There is a lot of fairy tale logic in the original, animated The Lion King (1994). Some of it I have a problem with, some of it I accept, but all of it is painted over with gorgeous animation. But that storytelling style simply doesn’t gel with the hyper-realistic visuals of director Jon Favreau’s remake. Unlike certain other recent Disney remakes of animated classics, The Lion King (2019) suffers for not adapting its storytelling to the new presentational format.
When the remake was conceived, the intention was for the 100% computer-generated environment to look like a nature documentary (a genre Disney often works in under the Disney Nature banner), and that goal has been fully realized. The technological achievement of the film is unimpeachable, but the storytelling belongs to another movie. This disconnect is, for instance, clearly illustrated in the characterization of the main villain, Scar.
In 1994, Jeremy Irons bathed in the river of ham in the role of Scar, throne-usurper and brother to King Mufasa. He chewed the scenery, sang a terrific song, and went on to other over-the-top villain roles in the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. In 2019, Chiwetel Ejiofor takes over the role, and where Irons would preen and purr like a pantomime baddie, Ejiofor goes for a hard-edged psychological approach to make Scar frightening and restrained. The villain song, “Be Prepared”, signals this change. It’s my favorite song by far in the original, but the only one fast-forwarded through here; while not doing me any favors, this is a legitimate choice. The song appears in a truncated, militaristic rendition – exit the diva, enter the general.
But even as they create this more grounded Scar, the filmmakers make the critical mistake of showing him to be, frankly, as much of an idiot as the original, without the excuse of histrionic characterization. We are introduced to Scar as a lion of manipulative intellect; Scar says that between him and his brother Mufasa, he got the lion’s share of brains. But he’s delusional enough to think that his hyenas ravaging the Pride Lands make him a greater King than his brother. He throws the hyenas under the proverbial bus and gets eaten for it. And worst of all, he needlessly confesses to killing Mufasa when Simba is so deeply (and illogically) convinced of his own “guilt” of that crime. These are the moments that have always kept Scar from being a great villain, but at least in 1994, they could be the excesses of a prima donna. In 2019, they do not fit this more serious characterization of Scar.
The same goes for Simba’s deeply internalized guilt for the death of his father; every step along that character arc is the broad stroke of a bedtime story. The film is a half-measure, changing some presentational aspects but hewing to cartoon-appropriate storytelling in a photo-realistic context. To be fair, the case of Timon and Pumbaa is one where the filmmakers were backed into a corner, had to adapt their dynamic, and succeeded in creating endearing chemistry between new performers Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Their subtle breaking of the fourth wall is amusing, especially in one moment that led me to an audible WTF (with a smile on my face) in the theater. It’s no fluke that the strongest song in the 2019 Lion King is their new inclusion “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which is buoyed by a bouncy energy simply not there in the other musical covers, and which ends in an inspired punch line.
As potentially gross as it is to say that two of the only white actors in a triumphantly diverse cast play the standout roles, their characters have the energy of successful new inspiration, as does their song. As for musical half-measures, why include leading single “Spirit” by Nala actor Beyoncé in the film for about 30 seconds as a voice of God song and not play it during the end credits, instead of writing a new song for Nala in the movie for a potential showstopper?
It also feels like Jon Favreau already basically made this movie with The Jungle Book (2016), using a lot of Lion King iconography in a more interesting way. A scenery-and-animal chewing villain with a facial scar (Shere Khan, Scar), who takes over the heroes’ domain (the wolves’ territory, the Pride Lands), dies after falling into fire. A stampede sequence threatens the lead character. A comic relief mentor (Baloo, Timon) advises the young hero to relax, not worry about the villain, and live on the bare necessities.
When Disney remade Beauty and the Beast in live-action, care was taken to explain anew fairy tale logic. No one in the village concerns themselves with the royal goings-on at the castle because their memories were wiped. The terms of Belle’s imprisonment were changed. Care was taken to make the romance more believable. Care was taken to give characters like Maurice and LeFou a personality transplant like Scar, but unlike Scar, one that determined new character arcs for them. Some criticized the film for over-explaining things and overcomplicating 84 minutes of compact animation. But 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is true to its aesthetic; it changes the fairy tale because we’re looking at something more real. 2019’s The Lion King is what happens when you don’t adapt your storytelling to a new visual format.
