Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.
In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?
The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.
Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.
Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.
Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.
And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…
Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.
I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.
With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.
P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.
P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.
Frozen spoilers follow.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’ songs in the animated smash-hit Frozen are great. On the face of it, they’re great because they’re catchy and fun as hell to sing along with. But more than that, these songs are complex. I don’t mean technically or musically complicated – they hide layers that only become clear once the audience is aware of the complete picture of the film’s story. They work in the moment in their immediately apparent modes, but each takes on a new resonance when considering the broader story. In most Disney musicals, the songs are straightforward; what you hear is what you get. Not so here – this is multi-level storytelling, so thrilling when pulled off well. So what’s going on beneath the surface of this story of two regal sisters and the nature of true love?
Let’s start by looking at Frozen’s two traditional ‘I Want’ songs, Anna’s “For the First Time in Forever” and Olaf’s “In Summer”. Anna sings of her perfect romantic night with a sophisticated stranger now that Arendelle’s gates are opening, and throughout she mimes the poses of women in paintings. She wants a storybook romance. For the first time in forever / I’m getting what I’m dreaming of / A chance to change my lonely world / A chance to find true love. And so, even as we’re caught up in the beauty of the song, we’re also being told exactly how she’s exposing herself to Hans’ manipulation. And sure enough, she chooses to marry a man she has just met. Meanwhile, Olaf the guileless snowman spends a whole song wishing for the thing that the other characters know will kill him.
Anna and Olaf achieve their basic goals, but not in the way they intended. Anna ends up neither married nor engaged, and furthermore enters into a relationship not with the charismatic fairy tale prince Hans, but with the humble and antisocial snow merchant Kristoff (whose existence outside the castle was thus outside anything she knew her whole life). Olaf sees summer, but would have melted there and died if not for Elsa’s intervention. Life gave Anna and Olaf not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they wanted, which is a beautiful endpoint to an arc.
And I stress, this isn’t how ‘I Want’ musical storytelling usually goes. Quasimodo wants only a mundane life “Out there”, and gets it by movie’s end, vindicated by his friends. Ariel wishes simply to be “Part of Your World”, and has entered the human world as the credits roll. Moana burns to voyage on the ocean and see “How Far I’ll Go”, and, you guessed it, embarks on a grand seafaring adventure. The desire is fulfilled, like an empty box being filled with a checkmark. In Anna and Olaf’s cases, they discover how much stranger life is than they thought, through realizing that what they wanted was in a lot of ways ignorant and naïve, but no less worthy of respect. This stuff is mature. The ‘I Want’ pieces are tinged with the bittersweet, even if that’s only noticeable to the viewer. It makes the story more human.
In the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, sisters Anna and Elsa have a roller coaster of a communication breakdown. There is misunderstanding on both sides, and the conflict is on the surface. Whereas in the case of Anna and Hans’ duet “Love is an Open Door”, it only comes out in retrospect how the two singing partners are at cross-purposes. The conflict is veiled and obscure, but with hindsight adds a layer to the song and its function. And so every real-life couple who duets the song has to think in the back of their minds, “Does one of us have an agenda here?”
What further complicates the song is Hans’ enigmatic character. A usurper of the crown he is, but the film concisely portrays Hans as a natural leader and an effective monarch… who happens to use evil means to gain a throne. He’s not just the one-dimensional villain; left to his own devices, he would have been a decent king. But his path to power is ruthless. He wants it too much. To him, the opportunity for power, the open door, is a lovely thing indeed. You can subtly see this in the song.
Anna: But with you –
Hans: But with you – I found my place.
Anna: I see your face.
Both: … and it’s nothing like I’ve ever known before!
In the same moment: Anna focuses on Hans. Hans focuses on his position. And yet the clumsy romantic and the charming conspirator still harmonize beautifully in song. “Love is an Open Door” is an obvious but significant example of a song taking on multiple dimensions with the benefit of hindsight.
And this brings us to the biggest showstopper of them all, Elsa’s “Let it Go”. Not so much an ‘I Want’ number, it’s more like a ‘Maybe I Don’t Want the Thing Everyone Said I Should Want’ song. Its placement in the movie also serves as the audience’s first meaningful insight into Elsa’s character, as this literal ice queen had predominantly been seen through Anna’s eyes. Taking on this burden, “Let it Go” makes an interesting choice: it’s achingly personal, but also universal. Anyone who’s ever been made to feel different, or repressed, or closeted, has an empowering anthem in “Let it Go”. Let it go, let it go / And I’ll rise like the break of dawn / Let it go, let it go / That perfect girl is gone.
