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.

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.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

PeteDirector: David Lwery

Screenwriters: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban

Disney’s gluttonous onslaught of reimagined live-action reboots hits a new milestone with Pete’s Dragon, a remake of the 1977 film of the same name. Just four months after the release of the monumentally successful Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon represents the first time the studio has released two remakes of its classic films in one calendar year! Still, as easy as it is to view these remakes as a withered corpse of lost inspiration dressed up as a gift to a new generation, I must put my snarkiness aside and admit that Pete’s Dragon is another solid entry on the remake roster.

Pete’s Dragon tells the story of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who while lost in the forest discovers and befriends a mythical dragon whom Pete names Elliot. Pete and Elliot live and thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for six years before Pete stumbles upon lumberjacks cutting deep into the woods near where he and Elliot live. When Pete is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence) the young daughter of one of the workers, she chases him into the forest and during the chase nearly falls from a tree and screams causing her father Jack (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) to arrive on the scene. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) accidentally knocks Pete unconscious leading them to take him to the hospital and in turn, abandon Elliot in the woods alone. Now apart for the first time in years, Elliot an enormous, green, furry fire-breathing dragon leaves the woods in search of his lost friend. Meanwhile Pete is invited to stay with Jack and Grace and discovers that Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have seen a dragon once long ago. Trouble brews as Elliot is spotted by Gavin who sees nothing but dollar signs if he can somehow capture himself a dragon!

Pete’s Dragon was directed by David Lowery, whose most notable film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) couldn’t be more thematically distant from this film. However, Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make family films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999, Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from 2015, or more recently Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. These films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors, and Lowery benefits from this, creating a beautiful film and a grounded fable with good performances. Also, the dragon is nicely realized here. In 1977 the limits of technology forced the dragon to be a hand-drawn cartoon inserted into a live-action film. Here the dragon is created with cutting edge CGI to make it feel more immersed allowing the narrative to not use the dragon as a distracting novelty, but a realistic presence resulting in a richer cinematic experience.

So given all of the classic films produced by Disney studios over the years, you have to wonder, why Pete’s Dragon? Is it the dated aspect of the original film? Could it be the popularity of Game of Thrones and its dragonesque motifs? Maybe it’s because it was a good candidate for Disney to show us another child victimized by the sudden and tragic death of parental figures after Cinderella (2015) and Jungle Book (2016)? Quite honestly, Pete’s Dragon may be the best candidate to benefit from a remake thus far. Lowery is the first to truly deviate from the source film’s major story points. Pete’s Dragon has more in common with King Kong or Free Willy than it does with the 1977 original, which was basically a goofy musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…with a dragon. Lowery casts a deep, fantasy-laden tone here; the film is more a sum of its parts than the original film’s more segmented feel. Additionally, the 1977 film is more obscure than Cinderella or The Jungle Book, and it received far more polarizing reviews than either of these films, making it ripe for a makeover. Still, while Pete’s Dragon was perhaps most worthy of a remake treatment, it is still a pretty safe movie in any regard. Plot points come fast and predictably, emotional turning points are crowbarred in manipulatively, and Bryce Dallas Howard once again wears unflattering clothing while facing off with enormous presumably extinct reptilian creatures. Any way you look at it, the previous remakes have been based on older and/or obscure Disney films. Next up, we have Beauty and the Beast in early 2017, which is neither old nor obscure, so the pressure’s on. B

Pete’s Dragon is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.

The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

IMG_5473
“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

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