So the photo-real Lion King, in very specific ways, makes other live-action remakes look better. It’s also my least favorite Disney remake-adjacent film since Alice through the Looking Glass. Not as heart wrenching as Christopher Robin, not as visually interesting as Dumbo, not as magical as Aladdin. This is not to say it is a bad film. Even with its occasional lifelessness and misguided reverence to a generation’s memory, it’s functionally entertaining. For me, it’s… fine, so very average. But deep-emotion-wise, I felt nothing in this movie until the very last scene. Disney’s live-action remake initiative is just part of their circle of life, but The Lion King feels like a missed opportunity.
When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? It’s only clear with the benefit of hindsight that Toy Story 3 felt felt like such definitive closure because the audience, especially those who grew up with the movies over 15 years, identified so intensely with Andy. As Andy gave away the toys (or characters), which meant so much to him, the audience was put squarely in his position for maximum emotional effect. But this is to discount the toys. Toy Story 4 asks itself and successfully answers the question, “How can Woody, the ultimate dutiful toy, evolve?” When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? When there’s more story to tell. And why, besides a sweet box office haul, Toy Story 4? Because the characters need it.
Longtime Toyheads may be disappointed that Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, and the gang are relatively sidelined in this film. For me, it’s the sign of a focused movie, and much preferable to the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World move of giving every tertiary comic character an arc. It also leaves room for shiny new and returning toys!
The delightful Duke Caboom is given a tragicomic backstory worthy of Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Gabby Gabby is already one of the great Disney villains (with one major caveat it would be a spoiler to discuss). Bunny and Ducky get a nice running joke that plays with the rules of the Toy Story world. Bo Peep returns after a one-movie absence, with a new streetwise characterization and, with the benefit of 2019 animation, gorgeous porcelain detailing.
And then there’s Forky. Made out of a spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and not much else, this brilliant addition to the cast gives a new perspective on the weird rules of what it means to be a child’s toy, or indeed, alive as a toy. Caught in an identity crisis between spork and toy, Forky longs to be thrown away. In this quite subversive move, we remember the harrowing furnace sequence in Toy Story 3, and realize quite explicitly that Forky wants to die like that.
It might even be said that for those still unconvinced by a fourth Toy Story, Forky is an avatar for the whole movie. He doesn’t understand the point of his existence – he constantly feels the pull to the trash can, like a rejected story idea in the writers’ room – and ultimately finds self-worth, understanding, peace, and purpose.
And what Toy Story 4 successfully plays out is a movie with a small scale, but apocalyptically high stakes for the characters. Most of the movie takes place in one antique store, and across the street, in a seasonal carnival. But the characters want what they want with every plastic fiber of their being, and wrestle with existential crises as well as external ones. And you will reward the film with tears for it. I’m not super-duper familiar with Toy Story. I like the movies, I grew up with it to an extent, but I don’t have nostalgia for it baked into me. Toy Story 4 emotionally flattened me, so just imagine what it’ll do for people with a deep love for this series. Why Toy Story 4? Because despite what Woody says to Bo Peep, you can teach an old toy new tricks.
P.S.: I appreciate the cameo of a couple late 1970s Kenner Star Wars figures. There’s an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I believe a Greedo – though because I just got a glimpse, it could be Ponda Baba/Walrus Man.
Three Disney live-action remakes in a year (four if you count a Maleficent sequel) is insane. It goes beyond saturating the market into knocking movies over in turn like nine-figure budgeted dominoes. But when they’re as much of a blast as Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, you won’t hear a complaint from me. With the energy and visual appeal of Bollywood, this remake is, relatively minor flaws aside, a great two hours at the movie theater.