Still, some have said that this über-popular karaoke staple is about abandoning responsibility, an act of selfishness. While on one level that’s true, I think of the song as representing something that is not only worthy of championing but also ties in perfectly with Frozen songs having multilayered themes. You as the viewer can project any baggage of your own onto “Let it Go”, as long as you’re breaking free of it; it does have a plot function of abandoning the queenship; but above all, it represents Elsa’s right to make her own mistakes.
As a musical, Frozen is unique, in that the film deploys its songs without being overwhelmed by them. The songs are mostly confined to the first act, setting them up to be subverted or further toggled with later. (The songs are frontloaded. First act: four full songs and a prologue. Second act: two full songs, a ditty, and a reprise. Third act: no songs.) “Frozen Heart” is a Greek chorus that foreshadows the larger story. “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” begins in childhood innocence and ends in suffocating depression. “For the First Time in Forever” is a joyous ‘I Want’ song that nonetheless sets up exactly how to take advantage of Anna. “Love is an Open Door” is a romantic duet and a clockwork manipulation. “Let it Go” is a swirling anthem that on some level is about shutting out the world. “In Summer” is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ song with a singer who’s none the wiser. These are significant choices, the choices of a film that’s going for your brain just as it’s going for your heart and your funny bone. Frozen is a phenomenon, a cultural touchstone, a subversive 21st Century fairy tale. I think it happens to be an ironclad masterpiece, with a nonetheless humble scope, where there are always new things to discover. And the Lopez’ songs are music that keeps on giving.
Disney’s live-action division has been rolling out remakes of beloved animated films for the past several years. The Mouse House sees dollar signs, and oftentimes the public greets the news of a newfangled remake with a roll of the eyes. But when diving into these films proper, an interesting narrative that’s downright chronological emerges: Disney has gotten better at these remakes. But why is that the case? Let me show why quite recently all hope seemed lost, and how things have turned around so now the future looks very bright indeed.
The Case Against
In 2010, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters. So how does the 1951 original hold up? Well, it’s an insane animated fantasia depicting an anarchic land where anyone can be a cabbage or a king. Filled with great characters, it inadvertently invented the Shrek dance party finale, and climaxes with Alice gaining the upper hand by eating shrooms. It features the most wonderful and hilarious subversion of the classic “Princess sings in the woods and attracts cute animals” trope, as Alice attracts them, but they’re all grotesque hybrids of animals and tools. These are just some of its wonders. The early Disney tendency to have a bunch of vignettes orbiting a thin framework fits like a glove with this concentrated randomness. In short, it’s an all-time great.
Now, it’s not strictly accurate to call the 2010 Alice a remake, as the film makes a contorted attempt to describe this journey into Wonderland as Alice’s second. But the implication that the original’s events are in continuity here becomes laughable in context. We enter Wonderland and hear words like… Prophecy? Chosen one?!? The very idea of anything being “foretold” in Wonderland is a bad joke. Narrative logic is one thing, but the storytelling becomes bogged down in politics and pretense. What was once a land of chaos becomes a bombed-out shell of its former self, populated by irritating nuisances in place of characters. Even the gruesomeness on display (three characters get stabbed in the eye, not to mention the decapitation) just comes across as desperate. Despite the one area of improvement over the original being Mia Wasikowska as an engaging protagonist, what we end up with is a poisonously boring film that represents the absolute nadir of the Disney remake. This is what not to do.
As it turned out, this black hole of entertainment was an enormous financial hit, to the tune of over a billion dollars. But it’s what I’d call an accidental billion-dollar movie, as it rode the crest of the Avatar 3D wave.
To play fair, things get significantly improved in the 2016 sequel, Alice through the Looking Glass. Despite a sickening insistence on pitching Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter as the emotional center of the film, small steps are taken in the right direction. It’s set in a bright and colorful Wonderland for a change, it’s got a solid villain in Sacha Baron Cohen’s embodiment of Time (“And I… must find… the kindergartner…”), some of the jokes land (the frog dude!), violence is used more constructively (the Humpty Dumpty gag is fantastic!), the art direction is superior (the Chronosphere is a clockwork astrolabe you can fly in!), and in Alice’s role as a dauntless seafaring explorer, she foreshadows Disney’s upcoming animated musical Moana. (And bonus points for using Alan Rickman as a voice of comfort, in his final film role.)
But overshadowing everything is the root problem of these modern Alice films: they get stuck on portentous exposition when they should just be parading charming nonsense. They’re boring because they never resolve the tension between the potential of their setting, and their need to inject drippy drama into it. Put it this way; the Mad Hatter’s dad is a textbook strict Victorian father. In Wonderland.
