The Lion King (2019) Review

The Lion King (2019) movie posterSynopsis
Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover) is the prince of the Pride Lands. When his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) dies in a tragic accident, Simba flees until his responsibilities to his pride draw him back.

Review
As a kid, I watched a lot of the animated The Lion King, not nearly as much as Aladdin or Toy Story, but still quite a bit. Of the three live-action remakes Disney released this year, this was the one I was most worried about. How can you add to an already amazing story? The answer is apparently you can’t. I mentioned in my review of the live-action Aladdin that the remakes of the more recent films remain largely the same as the animated versions and this film is the biggest culprit of that. While the film itself runs an extra half hour longer than the 1994 version, the story and characters are exact mirrors of their animated counterparts. One of my criteria for a remake being worthwhile is if it brings something new. Usually I’m referring to the story or characters but this movie does bring something new: showcasing the realism possible with animation today.

I hesitate to call this film “live-action” because it is all computer generated. If a movie tries to use a lot of CGI and it’s not great CGI, it can take the audience out of it. However, despite every character being CGI, it never once took me out of the experience. Everything seemed so real and life-like I’m very impressed. This film will have you questioning whether or not you are watching live animals and not computer generated ones. While this being seeped in this level of realism is breathtaking, it unfortunately comes with some downsides. For one, it is really difficult to tell the lion characters apart. Like the animated version, the characters have different shades of fur but this time, they are so similar, it can be hard to discern them apart, particularly during any kind of fast movement. Another downside is the CGI animals are also less expressive than what 2D animation provided their predecessors. Animal faces naturally don’t have the same range of displaying emotions as human faces. Cartoon can circumvent this pitfall but such a realistic looking movie such as this cannot get around this shortcoming so easily.

I thought The Lion King was GOOD 🙂 Much like the Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin live-action remakes, this remake follows the story of the animated version very closely, even more so than the others. That being said, it is a good story and this film does show off beautiful life-like animation. But the lack of individuality prevents it from receiving my same rating as the original.

Trailer

Cast & Crew
Jon Favreau – Director
Jeff Nathanson – Screenplay
Hans Zimmer – Composer

Donald Glover – Simba (voice)
Beyonce – Nala (voice)
James Earl Jones – Mufasa (voice)
Chiwetel Ejiofor – Scar (voice)
John Kani – Rafiki (voice)
John Oliver – Zazu (voice)
Billy Eichner – Timon (voice)
Seth Rogen – Pumbaa (voice)
Alfre Woodard – Sarabi (voice)
Florence Kasumba – Shenzi (voice)
Keegan-Michael Key – Kamari (voice)
Eric Andre – Azizi (voice)
JD McCrary – Young Simba (voice)
Shahadi Wright Joseph – Young Nala (voice)

Aladdin (2019) Review

Aladdin movie posterSynopsis
With the help of the magical Genie of the lamp (Will Smith), Aladdin (Mena Massoud) becomes a prince to impress Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Meanwhile, the royal vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is also trying to get his hand’s on the magic lamp to use Genie’s magic for his own nefarious purposes.

Review
I’ve been feeling conflicted about these live-action remakes Disney has been releasing these last few years and plan to release in the foreseeable future. On one hand, I enjoy seeing these wonderful animated classics realized and interpreted into live-action versions of themselves. On the other, most of them are so beloved that it will be hard to top the originals for most audiences. For me, I grew up on the 1992 Aladdin, and is so ingrained in my history as a cinefile that I highly doubted this remake would do anything to surpass it. However, not one to dismiss a film before I watch it, I went into the theater with an open mind and ended up leaving pleased.

One thing that Disney has been nailing (mostly anyway) about these remakes are the leads. Firstly, Naomi Scott is absolutely stunning as Princess Jasmine. She updates the character to be more than just a damsel looking to escape the confines of the palace. Scott’s Jasmine is confident and determined, characteristics seen in her animated counterpart but Scott takes that foundation and elevates Jasmine to whole new heights. Her song, “Speechless,” perfectly captures Jasmine’s spirit and is nailed by Scott. “Speechless” is bound to become a classic Disney song belted at the top of their lungs by many.