In the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) grapples with political reality. Street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives theft-to-theft. And Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) puts into motion a plan to further his grand designs of warmongering ambition, a plan that ensnares Aladdin, whose purity is put to the test when a 10,000-year-old Genie (Will Smith) has three wishes to grant.
Having recently rewatched the animated 1992 original, I find this remake narratively and visually distinct enough never to feel like a rehash. New handmaiden character. Fairy tale politics. More layers of clothing for Aladdin. (Or just, you know, layers at all.) The standout characters prove to be Jasmine and wicked Jafar. The villain is played naturalistically, and Kenzari demonstrates a strong threatening screen presence even, and maybe especially, when perfectly calm. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott simply gives a movie star performance, charismatic and commanding.
When disguised in the bazaar, Jasmine gets in trouble with the law for giving bread to starving children without thinking of the money to pay for it. One thread in recent depictions of female heroes on screen is that there is a positive power in naïveté. It’s in Wonder Woman convinced in her thinking that World War I is caused only by a mad god’s manipulations and not the evil that men do. It’s in Ilsa Faust having the crazy idea that agents of allied nations are supposed to help each other out. And it’s in Jasmine putting her subjects first and envisioning a gender-blind monarchy. These are powerful character choices because they give glimpses of a more idealistic world. In this industry of escapism, this is a very cinematic thing to do. A whole new world indeed.
And as a fleet-footed musical, what fine escapism Aladdin is. Aside from a couple weird Guy Ritchie-an speed-ramping moments, “One Jump Ahead” really pops on screen. (Though Ritchie can’t help one gratuitous switcheroo flashback sequence like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) The soaring “Arabian Nights” is used not just to introduce Agrabah, but the main cast of characters. The new song “Speechless”, while not for lack of trying, is transparently not of a piece with the original batch of songs. But I’m always here for new songs in these classic musicals, and this one does its job efficiently and emotionally as a power anthem for Jasmine.
Similar to how “Be Our Guest” is my least favorite sequence in the Beauty and the Beast remake, “Friend Like Me” is my least favorite here. Maybe it’s because both numbers trade in show-off-y visual jazz that renders (no pun intended) the line between animation and CGI spectacle almost non-existent. Throwing digital confetti all over the place is self-defeating when the whole remit of the movie is to play more realistic.
Hence both Beauty and Aladdin running the same play from the remake playbook of turning each Princess’ father character (Kevin Kline’s Maurice for Belle, Navid Negahban’s Sultan for Jasmine) from a cartoon buffoon to a dignified person. Another entry from that realism playbook: The “Prince Ali” song not continuing until the Sultan taps along to it is reminiscent of the punters struggling with asynchronous clapping in Beauty’s “Gaston” number. “A Whole New World” is sonically aces, but visually, that drive for realism feeds into a bit of a conservative imagination. No magic carpet trip to China here.
But while that sequence’s visuals aren’t the most adventurous, one of the chief pleasures of this film is the bright visual scheme – Bollywood-inspired costume and production design is a fresh take for a Disney project, and they’re a pleasure to behold. CGI blue Genie still looks… off, but not in a way that’s particularly bothersome. Any minor awkward choices are overwhelming by all the breezily entertaining ones, and that does characterize this movie. With engaging characters and music, strong production design, and the warmth of a fairy tale, Aladdin proves that cash grabs are not mutually exclusive with genuine quality. A strong 7/10.
“A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We’re standing 300 feet below it. We’re the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That’s the Endgame.”
So many superhero narratives find villains as the proactive ones, enacting plots and schemes to attain a goal that the heroes must stop. But after losing in Avengers: Infinity War despite viewers thinking so desperately that they’re right, the Avengers must finally live up to their name. And indeed, Infinity War was structured as the villainous Thanos’ movie in a way that Avengers: Endgame simply isn’t. It’s the beloved heroes’ time to shine, because for some of them, we may never see them again.