Next, in 2014, the Angelina Jolie vehicle Maleficent went back to the roots of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty. In the original, Maleficent is a legitimately scary villain who capitalizes on her small sliver of screentime to make a huge impression. She’s such a representation of pure evil that it feels like the film doesn’t give her much airtime for fear of kids being traumatized by her menace. She can also turn into a dragon.
Come the modern reimaging of the story, Maleficent is no longer evil, no longer the villain, and no longer can turn into a dragon. Sigh. Jolie is an unimpeachable casting decision, but the material she’s saddled with plays it safe even while making truly odd choices. Maleficent is made a victim, and the way her wings are violated is coded in a deeply uncomfortable way for a family movie.
Where this remake shines are only in stolen moments. The recreation of the famous throne room scene is by far the best bit of the film, because it’s the only time Maleficent is allowed to be true to her name. For the rest of the film she’s not even an anti-hero. She’s just the hero. Maleficent is let down by nonsensical plot devices, a pantomime villain, truly embarrassing versions of the original fairy characters, but above all the softening of an iconic Disney villain. I assume that choice is to make Maleficent palatable as a lead, but what’s the point of doing it if it’s not to be done right? When it comes to putting a villain in the lead role, I’m not expecting Man Bites Dog or A Clockwork Orange. But I do expect an understanding of why we were drawn to the character in the first place.
So the Alice films and Maleficent, while definitely fitting into the macro trend of Disney remakes, are more like hybrid reboot/reimaginings, and as we’ve seen, have failed to make new ideas work. Don’t get me wrong, outside-the-box ideas are great for remakes, but the choices made in these two stories have fallen flat. When in doubt, both Alice and Maleficent portray pitched battles between armies that come off as Lord of the Rings-lite, seeming desperate for an edge they just can’t sharpen. So post-Maleficent, things aren’t looking so great at the moment for this remake experiment. But, just around the corner in 2015…
The Case For
The 1950 Cinderella stars cutesy mice as much as it does the title character, and sets up a familiar fairy tale framework. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella takes it and runs with it, filling in character depth, casting impeccably, and ending up with an intoxicatingly beautiful film. Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming/Kit (Richard Madden) are both rounded and their courtship is played for real, none of this snap-of-the-fingers romance of the original. No longer colorless paragons, both characters feel alive as well as noble. But even as the characters are respected, the more lavish and glitzy elements of the story are channeled as well; the dance at the ball is pure movie magic that gets me every time.
We saw in Maleficent the hesitance Disney had in placing a properly characterized villain in a lead role. Cinderella is a gold standard in updating a vintage villain correctly. There is no redemption for Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, but at the same time there are moments of subtle sympathy for the character. The impeccably dressed Tremaine is defined by her ambition and cruelty, but equally her intellect.
Taking an old-fashioned fairy tale and populating it with strong characters, Cinderella is a platonic ideal of the Disney remake, respectful of the original but updated in enough respects that the 21st Century version has a life of its own.
Cue 2016’s Jungle Book. So how does the venerable animated original look today? The 1967 Jungle Book feels more like a loosey-goosey hangout movie than anything else. Laid back and virtually plotless, it’s sedately entertaining but struggles to cohere into a story. Its themes of man’s relation to nature are crippled by portraying most of the animal characters as oddly specific human caricatures, often out of swinging clubs or the British Raj occupying government of India; figures of white imperialism march in proximity to scat-singing jazz musicians.
Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book ditches the dated elements of the original to tell a straightforward adventure story with a precocious Mowgli traversing an actual plot, threatened by a vicious villain in Idris Elba’s Bengal tiger Shere Khan. This version, however, is first and foremost a technical marvel, using only the bare necessities of live-action elements in a lavish CGI production that as near as damn it convinces you it’s all happening for real.
With interesting themes of technology, an impressive ensemble cast playing the animals (the trio of villains are the best characters), and a believable jungle society that wasn’t there before, this Jungle Book improves on the original. And again, like Cinderella, it succeeds by using the original as a clear template and filling in the corners with innovation.
The Flavor of the Day
Which brings us to the tale of a boy and his dragon. In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon (distinct from the other originals discussed here because the dragon Elliott is the only animated element), the actors gurn and mug their way through a sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang musical which has its charms but is more weird than wonderful. The 2016 remake likewise features a boy named Pete and his pet dragon Elliott on the fringes of a small town, but otherwise there’s virtually no connection. Indeed, the remake represents a 180-degree about-face, as the over-the-top acting of the original is replaced by director David Lowery’s indie naturalism. The scatting, mumbling Elliott is replaced by a dignified furred dragon tailormade for plush merchandise. The pratfalling Mickey Rooney is outclassed by the wizened charms of Robert Redford.