The titular character is played by Mena Massoud. While he doesn’t capture the same spirit of his character the same way Scott captured the character of hers, Massoud plays the part well; he captures the charm of Aladdin well enough. He also has good chemistry with his co-stars, especially Scott and Will Smith. I’d say his biggest weakness is he doesn’t have the same singing chops as Scott or Smith. Songs like “One Jump Ahead” or his parts in “A Whole New World” lack the same energy of Brad Kane, Aladdin’s singing voice actor in the animated version.

Leading up to this film’s release, there had been a lot of talk as Will Smith as Genie. Robin Williams famously voiced Genie in the animated version and brought his unique energy and comedy to the character. Smith smartly didn’t try to emulate Williams. Instead, he played Genie in a very Will Smith way, creating a different kind of Genie that worked within the context of the film. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Smith doesn’t become the characters, the characters become Smith. Smith’s Genie is still larger-than-life and zany but doesn’t have the pizzazz of Williams’ Genie. Instead, Smith’s Genie is infused with Smith’s hip-hop and brand of comedy you’ve come to know and love over the years. While it garnered some criticism when he was announced to be playing the character, Smith’s Genie, like Williams’ before him, is one of the most entertaining and exciting aspects of this film.

I don’t bring up a film’s production design much in my reviews but dammit was this film gorgeous. The streets of Agrabah were filled with all sorts of vivid colors. Most of the time here is spent following Aladdin as he travels and runs through it. Another viewing just to pick out more details in the streets and bazaars would be worth it. Then the palace is even more extravagant. The architecture and set design is unlike any other. Last but not least are the costumes. Like the rest of Agrabah, they are bright and lavish. Jasmine’s outfits in particular are dazzling and truly fitting of a princess.

As for the film’s villain, Jafar left me wanting. Marwan Kenzari wasn’t bad in the role, he just wasn’t the right fit for it. He doesn’t have the menace the animated Jafar is known for. Like Jasmine, Jafar’s backstory and character was expanded on but unlike Jasmine, his changes don’t add much to the character, only seeming have been added to make a scene in the latter part of the film work better. Kenzari’s Jafar simply lacked the iconography that made the animated Jafar such a great villain.

Like the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, and as this year’s The Lion King live-action remake appears to, Aladdin follows the animated source material pretty closely. Jasmine and Jafar are given more backstory and Genie gets his own love interest in Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia, played by the humorous Nasim Pedrad, but if you’ve seen the Disney Renaissance version, then you’ll know exactly every story beat and exactly how the story plays out.

I’ve noticed a trend in these Disney live-action remakes: remakes of older films, such as Dumbo or The Jungle Book, don’t stick so closely to the story of the animated versions they are remaking. But for remakes of more recent films, such as Beauty and the Beast and this, they stay more faithful the the characters and story. I’ve said that for a remake to justify its existence, it needs to provide something new, either with the characters, story, or both. For example, Dumbo, tried to tell a similar but fairly different story as the 1941 Dumbo, or Maleficent told the story of Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s perspective. As my feelings on these vary, at least they did enough to warrant their presence. Aladdin, while enjoyable, doesn’t do enough to properly answer the question “why?”

I thought Aladdin was GOOD 🙂 I had mixed feelings about one of my favorite Disney animated movies being remade but I went in hoping for the best nonetheless. Even though it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the 1992 animated classic, this film still manages to be entertaining. And really, for a remake of a film that is so dear to me, that’s the least I could have hoped for.

Trailer

Cast & Crew
Guy Ritchie – Director / Screenplay
John August – Screenplay
Alan Menken – Composer
Benj Pasek – Lyricist
Justin Paul – Lyricist

Mena Massoud – Aladdin
Naomi Scott – Jasmine
Will Smith – Genie
Marwan Kenzari – Jafar
Navid Negahban – Sultan
Nasim Pedrad – Dalia
Numan Acar – Hakim
Alan Tudyk – Iago (voice)
Frank Welker – Cave of Wonders (voice)

Dumbo (2019) Review

Dumbo (2019) movie posterSynopsis
A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer. (via IMDb)

Review
Dumbo, Walt Disney’s fourth animated feature, is a beloved film. It tells the story of a baby elephant who is ridiculed for is enlarged ears but learns to embrace his differences and gains the confidence to be himself. When it was announced that this cherished classic was going to be remade with Tim Burton at the helm, I thought he was the best director to bring everyone’s favorite baby pachyderm to live-action. I was mistaken in my assumption.