“… If we can’t protect the world, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”
At great personal sacrifice, Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in using the six Infinity Stones to cull half of all life in the universe. Now, do what’s left of the Avengers move on, or attempt a Hail Mary play to save the fallen? Their only chance lies in a daring “time heist”; but not all the time traveling heroes were always on the virtuous side…
Avengers: Endgame is structurally interesting. Concomitant with its three-hour runtime, it has a very clearly demarcated three-act structure, almost to the point of containing three discrete but linked movies. Before Act One proper kicks off, just the first 15 minutes feels remarkably distinct from the rest of the film, playing out like its own compact “traditional” Avengers movie, before things take a sharp left turn. Act One is a quiet, mournful, and wryly convivial gathering of the team. Act Two is time travel hijinks. Act Three is a Lord of the Rings-scale battle followed by Return of the King-scale denouements.
Act Two is the weakest by the hair, while still filled with wonderful touches and featuring a treatment of time travel that seems to carry more weight than one might expect. By emphasizing that when you’re in the past, the stakes are just as high as when centered in your native present, the time travel aspect has more narrative gravity than a jokey gimmick. That being said, this Russian nesting doll of a sequence contains tons of deep-cut references and surprise returning characters (for the first time in the MCU, one previously exclusive to TV) that detail-oriented fans will appreciate.
In this third of the film, Endgame pokes fun at previous MCU movies in clever and subtle ways, like calling out how the Avengers are “posing up a storm” just to intimidate a villain, or how a character seems so much cooler from within their own cinematic POV than on the outside looking in. But best of all is a truly hilarious sequence where the Avengers have to study up on Infinity Stones and their intertwining history with previous movies, which puts these characters in the position of MCU viewers trying to make sense of the minutiae of the cinematic universe over Chinese takeout.
One of the great things about the MCU as a serialized story is that the characters change over time. And in a genius move on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this is made explicitly part of the plot through Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) character. The heightened dramatization of her inner conflict and growth makes her my favorite character in Endgame.
But the film services its ensemble remarkably well. There are satisfying payoffs to ten-year character arcs and a very sci-fi-TV-series-finale approach to showing familiar characters in unfamiliar situations in a less-than-ideal future. For example, the direction taken with Thor has to be seen to be reckoned with or believed, but it’s clear that Chris Hemsworth’s desire to lean into the character’s comedic stylings has been honored. I won’t spoil which characters are given the most definitive closure, but I find the standout performances in the movie to be Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Karen Gillan (Nebula), and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton). The secret to the MCU’s success is the character work, and these performances have a particular dynamism here.
I appreciate composer Alan Silvestri’s deployment of established leitmotifs, including his own Captain America theme and Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man theme. The time heist score deftly weaves in Doctor Strange cues just to aurally key into the temporal nature of the shenanigans, even adapting it to decade-appropriate twists. But most importantly, Silvestri’s understated but sweeping music effectively underscores moments of great sensitivity, evoking the same emotional texture he brought to such films as Back to the Future and (though I’m not a fan) Forrest Gump.
Part of the journey is the end, and part of it is the surprise. Yes, at least one familiar character dies. And when they do, another character delivers a final line to them that is an absolutely perfect fit. Avengers: Endgame is filled with moments so warm it’s like being wrapped in a blanket, moments so heart-rending it’s emotionally exhausting, and moments so fist-pumping you’ll get carpal tunnel. All in all, it brings more than satisfying closure to Marvel’s unprecedented era of quality genre storytelling. The first time I saw it I held a couple minor reservations, but the second time it landed even better. I wouldn’t have gone so high at first, but: 10/10.
P.S.:**“DON’T SPOIL THE ENDGAME” SPOILER WARNING**
After Infinity War’s Natasha/Okoye/Wanda vs. Proxima Midnight fight, Endgame tops it with a beautiful moment highlighting the MCU’s female heroes. It’s especially appreciated after killing off Natasha. That larger battle sequence embraces more “comic book-y” imagery, including the unforgettable shot of Steve Rogers facing down Thanos’ entire army, Carol Danvers’ look, and Wanda Maximoff at the most “Scarlet Witch” she’s ever been. Wanda going toe-to-toe with Thanos is a definite highlight of the movie for me.