Sonically, the off-off-Broadway musical numbers are ditched, but the original main theme’s rustic tenor is still appropriated in Daniel Hart’s score. (The only other link to the past is that the remake might’ve taken Elliott’s color-changing fur from an animation error in the original.) And the set-up of a boy and his pet dragon is raised to the level of high spectacle, as Hart’s indescribably soaring dragonriding theme scores Elliott’s triumphant flights.
The film isn’t trying to rock anyone’s world, but to tell a simple and emotional story. When it gets sentimental, it earns it. And when it just wants to get to the pure Disney magic of Elliott in flight, it’s flawless. (The ending, in particular, rates high on the “tears of joy” scale.) Pete’s Dragon represents an outlier in the world of Disney remakes. Like Alice and Maleficent, it absolutely distinguishes itself from what came before. But much more importantly, like Cinderella and The Jungle Book, it’s an upgrade in quality from the original and continues the studio’s winning streak.
Music as Metaphor
All five original films that have been remade are musicals. This is an interesting baseline because gradually more and more original songs are finding their way into these remakes. Alice in Wonderland uses none of the myriad throwaway songs from the original. Maleficent and Cinderella use the properties’ most iconic tunes only as end credits songs (From the former, “Once Upon a Dream” is hauntingly sung by Lana del Rey; From the latter, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bippity Boppity Boo” are sung by the actors in character). The Jungle Book continues the end credits tradition, but for the first time includes (incomplete) versions of original songs in the movie proper, sung by the actors.
While Pete’s Dragon is an anomaly in this progression, the future holds plenty of interest for Disney music fans. The imminent Beauty and the Beast, plus recently announced remakes of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King (the latter directed by Jungle Book helmer Favreau), will take the plunge into being full-on musicals. And not only will they include the original songs, but also bring back original composers such as Alan Menken and enlist hot new talent like Lin-Manuel Miranda to develop more songs in the established style.
The gradual willingness to integrate more and more classic songs into Disney remakes is a narrative that runs parallel with the way these 21st Century reimaginings have increased in quality. As they practice fidelity to the originals balanced with modern and welcome twists on character and story, they also incorporate more and more of the original sonic landscapes that have charmed generations. Don’t reinvent the wheel (narratively tortured Wonderland, goody two-shoes Maleficent), but complement the source material with the benefit of intelligent storytelling. As long as Disney learns from what didn’t work in Alice and Maleficent, and keeps striking the healthy balance of respecting originals and original thinking in Cinderella and The Jungle Book, their remake hot streak will continue. And it doesn’t hurt to put in the songs we all know and love to whistle while the movies work.
The live-action remake that’s been called one of the most technologically advanced movies of all time is here. Disney has gone back to the well of their offbeat 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, and given it new life as a technical marvel on a similar level to Avatar or Life of Pi. With only the bare necessities of live-action elements (Neel Sethi as lone man-cub in the jungle Mowgli; a bit of dirt; a few excellent tufts of grass), The Jungle Book as directed by Jon Favreau impresses consistently and immersively with its visual effects. But ironically, the secret to this remake’s success is the humanity it finds in unlikely places, and once the nostalgia goggles come off and the 3D glasses come on, 2016 has delivered a better Jungle Book than 1967.
Mowgli is a man-cub raised by a stately wolfpack, watched over by the wise Black Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But the formidable Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) cannot abide a human in the jungle and vows to put Mowgli in his rightful place: the tiger’s belly. Charged to find refuge at the nearby man-village, Mowgli makes his way there, on the way encountering characters like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the imperious Gigantopithecus King Louis (Christopher Walken). But on the journey, what kind of man will Mowgli become?
The basic bones of the story are familiar, but it is the adjustments to that story (relative to Disney’s own animated version) that make this a dynamic retelling. There are weighty themes of technology (called “tricks” in the jungle), and what it means for a human capable of that level of potentially dangerous creativity to live among animals. The concern for the jungle as a viable society is reflected by the incorporation of the Law of the Jungle, and other cultural practices such as the species-crossing water truce when a seasonal watering hole opens for all predators and prey alike to feed upon. These themes help to make the jungle feel like an ecosystem and a society; it’s good world-building. And of course that jungle is gorgeous to look at, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s almost entirely digital. The VFX artistry is overwhelming, but there’s not much more to say about it beyond variations of “wow”.
