Tag Archives: Walt Disney

“THE LION KING (2019)” Review (✫✫1/2)

The circle of (CGI) life. 

Let this be a lesson to Disney and any other media conglomerates in the future: just because something worked well the first time doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work every time after. Sure, when Jon Favreau directed the live-action Jungle Book remake in 2016, it garnered critical acclaim, grossed over $966 million at the box office, and even won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, with many viewers claiming that it was even better than the original. With The Jungle Book’s success in mind, Disney thought they could probably give The Lion King the same treatment and get the same result two times over.

Ah, but here’s the thing: The Jungle Book is consistently considered to be solidly mid-tier in terms of the old-timey Disney animated movies. It’s enjoyable enough, but it pales in comparison to the likes of Bambi, Pinocchio, and Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King, meanwhile, embodies everything great about Disney, from its colorful characters and animation to its vibrant and lively music all the way to its serious and dramatic storyline. The Lion King is widely considered to be Walt Disney’s greatest animated movie of all time – and rightfully so.

Much of the storyline is the same between both adaptations. In both movies, Simba (Donald Glover) is the son of the “Lion King” Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and the prince of the Pride Lands, the kingdom which his father oversees. As prince, Simba is destined to one day grow up, take his father’s place, and become the king over the Pride Lands and the animals who reside there.

However, there is another pining for Mufasa’s throne. Mufasa’s younger brother, a dirty, rugged, and unruly lion named Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was the first in line for the throne before Simba was born. Now consumed with jealousy and greed for the throne, Scar hatches a scheme to take away the throne from both Simba and Mufasa – and neither will like what he has planned for either of them.

Since this movie revisits so many of the plot beats from the first Lion King, this movie is more of a shot-for-shot re-skin to the original than a remake in its own right. As such, the visual effects are crucial in making this movie work, since so much of its appeal relies heavily on how it looks compared to its animated counterpart. So here’s the million-dollar question: how good does The Lion King look?

The short answer is pretty freaking fantastic. Like The Jungle Book, The Lion King uses photorealistic techniques to bring these CGI animals to life, behaving and moving on-screen as if you’re peering through the glass of an exotic zoo. Every time Mufasa let out a loud, ear-piercing roar, Zazu (John Oliver) spread out his petite little wings to fly, or Rafiki (John Kani) trotted along in the trees, bushes, and savannah, it felt like real animals were in front of you making these movements. The Jungle Book was revolutionary for its time by impressively digitally recreating animals and their behaviors, and The Lion King succeeds in executing many of the same techniques to give its animals a genuine, natural feel to them. If you compare the original Lion King with the remake side-by-side and ask which one looks more realistic, it isn’t even a competition: the remake wins.

But with its realistic computer graphics comes an unexpected consequence: now because the animals look so realistic, the animals can’t express as much as they could in the original. Neither could they in The Jungle Book remake, but that movie had one key element to it that The Lion King does not have: Neel Sethi. With him being one of the few human actors in The Jungle Book, he was able to play his emotions off of the animals and demonstrate genuine expressions of joy, intimidation, grief, sadness, anger, happiness, and excitement. Sure, the animals’ faces were mostly stoic and one-note, but then again they weren’t required to demonstrate expression: Neel was. He pulled off a decent enough job to where we could appreciate the rest of the technical craft behind The Jungle Book’s wild characters.

The Lion King does not have a human actor to anchor the film’s drama or emotions. What we’re left with, then, is an entire reliance on the animals and their limited facial expressions. That’s a problem because they don’t express much of anything throughout the film, despite the voice cast obviously giving it their all. It’s very awkward to watch Mufasa suddenly snap from angry to happy while playing with Simba in the Pride Lands without his facial cues to clue us in on his mood. A few accentuations to his facial animations would have helped with that. Would it be inaccurate to the real-life physiology? Yes, but at least we wouldn’t be as removed from the character personally.

I mentioned the voice actors. Some of them deliver brilliant vocal performances, such as Donald Glover and Beyonce as the elder Simba and Nala respectively. The minute Glover pops out and sings his heart out with “Hakuna Matata,” or when they harmonize during “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, it immediately fills you with chills and goosebumps at how beautiful they sound together. Anytime they shared dialogue or a musical number, I was immediately hooked and wanted to hear more from them (even if “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was annoyingly sung in the DAYTIME).

Other voice performances lack the raw and visceral punch that Glover and Beyonce bring. For instance, Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar, and his performance was so meek and wimpy that he sounds more like Jafar from Aladdin than he does Scar. Hugh Jackman was rumored to play Scar early on while casting was still under consideration, and I can’t tell you how much better it would have been if I heard Wolverine’s snarly voice seething between Scar’s teeth. The hyenas, played by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre are fine but lack the wacky personalities of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings. Seth Rogan is especially cringe-worthy as Pumbaa. He’s funny enough whenever he’s just bantering with Billy Eichner’s Timon, but have him start singing “Hakuna Matata” and your ears are guaranteed to start bleeding within minutes.