Until my recent rewatch of the 1941 original, I forgot how bright and colorful the film was. Vivid watercolors brought the world to life. Towards the end of the film is the famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence. This psychedelic scene is what I remembered most about Dumbo and why I believed Burton was a perfect fit for the remake. However, looking back at the original, as well as Burton’s past filmography, the styles couldn’t be more different. Burton didn’t stray away from his usual visual style so the colors were very neutral and muted. Compared to the source material, it’s a stark contrast.

If you don’t remember, Walt’s Dumbo clocks in at 63 minutes. One reason why it was able to have such a comparatively short run time is because it completely focuses on the titular Dumbo, maintaining a minimal list of side characters. Burton’s take can’t decide if it wants to put the spotlight on Dumbo, elephant trainer Holt Farrier (Collin Farrell), or his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). This lack of focus creates a lack of cohesion. No one character feels fully developed. And in a sense, that doesn’t make Dumbo’s own movie about him. Rather, he is used more as a device to move the story along.

With any remake, there is should be a fresh take on the source material or expansion of the story. Burton opts for the latter. He moves the second half of the movie away from the circus and to an amusement park run by Michael Keaton’s mustache-twirling entertainment mogul VA Vandevere. This creates even more complexity in the story, and attempts add depth to Danny DeVito’s character, making the story even less focused.

I should probably at least talk about some of the things I like before you think I’m eviscerating the film. Even with not knowing who exactly to focus its attention on, it does tell its story through Milly and Joe. This works well because it allows the audience to see and experience the awe of a flying elephant through a child’s point-of-view.

Dumbo, along with the other CGI animals, all look fantastic. Burton does have an eye for grandeur, so both the circus environment and Vandevere’s amusement park, aptly called Dreamland, feel big and boisterous. Despite my feelings about Burton’s style for the film, his style was well suited to make an elephant fly and the environments feel fantastical.

I thought Dumbo was OK 😐 I don’t mean to compare it to the 1941 original so much but when Disney’s goal is explicitly to adapt their animated classic into live-action, it’s hard not to. And when you compare the two, there really is no comparison. I do appreciate Tim Burton’s effort to add to the original story and adding his own style to it. Unfortunately, in doing so, he removed much of what makes the original so timeless and revered.

Trailer

Cast & Crew
Tim Burton – Director
Ehren Kruger – Screenplay
Danny Elfman – Composer

Collin Farrell – Holt Farrier
Nico Parker – Milly Farrier
Finley Hobbins – Joe Farrier
Danny DeVito – Max Medici
Michael Keaton – VA Vandevere
Eva Green – Colette Marchant
Alan Arkin – J. Griffin Remington
Roshan Seth – Pramesh Singh
Deobia Oparei – Rongo
Sharon Rooney – Miss Atlantis

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

Beauty and the Beast (2017) movie posterSynopsis
Belle (Emma Watson) takes her father’s place as the prisoner for the Beast (Dan Stevens).  The Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the spell that has been placed on him, his castle, and its inhabitants.

Review
Disney is currently going through a phase of remaking its animated films as live action films.  There have been a few of their lesser (although no less loved) classics already made and now they are stepping up to remake one of their most popular films, one that even holds the honor of being the first animated film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  Disney’s previous live action remakes have gone in several different directions.  Maleficent retold Sleeping Beauty’s tale from the titular fairy’s point of view, whereas last year’s The Jungle Book, told a similar story to their 1967 classic while incorporating more of the original book’s source material, making it feel new yet familiar.  Where does Beauty and The Beast stand? Well, knowing that their Disney Renaissance film is such a well known and well loved film, it follows very closely to the original. Maybe a little too close.

Beauty and the Beast‘s biggest strength comes from its cast.  Emma Watson, to no surprise, is an absolute gem.  Her Belle is every bit as gentle yet strong as her animated predecessor.  Watson mentioned many times in interviews that Belle means a lot to her on a personal level and that love for the character really shines through.  Not only that, she has great chemistry with Dan Stevens, who plays Beast, which seems like a silly thing to say since Beast is a CGI character. However, Stevens’ emotion is still felt through the computer animation, leading to several touching moments throughout the film.