So let’s turn attention to the animal characters. A great paradox of the 1967 film is that it tries to sell a divide between the human Mowgli, and the jungle… while portraying half the animals as all-too-specific human caricatures. The elephants were la-di-da officers, God save the King and all that, representing the British Raj occupying government in India; the vultures were modeled on the Beatles; King Louis was a scat-singing jazz musician; and Baloo was a laidback swinger. The tagline? “The jungle is jumpin’”. It’s funny, then, that the characters of this Jungle Book are more human than the human spoofs. Bagheera is a philosopher, and fierce when he needs to be, not just an inflexible caretaker. Baloo is a con man with a heart of gold, and when he takes a brave heroic action late in the film it hits that much more because of this characterization. Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is an active presence resisting Shere Khan’s tyranny. The elephants’ overhaul is particularly noteworthy. They are recapitulated as the closest thing to gods in the jungle, but not because they represent white imperialism as they did before. They do not speak; they are majestic, inextricably tied with nature, and their military drilling song from the animated movie would be absolutely incompatible with this interpretation. (Speaking of music, this film is no pure musical, but I’ll say that fans of the music won’t be disappointed – and stay through the credits!)
The characters who really steal the show for me are the trio of villains. Scarlett Johansson excels in a creepy, all-too-brief appearance as Kaa. Idris Elba’s eloquent snarl fits Shere Khan like a glove. The tiger becomes a great villain almost just by force of personality, as it would take a couple more Shere Khan scenes to really lock in his character motivation. Elba’s vocal performance is so mesmeric that he overpowers any deficiencies in the writing.
But my favorite character is Christopher Walken’s King Louis, radiating both mirth and menace. Louis wants Mowgli’s technological tricks to dominate the jungle, and the threat in Walken’s performance gives an extra layer to his delightful rendition of “I Wan’na be Like You” (now stripped of the uncomfortable racial coding it carried in the animated version). Louis’ desire to gain the power that humans possess is reflected in his residence in the ruins of a Hindu temple. This makes him a great foil for Mowgli, as the youth must find his own definition of manhood. In general, holding court with King Louis, and the entire sequence at his temple, is the highlight of The Jungle Book in my eyes.
So at last we come to Mowgli, the man-cub everyone’s making such a big fuss about. While Neel Sethi has a lot of charisma to carry such an abstract performance surrounded by green screens, that doesn’t negate a few… odd acting moments of his. He’s trying his damnedest with little to bounce off of, so I understand, but suffice to say Sethi’s Mowgli isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite character. He’s someone that things happen to, the viewpoint character who’s essential to the cast dynamic but not much more. When given lines like “Are you kidding me?” and “Seriously?”, the feral child isn’t all that feral.
While the film makes strong structural changes when it comes to the succession of incidents surrounding Mowgli, it doesn’t fully escape the episodic nature of the previous 1967 version. A few scenes still feel a bit disjointed from the whole, and the tonal shift with the introduction of Baloo is a sharp one. Indeed, a lot of what’s awkward about this Jungle Book is the line it walks between heavy dramatics and callbacks to the insouciant animated version. This manifests in a few ways. For one example: The action is commendably visceral without being inappropriately violent, but there is one fight scene at the climax that is lit very poorly in an apparent attempt to obscure the implication of gore, and to draw the line at a PG rating. I understand the need for compromise, but the scene would have benefited by commitment in either direction.
Getting back to technical matters, the artificial cinematography by Bill Pope is ravishing, many tableaus of simulated nature being worthy of being framed on someone’s wall. And composer John Debney delivers a really solid score, turning from darkly loungey (the opening Jungle theme and Kaa’s theme) to lushly gorgeous (the destined-for-repeat-plays Law of the Jungle theme) to instilling a sense of awe (the elephant theme) to percussively dangerous (Shere Khan’s theme).
Jon Favreau has overseen an efficient, beautiful to look at, thematically interesting Jungle Book populated by memorable versions of vintage characters. The changes from Disney’s previous incarnation of the story are of particular fascination, in fact so much so that I didn’t always discuss the film as standing on its own. (And look out for a very different ending in this version.) But on its own, 2016’s Jungle Book is a stunning virtual creation. This is a film I quite like, but taken with last year’s Cinderella, which I love, hopefully Disney’s live-action remake winning streak can continue. A weak 8/10.
P.S.: *MILD SPOILERS* What’s going on with the Lion King influence? Shere Khan is not only given a facial scar, he takes over the wolves’ territory similar to how Scar took over Pride Rock during Simba’s exile. Shere Khan’s death falling into the fire is visually akin to Mufasa’s. There’s a herd scene reminiscent of the one from The Lion King. And by making Baloo a con artist who advises the young hero to relax and wait for the bare necessities, he resembles Timon.
Contains spoilers for Zootopia (known as Zootropolis in some territories)
Zootopia is a very fine movie. Its lead characters are endearing, a lot of the humor is on point, and the video-game-overworld layout of the titular city leads to some eye-popping visuals showing off a fully realized world. But what does it have to say?