Overall, The Lion King is an enjoyable, albeit inconsistent, remake. I did enjoy seeing my favorite Lion King characters up on the big screen once again, and I did like seeing the new visual style applied to some of them. But the larger film as a whole does not work as well as the animated movie did, but what else did you expect? Some movies were not made to be interchangeable with live-action. Yeah, you could technically adapt movies such as The Incredibles, Up, and Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse into live-action. But with all of the bright colors, beautiful animation, and vivid visual style, why would you ever want to?

I know three things for certain. 1) The Oscar-worthy visual effects helps this movie as much as it hurts it. 2) Donald Glover and Beyonce are hands-down the best things that could have happened to this picture. 3) Seth Rogan should never attempt to sing again in his career, ever. And for the love of God, please sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” in the evening next time.

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“THE LION KING (1994)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A powerful tale of grief, resolution, and Hamlet.

As a child, there were several moments from Walt Disney’s classic movies that stick with you as you matured from a small cub into a fully grown adult all your own. In Pinocchio, that was when Pinocchio sacrificed himself to save his father Gepetto, turning himself from a puppet into a real boy. In Dumbo, it was that somber moment when Mrs. Jumbo extended her trunk out from the cage and cradled her disturbed baby Dumbo to sleep out in the gloomy circus grounds. And in Bambi, it was when Bambi witnessed his mother tragically shot and killed by a hunter in the cold, snowy forest.

Time and time again, Disney has demonstrated an impeccable ability to deliver fun and colorful adventures, but not so detached from reality to where its cute and cuddly creatures didn’t have their own problems and issues of mortality to deal with. These images stay with us because in most cases, what their child-like characters go through could have been us.

This is one among many reasons why The Lion King is such a success, and arguably Disney’s greatest animated feature to date. When I was younger, I remembered all of the kid-friendly elements that appealed to me so much through my bright-eyed, adolescent mind. I remembered the memorable kingdom animals that bantered and bickered about amusingly, the brilliantly sweeping animation that captured the vibrant and luscious landscape of the African Savannah, and the wonderful musical numbers beautifully written by Hans Zimmer and Elton John. All of these captured my mind and imagination in my young age, but after re-watching it through older eyes, I had a greater appreciation on the maturity and the themes the movie was trying to explore, a beautiful homily on life not being about where you came from, but where you’re going: a “circle of life,” so to speak.

The Lion King tells the story of Simba (Matthew Broderick), a young lion cub who is the prince of the Pride Lands. His father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the king of the Pride Lands and the ruler of all the animals who reside there. But he won’t be king forever. As he points out to the young Simba, there will be one day where the sun sets on his time and a new king will have to rise in his place. That king, Mufasa says, is none other than his own son Simba.

But it wasn’t always that way. Long before Simba was born, his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) was supposed to be next in line for the throne. Selfish, twisted, and devilishly conniving, Scar is jealous that he will one day be forced to give up the throne in place of his little twerpy lion cub nephew who hasn’t even grown out his full mane yet. As Simba grows older, he will have to struggle for the throne against his uncle Scar, and accept his destiny as the King of the Pride Lands.

We’re barely into talking about The Lion King, and already it feels like we’re referring to an epic dramatic blockbuster more than an animated kids’ movie. In a way, we are. The story was co-written by Linda Woolverton, who was most known for penning Disney’s 1991 release Beauty And The Beast prior to The Lion King. In many ways, they’re very similar stories with shared meanings and messages behind them. Both of these films deal with characters stricken with emotional grief, guilt, and anguish. Both of these films deal with masculine protagonists secluding themselves away from the rest of the world, resolved to their suffering and their need to be closed off from it. But they also deal with how those characters come to face their grief and sorrow, resolve it, and commit themselves to a better tomorrow despite their past tragedies.

How is this different from other Disney epics that follows this same plot line, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi? It doesn’t, I guess. But The Lion King feels more immersed in its emotions: in the highs and lows of its characters, in the joys and the sorrows, in the fun and upbeat moments where animals are singing and dancing together in the jungle, and in the slower and darker moments where characters have to come to terms to who they are and who they are going to be going forward.

It makes sense that the film feels as thematic and operatic as it does. After all, directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff have stated several times in numerous interviews how they were inspired by several epic folklore stories while making The Lion King, including Williams Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the tale of Joseph from the Holy Bible. Does it sound a little heavy-handed to describe such historic works in comparison to an animated kids movie about jungle animals and lion cubs? Definitely, but it works beautifully in context here. It kind of falls in line with Disney’s earlier work: his movies weren’t just about puppets, giant-eared baby elephants, and bright-eyed fawns. They were about growing up and learning from their experiences in the past.