Besides Watson as Belle and Stevens as Beast, I thought the other characters were well cast also.  Luke Evans’ experience in theater made him a perfect fit as Gaston.  He brings the same charisma we’ve come to expect from his animated counterpart.  Josh Gad’s short and stout stature fit the character of LeFou perfectly, and I’m sure his experience as Frozen’s Olaf helped with the musical numbers as well. Kevin Kline was a more composed, less village-crazy-man incarnation of Maurice, Belle’s father, than the 1991 version.  Ian McKellen embodied the character of Cogsworth flawlessly. While Ewan McGregor’s French accent is a little dodgy, it never bothered me too much and he was still fun.

What surprised me the most about this film was how humorous it was! The original had plenty of laughs, sure, but I don’t remember it for its comedy.  This time, however, there were multiple times the entire theater would burst out laughing.  It definitely kept the mood light.

The set and costume design for this movie undeniably gorgeous. The majority of this film takes place within Beast’s castle and the ornate designs and decorations give it a breathtaking appearance. Everything is extremely detailed and well thought out and designed. It all deserves some recognition, from the castle’s furniture and stone towers, to the characters’ 18th century outfits, even character designs for the living objects, such as Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts.

My biggest flaw with Beauty and the Beast is that it doesn’t expand on, or do anything new with, the 1991 classic. Instead, what it does do is fill in and clean up the story.  For example, Gaston is painted in more of a villainous light, Belle’s family is given more of a background, the movie’s timeline is tightened, and more is revealed about the Enchantress’ spell. Disney’s other live-action remakes they have done so far have each told their own story using characters we were acquainted with, albeit with varying success.  This film, on the other hand, hits the exact same beats and the characters go through the same motions as before.  In essence, all this film is what the 1991 Beauty and the Beast would look like with live actors.

I thought Beauty and the Beast was GOOD 🙂 If you are a fan of the Disney Renaissance classic, you will more than likely enjoy this remake since it follows it very closely.  However, that is also its biggest weakness, in that it simply fills in some story points but never does anything wholly original.  It does make up for it though, with fantastic casting all around and great chemistry between Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.

Trailer

Cast & Crew
Bill Condon – Director
Stephen Chbosky – Screenplay
Evan Spiliotopoulos – Screenplay
Alan Menkin – Composer

Emma Watson – Belle
Dan Stevens – Beast
Luke Evans – Gaston
Josh Gad – LeFou
Kevin Kline – Maurice
Ewan McGregor – Lumiere
Ian McKellen – Cogsworth
Emma Thompson – Mrs. Potts
Nathan Mack – Chip
Audra McDonald – Madame Garderobe
Stanley Tucci – Maestro Cadenza
Gugu Mbatha- Raw – Plumette
Rita Davies – Old Woman
Hattie Morahan – Agathe / Enchantress

Lightning Review: Godzilla

Godzilla (2014) movie posterSynopsis
When a drilling company accidentally awakens an ancient creature, Godzilla appears to stop it. But when humanity is stuck in the middle, what cost will the military go to stop the massive creatures?

Review
Have you ever walked out of a movie thinking “That wasn’t what I expected,” but in a good way? That’s how I felt about Godzilla. This is a movie where the title character/creature is used more as a backdrop for the story, rather than the central focus of the film. He is completely missing from the first third of the film, giving us time to get to know the human characters. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting considering the movie is named ‘Godzilla‘ but I felt this unconventional approach worked well. Bryan Cranston did great and is without a doubt the standout performance. The sound work was awesome. Not only with the sound of Godzilla but also with creating tension by getting softer or muffled or even no sound at the right moments. The action picked up in the last act and showed off some great visual effects. The monstrous fight that happened might be one of my favorite movie fights. Although the titular character gets the least screen time of anyone, Godzilla is an entertaining disaster movie that gets more fun as it moves along, finishing with an epic fight that will having you cheering at the screen.

Rating
3.5/5

Trailer

Cast & Crew
Gareth Edwards – Director
Max Borenstein – Screenplay
Dave Callaham – Story

Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Ford Brody
Bryan Cranston – Joe Brody
Ken Watanabe – Dr. Ichiro Serizawa
Elizabeth Olson – Elle Brody
Carson Bolde – Sam Brody
Sally Hawkins – Vivienne Graham
Juliette Binoche – Snadra Brody
CJ Adams – Young Ford Brody
David Strathairn – Admiral William Stenz

RoboCop Review

RoboCop (2014) movie posterSynopsis
In 2028, OmniCorp, lead by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), has revolutionized security around the world but has had difficulty bringing their products to the United States. When Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is seriously injured by a car bomb, OmniCorp takes the opportunity to create a product the people can get behind and transform Murphy into the cyborg RoboCop. What OmniCorp didn’t plan for was the strength of the human element still left inside Murphy.