Quite a lot, actually – too much, even, but I’ll get into that later. I separate the film’s moral from its attempt at allegory, so I’ll address the moral first. The moral/message is great and very timely. We’re in the midst of a 2016 Presidential campaign marked by some ugly, downright troglodytic racism and sexism on the part of a certain candidate, and Zootopia comes along with a healthy message of tolerance, hitting hard against xenophobia and prejudice.
Of course, it uses a city of anthropomorphic animals to make this point, illustrated in part by the two leads; we have female rabbit Judy Hopps and male fox Nick Wilde, who were in some way brought low by prejudice before rallying back to ensure a happy ending for the movie. They do this by circumventing a conspiracy to artificially make the 10% minority of predator animals go “savage” by introducing a drug into their systems. The plan was working for a while; “innocent prey” saw their worst prejudices realized with rabid killer predators on the loose, leading to panic, paranoia, and hate against the predators. Now for the film’s ending to be happy, the force of institutional racism is literalized and arrested in the form of the Mayor, a seemingly meek sheep named Dawn Bellwether who is behind the conspiracy. She rants about us vs. them and virtually declares war on the dreaded other. This is after making repeated comments earlier in the movie about how she and Judy need to “stick together”, but all the while orchestrating a fear monger’s campaign. She’s Trump if he kept it a secret.
So we have a simple moral of anti-xenophobia, arising from a complicated allegory. When getting into the specifics of Zootopia’s allegory, I think it’s overcomplicated and incoherent. Let’s break it down.
The setup begins with mysterious incidents of certain individuals of predator species going savage. We learn that “Night Howlers” are involved somehow. Judy Hopps inadvertently stokes the racially charged fear in the city when she states in a press conference that these predators are going back to their “natural state”. (To the film’s credit, this shows how even a good person can say offensive things because institutional racism can sometimes run insidiously deep.)
Next we further the Night Howler mystery by learning that it’s a flower, and that consumption of it leads to an animal going savage under psychotropic influence. So something like a crack/meth epidemic is causing this – just say no, and cue cute Breaking Bad parody.
But then it’s revealed that Mayor Bellwether is on a zealous crusade. She has the drug concentrated into pellets, arms her officers with dart guns, and orders predators SHOT WITH THE DRUG. We went from social commentary about oppression, to social commentary on minorities and drugs, to social commentary on minorities getting shot by the authorities. Mixed metaphor, much?
Now, of course, traditional mainlining of drugs has no place in a children’s movie and the movie needs the drugs to get in the predators somehow. For an example of a plot point not taken, the writers could have, I dunno, put the drug in a liquid that only predators drink – this could at least take advantage of how the movie uses animal biology. But the choice to reverse-engineer this plot into a commentary on minority groups getting freakin’ shot is a decisive one.
Stacking these revelations on top of each other ends up turning a potentially compelling parallel to our world into a circus show. Are the predators going savage because they’re an oppressed minority? Because they’re taking drugs? Because they’re all getting shot? By pulling it in all these different directions, the allegory is diluted. The film finds a bunch of real-life things to “comment on” and puts them in a blender. This isn’t the best allegory, it’s the most allegory.
Indeed, maybe part of this is a consequence of how plotty, procedural and reliant on successive revelations Zootopia can be. (Clue leads to clue, and it’s kind of hilarious how many times Judy recording someone saying something incriminating is a plot point.) Also, Zootopia is keen to comment on all these racial issues that we face, but at the end of the day this is still an animated comedy with animals. While the film certainly chafes against stereotypes to a certain extent (Bunnies are coded as feminine in the movie’s world, so cue Judy’s annoyance at jokes about bad driving and being really emotional), most of the animals are given predictable behavioral traits (Timberwolves gotta howl). As (the extended Marlon Brando joke) Mr. Big says, “We may be evolved, but we’re still animals!” I totally understand why a weasel named Weaselton is there acting all “weaselly” – after all, this is an accessible family movie – but it makes a thematic graft between these races and our human races kind of a no-go. When you’re depicting an allegorical world where these predator species did in fact originally evolve to kill the prey species, can you really justify this as a parallel of our world?
The place where Zootopia’s allegory was really helped out was with the pop star Gazelle. Just as Gazelle’s peaceful protest against racism was crashed, so did Beyoncé’s statement of solidarity with victims of police brutality at the Super Bowl face a big backlash. While I know Gazelle doesn’t know at that point that the predators are being shot, from the objective filmmaker’s viewpoint, that is a pop star protesting a minority group getting shot by authority figures. That’s timely as hell.