The brightly-colored and vivid animation is arguably the best Disney has ever helped produce. The first moment the sun rises in the east of the Savannah at the beginning of the film, it’s so warm and bright that it makes you feel like the sun is actually rising from the screen and shining its bright ray onto you. The cast is equally impeccable, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Cummings and several others offering their voice talents in this sprawling, fun, and visually dynamic family epic.

But arguably the greatest of all of the production elements here is the music, which is co-written by both Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and Grammy Award-winning pop star Elton John. Normally you wouldn’t expect the composer behind Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, and True Romance to be a match made in Heaven with “Rocket Man” himself. Yet, their collaboration together is absolutely breathtaking, with their several music numbers including “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, and “Circle of Life” breathing vibrancy and heart into this already emotionally stirring animated epic. It is no less influential to Lion King’s success than John Williams is to Star Wars or Randy Newman is to Toy Story.

There will no doubt be much discussion over which of Disney’s several successes will go on to be revered as his best, among them including the recently released Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. I waste no breath in saying The Lion King is hands-down my favorite. It’s an emotionally mature animated epic that will leave the adults with several beats to reflect over, all while not short-changing on the fun moments and musical numbers that will delight the kiddos. Pity, that the Academy Awards wouldn’t introduce the Oscar for Best Animated Feature until several years later when Shrek would win the first inaugural award in 2002. The Lion King would have won for sure.

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“DARK PHOENIX” Review (✫1/2)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Goodbye Fox, hello Disney. 

Dark Phoenix represents a fatigued franchise on its last legs, a whipped dog that’s gone on for way too long that desperately needs to be put out of its misery. Well, if you need to administer euthanasia, let me be the first to volunteer. If there was ever a case to make in favor of the Disney-Fox merger, Dark Phoenix would be the main arguing point.

In this thankfully final installment of the rebooted X-Men series, Dark Phoenix follows the X-Men, now highly popular celebrity figures, as they venture out onto a space mission to save a stranded NASA crew after being struck by a solar flare. After Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi-Smitt McPhee), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) make their way to the shuttle to rescue the astronauts, Jean gets left behind and absorbs the full impact of the blast. Miraculously, she survives, though not without some monstrous side effects.

You see, the solar flare Jean absorbed was not a solar flare at all: it was an ancient entity known as the Phoenix, a powerful consciousness that contains vast cosmic abilities. Now possessed by the Phoenix force, Jean has to resist its temptations and rescue her friends from herself, before she loses control and kills everything she has ever loved.

If this plot feels like a retread, that’s because it is. Dark Phoenix was first adapted to the big screen in 2006’s The Last Stand, where Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey lashed out at everyone human and mutant alike with her psychic abilities. That film was lambasted all around, with critics disliking its heavier emphasis on action and visual effects while fans hated how flippantly the movie killed off some of its series mainstays.

I am one of the relative few that enjoyed X-Men: The Last Stand, mostly for the social-political questions it imposed and how significantly it racked up the stakes from previous installments. However, even I must admit that the Phoenix side plot took an obvious backseat to the rest of the film’s main storyline. Fox could have easily split both of the movie’s premises in half, devote more time to both subjects, and make two fantastic movies from it. Instead, they crammed both storylines into one movie and halved both of the experiences for us. Frustrating for passionate fans of the franchise, but it didn’t compromise the overall experience for me.

Here the Phoenix storyline is given the full treatment in Dark Phoenix. And after watching both movies, I now desperately want the Phoenix storyline to take a backseat.

Where do I begin? For one thing, the movie completely fails to follow through on the consistency of its own storyline. If you saw X-Men: Apocalypse, you will remember that the Phoenix force emerges from Jean at the end of the movie to defeat Apocalypse and save her friends. Yet here, it is explained to us that the Phoenix force possesses Jean after the space mission, several years after the events of Apocalypse. The really negligent part? Writer-director Simon Kinberg was responsible for writing both movies. How does he miss a Juggernaut-sized plot hole that large and fail to correct it, especially when it’s in his own screenplay?

But it’s not just Kinberg’s writing that is completely lackluster; his direction is equally as sloppy and misguided. Take for instance the X-Men’s space mission, where they’re roaming around in zero-gravity on the shuttle despite having no space suits or helmets on. What, do mutants not need oxygen to survive? Did I miss that lesson in Mutants 101? The production design itself is also surprisingly lazy, with the costumes and the makeup on Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique so clearly lacking the detail that she looks more like a cosplayer than an X-Man. And one scene between Jean Grey and James McCoy’s Professor X was downright laughable. She manipulated his legs to make him walk in what was supposed to be a terrifying demonstration of her new powers, but his posture was so clunky and awkward that I was wondering if he was auditioning to be Pinocchio for a live-action remake.