Review
Remakes/reboots can be difficult to tackle. They can be done in one of two main ways: simply telling the same story but with a new cast or tell a whole new story using old characters. RoboCop does the latter and does so surprisingly well. There have been many remakes of iconic 1980s movies over the last several years, most have which have been sub-par. So imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed it! RoboCop manages to pay homage to the 1987 original, but still offers a fresh and updated take on the character.

One of the appeals of the original RoboCop was its exaggerated violence. Not just the violence itself but the fact there was so much that the film became a dark satire. This movie moves away from that and instead become more politically driven. The ethics of transplanting a human consciousness into a machine is a central theme here. It gets touched on a little in the original, more so in RoboCop 2, but it takes a backseat to the violence.

The pacing is drastically different, too. One of my biggest knocks against the 1987 RoboCop is we don’t get to spend much time with Murphy as a person since he transforms into RoboCop fairly quickly. However, this time we see Murphy interacting with his family and his partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams). I felt this was a stronger lead up to his transformation because allowed us to get to know Murphy before the whole “Am I Alex Murphy or am I RoboCop?” dilemma came into play.

Speaking of pacing, there was also much more time spent on his training than before. This RoboCop doesn’t start patrolling the streets until halfway through the movie. We get to see Alex adjust to his new status rather than just jumping head first into it. Again, this gives us more time to empathize with Murphy and what has happened to him.

RoboCop’s color scheme has been changed, and I actually like the new black color. His design is also much sleeker. Peter Weller’s RoboCop was very clunky, but Kinnaman’s can actually move and run. I think I am in the minority, but I like the new look better than the original. The original’s shiny gray metallic color scheme does make an appearance. There are also several other callbacks to the original RoboCop that I noticed, like the ED-209 looks identical to the one that stood outside OCP headquarters and the RoboCop theme could be heard (but I wish it was used more, the theme is pretty iconic). I was going to list all the references I picked out but there were so many I’m not even going to attempt it.

Micheal Keaton plays a good villain, but I’m not sure about how I feel about Raymond Sellars. For most of the film he seems like he is just a CEO who wants to make his company money, even if that means moving into morally gray areas. But in the final scenes he is all of a sudden supposed to be this bad guy who doesn’t have a conscious. It would have been better if we saw that side of him throughout the whole movie rather than just the end. Otherwise, his character at the end seems out of place compared to the rest of the film.

Honestly, I went into the theater fully expecting to be disappointed when I left. However, RoboCop is one of the better remakes/reboots I have seen in a long time. Part of its success stems from its ability to craft a new story while still paying tribute to the original. Rather than focus on over-the-top violence, this movie is concentrates more on ethics. The story gives us almost half of the movie to get to know Murphy and empathize with his situation. Sellars’ actions at the end of the film don’t fit well with his actions during the rest of the movie. I’m not much of a fan of remakes/reboots, but if more movies handles them the same way as RoboCop, maybe they would actually be something to look forward to.

Rating
3.5/5

Trailer

Cast & Crew
Jose Padilha – Director
Joshua Zetumer – Screenplay
Pedro Bromfman – Composer

Joel Kinnaman – Alex Murphy/RoboCop
Gary Oldman – Dr. Dennett Norton
Michael Keaton – Raymond Sellars
Abbie Cornish – Clara Murphy
Jackie Earle Haley – Rick Mattox
Michael K. Williams – Jack Lewis
Jennifer Ehle – Liz Kline
Jay Baruchel – Tom Pope
Marianne Jean-Baptiste – Chief Karen Dean
Samuel L. Jackson – Pat Novak
Aimee Garcia – Jae Kim
Douglas Urbanski – Mayor Durant
John Paul Ruttan – David Murphy
Patrick Garrow – Antoine Vallon
K.C. Collins – Andre Daniels
Daniel Kash – John Lake
Zach Grenier – Senator Hubert Dreyfuss