While it has a wonderful moral, Zootopia takes a sloppy path to get there, and stumbles as allegory. This doesn’t necessarily diminish it much – wearing its heart on its furry sleeve, it’s a great time at the movies in the company of likable characters living in an interesting world – but it shouldn’t be held up as some brilliant satire. It’s great on basic message. It’s just not so great as allegory.
In 1988, Walt Disney Productions rolled the dice on a project whose budget had ballooned and post-production protracted to more than a year. But this lengthened production time was in service of a groundbreaking mix of live-action and animated elements. True, Disney films such as Song of the South and Mary Poppins from decades earlier had dabbled in this technique, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit took the concept to a scale never seen before. What’s more, both Disney icons and Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes would cameo in the film, which takes us to an alternative 1947. In Hollywood and Toontown, humans and toons live together, and human P.I. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is tasked with investigating the possible extramarital affair that’s got premier marquis toon actor and concerned spouse Roger Rabbit down in the dumps.
The film commits to a noir atmosphere that permeates everything from the production design to Alan Silvestri’s restrained and sultry score. The film refuses to be a mess; it decides on a focus and sticks to it. It’s easy to imagine a version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that would give new meaning to self-indulgence, but everything remains on point: that being a sometimes silly, sometimes striking story of toon antics and anti-toon acid, all grounded beautifully by an engaging central performance by Bob Hoskins.
Hoskins’ brooding gumshoe is the necessary counterbalance to the wackiness going on around him, and of course he is given a basic but effective arc to play over the course of the film. His reason for giving toons the cold shoulder is given in dialogue early on. “A toon killed his brother…” Oh jeez, this is really heavy. “… dropped a piano on his head.” Hahahaha! This single line stands in for the delicate balance that the film strikes. The film asks what would happen if over-the-top cartoon antics were naturalized into a realistic setting, and the answer as shown here is what it should be: equal parts dark, joyful, and bizarre. It’s not any one thing, it’s all of them, and the film understands this well. And who better to bring the intricately looney results to life than Robert Zemeckis, hot off of directing Back to the Future, perhaps the most satisfyingly detailed film of all time? That attention to detail is what makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit great entertainment, as while the main plot is a necessary backbone, it is the insanity surrounding it, spicing up the proceedings, that makes a world of difference.
One insane but slightly understated aspect of the film is its villain, Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom. He seems to be a Nazi-esque character; he’s dressed all in black with unsettling spectacles, and he even says, “You lack vision!” with a Teutonic accent! Balancing his relatively restrained persona are a pack of weasel henchmen, on loan from Winky in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Judge Doom is very much a standard capitalistic villain, but his villainy goes a little deeper than that. He means to destroy Toontown and transform the area for sterile profit; by doing so he’s declaring war on art itself, as the madness of Toontown, while impossible to contain, is a hub of creativity and good humor. So he’s a fitting villain from where I stand, and come the end of the climax he’s guaranteed to freak the audience out on a whole other level as well.
Some of the crossover elements in the film seem like the stuff of childhood fever dreams. Here, Donald Duck and Daffy Duck find a venue to exercise their competitive streaks, and marquis mascots Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a quick and exhilarating scene. Funny, then, that the film is so inappropriate for kids! You have a hard-drinking and cigarette-bumming hero, sexual jokes that are barely veiled at all (the most blatant of which is the only line reproduced from source novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? by Gary Wolf), and topping it all off is the outrageously sexualized Jessica Rabbit, human wife to Roger. Then again, “questionable” material was no stranger to Zemeckis, as Back to the Future milked the icky topic of incest brilliantly. All this and more probably just added exponentially to the appeal for many kids, I would imagine. It’s a testament to Disney’s confidence in the film that it would only pull so many punches in bringing the story to life.
The visual appeal of the film is undimmed after all these years; the blue screen work for the Toontown sequence still inspires a sense of wonder, such as in Eddie’s wonderful descent down the skyscraper. It’s fitting that Judge Doom references The Wizard of Oz, as both that film and Who Framed Roger Rabbit pushed the boundaries of what a film could look like, and what strange alchemy could come together to conjure these moving pictures. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great technical achievement, being a great feather in the cap of Robert Zemeckis; the animation landmark here foreshadows his forays into CGI fantasias in the first decade of the 21st Century, such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. But the film is also a broader achievement, endowed as it is with great humor, heart and boundless creativity. Pretty much a triumph. 10/10.
Disney plunders its 1950 animated feature Cinderella for a live-action adaptation, with Downton Abbey‘s Lily James in the title role. The plot remains largely the same, as (Cinder)Ella is tormented by her wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), ridiculed by her stepsisters, and unexpectedly charmed by a prince (Richard Madden). At Cinderella’s lowest point, her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) has a few things of her own to say about Cinderella’s fortunes.