For those familiar with the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: The Force Awakens… In the spectacular one-on-one fight between Steve Rogers and Thanos, Mjölnir is summoned to Steve’s hand like Luke’s lightsaber is summoned to Rey’s hand. And, somewhat similar to Kylo Ren punching himself in his open wound to bleed out, Steve aggressively fastens his shield strap over an open wound. He’s taking the best of both worlds!
Notice how many characters are motivated by love for a daughter… Clint and Laura Barton; Scott Lang; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; and of course, Thanos himself.
In the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see a montage of young women standing up to abusers, challenges on the sporting green, and other trials, as the power of the Slayers is distributed across the world. There’s a similar montage in Captain Marvel, except at different stages of one woman’s life, as she picks herself up after a fall. It’s an empowerment sequence that worked in Buffy, and works here, in a solid superhero movie that seems to point the way forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the closure of Avengers: Endgame.
Under the stern command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), amnesiac Kree operative Vers (Brie Larson) hunts the shape-shifting Skrulls, led by the mysterious Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). But after a mission goes south, Vers ends up on Planet C-53 (to us, Earth) in 1995. Vers learns that she had a life on Earth as United States Air Force pilot Carol Danvers alongside wing-woman Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and begins to recontextualize not only her life, but also the war she has been a blunt instrument in.
Captain Marvel feels like a touchstone for the MCU post-Endgame. Slower, quieter, not without bombast, balanced between the weird and the grounded, doing something with the villain that’s pretty new to the MCU’s bag of storytelling tricks. There are vital sequences in the film that seem to have taken notes from Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lush and character-building Barton farm scenes (ironic given that Marvel Studios considered cutting the farm from that film).
Appropriately for a relatively unshowy movie, Brie Larson gives an appreciably subtle performance, doing a lot with micro-expressions to show Carol’s confidence, dry humor, and drive for self-discovery. That’s what happens when you cast an Oscar winner as your lead superhero. The film traces a well-thought-out arc for Carol regarding the source of her superpowers. The Kree’s Supreme Intelligence and Starforce urge her toward the unemotional, but it’s one of those Equilibrium situations where the people telling you to not show emotion are hypocrites well versed in anger and condescension.
The film’s approach to an origin story is novel, but may put off some viewers. Early on there’s a lengthy scrub through Carol’s fractured memories that’s purposefully disorienting, yet moored to Carol’s point of view. If directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had chosen to film the story as a traditional origin in chronological order, this sequence is like taking all that and putting it in a blender. This choice to show Carol’s life on Earth only from a remove results in Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening), a major mentor figure in Carol’s life, never registering as a fully realized presence in the movie. But on the other hand, it is exactly this approach that enters Captain Marvel’s most powerful moment, the montage of Carol throughout her life standing in unison, into the cinematic vocabulary of the movie.
For much of the film Carol is accompanied by the very welcome mid-1990s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), whose performance is augmented by near-flawless de-aging technology. The de-aging on Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t as seamless. Maybe it’s the hair? A couple standouts in the cast are Lashana Lynch, who really tugs on the heartstrings in one of the movie’s best scenes, and Ben Mendelsohn. Reunited with his Mississippi Grind directors, Mendelsohn has fun playing with his eternal typecasting as middle management villains (Rogue One, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood) and suited baddies (Ready Player One). There’s a great little moment when Korath (Djimon Hounsou), years before appearing as a henchman in Guardians of the Galaxy, is given one line for the briefest but most efficient of insights into his psychology. Jude Law’s rather meat-headed Yon-Rogg doesn’t make much of an impression, however.
