ago that answers the burning question from Toy Story 3, “What happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts)?” This flashback serves as both a frame of reference for where this story is going as well as assurance that this is really the only thing you need to know about any of the previous films in order to move forward. That being said, we are then treated to a beautiful montage of events from the three previous films set to Randy Newman’s classic song “You Got a Friend in Me,” which is a nice touch.

We then move to modern day where Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are now the property of soon-to-be-Kindergartner, Molly. Woody has fond memories of his days with Andy, but he is now in full Molly-mode working with Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) to run playtime with all the toys. Things get a little weird when Molly brings home a toy she made at school out of glue, googly eyes, a pipe cleaner, and a spork, whom she has named Forky (Tony Hale). This is the first time the Toy Story films have really ever delved into the mythology of what makes a toy anthropomorphic, but the movie does more to confuse that question than answer it. Anyway, Forky, assembled from trash more or less, believes he is just that, trash, and while Molly loves him, Forky wants nothing more than to find the nearest garbage can and jump in. These scenes are hilarious by the way, and casting Tony Hale was ideal! During a road trip with Molly’s family, Forky escapes prompting Woody to chase him down and bring him back to Molly.

What follows is an adventure much different from any of the previous films. For the first time, the toys are out in the world away from the familiarity of toy stores, playgrounds, and childhood bedrooms. This change of scenery is refreshing and revitalizing for the characters and the story in general. The Toy Story films are far from stale, but opening up the environment to the world at large offers a breath of fresh air that could keep this franchise going for years to come.

In their exploits we visit carnivals, antique stores, campgrounds, and the open road, all of which offer their own flavor of fun, humor, and heart.

Toy Story 4 does fall into this curious trend Disney and Pixar have perpetuated involving adding really creepy stuff in the midst of otherwise very palatable family fare. This time in the form of super creepy ventriloquist dummies. These things look like Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy doll mixed with Jimmy Nelson’s Danny O’Day and with a dash of the killer dummy from the 2007 film Dead Silence. Bottom line, to quote Forky, “They are terrifying.” I mentioned in my review of Aladdin from earlier this year that there’s a strange fixation by Disney for including brief unnecessary moments of nightmare quality imagery. WTF?

Image of the Benson dolls in Toy Story 4.
The new stars of your nightmares!

Anyway, thankfully, the creep-factor is easily mitigated by highly effective comedic relief. The best of which comes from the reunion of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as two sewn together carnival prizes with less than delicate plans of action.

Speaking of new characters, there are quite a few, which does impact the screen time given to old favorites dramatically. Most of the familiar characters including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to an extent take a backseat to Woody and the new crew. Fortunately the newbies are a blast, but that doesn’t take the sting out of seeing so many other characters on screen for such a short time.

All in all, Toy Story 4 is a surprisingly solid entry in the series. The change of atmosphere along with the addition of some really fun new characters gives it some edge. And while you won’t be a blubbering, bawling, wailing mess like so many of us were at the end of Toy Story 3, you will still want to grab a tissue or two for the inevitably sentimental final act that pulls hard at the voice box and heart strings. B+

Toy Story 4 is rated G and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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