As far as surprises go, you might say the surprise is that there are no real surprises. This film is not subversive, or reliant on new twists, but instead is a straightforwardly beautiful story, updated well in certain areas, and with no shame in its embrace of the charm of the original material. The original film ran 75 minutes, and a shocking amount of that was devoted to animal antics, so the human-centric material being adapted from it really must total more like 35 or 40 minutes, but its expansion to feature length doesn’t seem excessive.
There are no extraneous complications to the plot, but rather some very welcome clarification and character development. Lily James has a slightly tough role to play, given that Cinderella is such a paragon of kindness. But as predictable as scenes of her stepmother emotionally abusing her are, they are always punctuated by the knowledge that it is Cinderella’s own virtues that are her downfall for most of the story. Because she is so unfailingly kind, she is open to be used and treated cruelly. This is not new insight to this adaptation, but it is communicated well and keeps the fleshed out story of Lady Tremaine’s cruelty grounded in character.
Speaking of our villain, Cate Blanchett is fantastic here, predatory like a snake while also able to radiate wicked charm. There are moments of unspoken sympathy here and there given to her character, but they are always subtle and underplayed. There is no redemption for the stepmother here (Maleficent this ain’t), but this version of the stepmother is very much defined by her intellect as wedded to her ambition. She has reasoned and reasonable plans, and they would work if her stepdaughter was less obtuse in her purity. So Blanchett is given carte blanche in creating a wicked character, while also getting the audience to maybe see things from her perspective as well.
Some of the new aspects of the story are updated efficiently but significantly, as Cinderella’s “disguise” as a Princess and (in this adaptation) the Prince’s affectation as a mere apprentice both fit in well with a class-conscious message. It is nicely delivered here, and calls to mind similar sentiments from last month’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. Overall the story is indeed faithful to the original, including nods to the animated film’s animal material, and this gives to Cinderella a sense of being old-fashioned. The slippers are still high heels, after all. But the traditional stuff is balanced well with the updates, making for a satisfying whole.
Director Kenneth Branagh has transitioned from directing high-profile Shakespeare adaptations to mainstream tentpoles, and his variety so far has been commendable. Thor, a superhero film steeped in Norse mythology; Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a CIA thriller; now Cinderella, a sumptuous fairy tale. Branagh brings his penchant for fencing and period dress (both featured in Hamlet) to the lavish production, but his most signature technical flourish is the dutch angle (the sideways tilting of the camera). Thor featured the most abuse of the technique since Roger Christian’s Battlefield: Earth, so it certainly surprised me that Cinderella features one and only one dutch shot (pictured above), but it’s a doozy. The restraint elsewhere makes this one shot stand out all the more, as Cinderella, racing with two minutes to midnight, appears to uncontrollably slide downward, both out the door and down in (affected) social class. Putting the bow on the film is composer Patrick Doyle’s pomp and circumstance, which enhance the simple charm of the film quite a bit. Incidentally, one of Doyle’s main leitmotifs in the film really reminds me of the main theme of Pan’s Labyrinth, by Javier Navarrete. But I digress.
Cinderella is a beautifully put together film, bolstered by a fantastic cast and a mix of old and new sentimentality. Scenes such as the fairy godmother’s transformation of Cinderella’s dress contain an undeniable movie magic as well as literal magic. This is a faithful and effective adaptation of a classic that definitely could have used updating (*cough* does Beauty and the Beast really need it too?? *cough*). A safe but splendid film. 8/10.
Bonus Review! (with mild SPOILERS)
In the real world, Frozen fever hasn’t died down in the least, and this 7-minute epilogue to the film is most welcome. In Arendelle, Elsa is determined to throw Anna a “perfect” birthday party; antics and fan service ensue.
I adore Frozen, and this short just goes for my, and many others’, warm and fluffy feels. The short is very much like a victory lap, and so its ambitions are mainly to give cameos and encores to elements of the film. Indeed, so many of those elements are frantically thrown in, it’s a wonder the Duke of Weselton didn’t show up for cake. I marvel at the fact that Santino Fontana (Hans) was rehired just to grunt! Also, the child chorus featured here is recognizable from early classroom scenes scrapped during development of Frozen.
But what I appreciate is that even in this bit of fluff, there’s insightful (in addition to fun) character stuff going on. Elsa’s determination to create a perfect day for Anna is obvious over-compensation for all the years of relative neglect that passed by as they grew up. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking drama, but you wouldn’t expect it to be. Take the short for what it is, a funny and charming window back into the lives of the characters Frozen fans love. And those little snowmen are great; I wonder what role they’ll play in Frozen 2…