Composer Pinar Toprak’s Captain Marvel theme, like “Fanfare for the Common Man” (or Woman, as the case may be), uses majestic wide intervals to create a sense of dramatic rising that doesn’t resolve. This fits the story of Carol learning to embrace the full range of her powers. (This constant rising feeling is also found in Christophe Beck’s Wasp theme, another leitmotif for a female MCU superhero.) The rest of the score is at its most ostentatious when it deploys standard space-age synthesizers for Kree-relevant flourishes. Sanja Milkovic Hays’ costume design, of course taking a cue from the comics, lands a bull’s-eye with the red, blue, and gold Captain Marvel costume, which looks terrific on screen.
Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie in a lower key, entertaining and with solid emotional bedrock. It doesn’t use its mid-1990s setting as a gimmick (but look for a key use of a certain grunge classic), centering on the quiet journey of discovery that unlocks the full potential of Carol Danvers’ powers. While not reaching the heights of top-tier films in the MCU, Captain Marvel decisively points the way forward for a cinematic universe that needs room to grow after infinitely scaled crossovers. 7/10.
At the denouement of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, when James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable theme ushered in a cameo from that earlier film’s lead character, jaws were dropped. “Split is a secret Unbreakable sequel!” people said. More accurately Split is a secret spinoff, and now Glass’ task is to sequelize two very different movies. The somewhat admirable and somewhat mediocre Glass goes in an odd direction, but it’s that very oddness that makes it an interesting auteur artifact.
Since Glass makes very few concessions for those who haven’t seen the previous two movies: David Dunn (Bruce Willis, better in his other recent vigilante movie Death Wish) is a street-level super-strong righter of wrongs (weakness: water), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is a mastermind supervillain (weakness: brittle bones), and Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde/The Beast (James McAvoy) flits between 24 personalities plus one brutal animal-human hybrid (weakness: the invocation of his birth name). All three larger-than-life figures end up institutionalized where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, who will play another mental health professional of questionable competence in a Nurse Ratched TV show) tries to rationalize all of their fantastical skillsets.
At the end of Psycho, there’s a commonly criticized scene of a psychologist laying out in prosaic English his diagnosis of Norman Bates, making plain text what was shadowy subtext before. In his screenplays, Shyamalan seems to love to adhere to this super-schematic device of play-by-play commentary and explication. In Split, Betty Buckley’s character explained at length Crumb’s disorder, and here in Glass, Dr. Staple does much the same (with the occasional leaden clunker of a line). There’s a long scene of Staple debunking each character’s extraordinary abilities that at first feels agonizingly self-defeating until it becomes clear that this is exactly the point.
When he made Unbreakable in 2000, Shyamalan’s “grounded superhero movie” stood out. But in 2019, after Super, Kick-Ass, so many “realistic” takes on superhero conventions, and even riffs on the device of living within a comic book, is Glass late to the party? In ways that I can’t discuss without spoilers, Shyamalan doubles down on the tension between superhero existence and mundane reality; he sets Glass in a world that willfully bends superheroes into the contours of “the real world”. His powered characters are animated by genre, but face the existential threat of realism.
Glass is a very talky film, often to a tiringly didactic extent. But at least the actors show up to play. McAvoy once again deserves a curtain call for his herky-jerky modulation between multiple personalities, sometimes within one take. Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her “final girl” survivor from Split, convinces with unconvincing material. But Samuel L. Jackson truly owns the screen, especially when given a self-consciously dramatic villain monologue.
With these actors, Shyamalan trusts them and favors the extreme close-up (perhaps a corrective after directing himself as the awkward lead in Praying with Anger – his Glass cameo is also endearingly goofy). He shoots much of the action with Guy Ritchie-style bodycams that play up the prosaic messiness of a real fight and other vérité techniques. The mundane is given a sweeping quality by composer West Dylan Thordson slathering Howard’s Unbreakable leitmotifs all over the score, which is rather cool to hear.
This is an idiosyncratic and sometimes alienating film, but its commitment to finding new ways to flatten superhero tropes into everyday life is notable. It’s not a particularly engaging work – too dramatically inert for that – but while Glass is often as dissonant as a Philip Glass composition, the twist is memorable and blindsiding. Glass is a proudly low-budget genre experiment that’s probably more interesting to talk about than watch.