The movie’s saving grace lies in the performances, which are as poised and passionate as they have always been in the previous movies. That doesn’t change the ridiculousness of the plot they’re in, or how every line of dialogue is essentially copied and pasted from former and better movies. Mind you that other bad X-Men movies came before this one. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was just as silly and ridiculous, and X-Men: Apocalypse fumbled over its monotonous plot line too many times to count. But at least they tried to tell a coherent story. Dark Phoenix doesn’t even look like it’s making an effort to. It feels more like the writer, director and producers handed in the towel and just gave up, because Disney was going to take back ownership of its characters anyway. The X-Men deserve better treatment than that, even if they are being rebooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The really dumb part about all this is that Fox already had the perfect ending to its franchise in Logan, which felt like the last period of the last sentence of the last page of a fantastic journey you just went on. Dark Phoenix tacks on an awkward “but” at the end of that sentence for no reason other than to add words to the page, and it ends up tainting the entire franchise because of it. When Disney inevitably reboots the X-Men for the MCU, let them use this movie as a lesson for what not to do going forward. Dark Phoenix, meanwhile, deserves to stay buried beneath its own ashes.

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“CHRISTOPHER ROBIN” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

And a bear of very big heart.

There is a moment in Christopher Robin where Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings) tells his old friend “They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday.” Now obviously Pooh misquoted the phrase, but in his own silly way he got the meaning behind it exactly right. We often imagine our dreams as euphoric, illusive fantasies: a lifelong goal that is impossible to reach. That’s what the elder Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) thinks after all, as he tirelessly works through the weekdays and weekends away from his family. Pooh Bear, meanwhile, is content with believing that happiness comes naturally: like the blustery winds, naptime, and hunny.

There was a time where Christopher Robin believed this too, as we all do when we were as young and naive as he was. But then the most heartbreaking thing happens to Christopher Robin: he grows up. He goes to boarding school. He goes to war. Get’s a job. Falls in love. Marries. Has a child. And he’s eventually thrusted into a business where he is forced to choose profits over people. It’s a sad, dreary existence, and it is a reality every child has to face as they grow out of adolescence and into adulthood.

Watching the opening slides of Christopher Robin, I caught myself crying as the montages flipped through Christopher Robin’s life like the pages in a children’s book. But not because he left behind his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood; because he left his old self behind.

When I was growing up like Christopher Robin did, my exposure to the world’s harsh realities changed me and made me different from the naïve, simple-minded, carefree child that I once was. You learn things about society you wish you never knew. You learn about history, war, violence, and death. You learn about the political forces that are pulling at the planet like a malicious game of tug-of-war. You learn about third world countries where people are dying of starvation and thirst, where parents abandon their children and people mourn for the loved ones they’ve lost. You learn all of these things and it drains you to the point where you are no longer the same happy, lovable kid you used to be. Now you’re just another sour-faced, grouchy old adult, and you carry the world’s problems on your shoulder just like every other person does.

I say all this to emphasize that Christopher Robin experiences these same things and changes too as a result of them, just like any other human being would. To me, watching Christopher Robin grow up was one of the most painful things to experience in the theater. I had always imagined Christopher Robin as one of those staple, never-aging characters: like Micky Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Superman. Seeing him brought down to my level struggling with the same issues and nightmares as I did was an emotional shock that I was not ready for. It really put into perspective how Christopher Robin changed from his old days in the Hundred Acre Wood, and what’s really at stake for himself during his journey.

Speaking of the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh and his friends are among the best things that stand out in this picture. I was absolutely overjoyed every time I saw Pooh on the screen with his tummy rumbling, or Eeyore pouting again, or Tigger bouncing, or Piglet going “Oh, D-d-d-d-dear!” The graphics and animation is convincing as the visual effects team brings these stuffed animals to life. Their movements and interactions are so believable that they felt like a kid was moving them, playing pretend with them in their bedroom.

The voice work, however, easily stands out the most in bringing these characters to life. No surprise there as Jim Cummings has voiced both Pooh Bear and Tigger for well over 30 years now. I’m more impressed with the performances that aren’t as notable as Cummings and McGregor are. For instance, did you know that Brad Garrett voiced Eeyore in this movie? Who would have known that Raymond’s passive-aggressive older brother in “Everybody Loves Raymond” would make the best sourpuss out of the entire Hundred Acre Wood?

The film is directed by Marc Forster, whose career has motioned him to tackle numerous productions, all starkly different from each other. The 2001 drama Monster’s Ball was a big hit for Halle Berry and won her an Oscar for best actress. The 2006 meta-comedy Stranger Than Fiction took a guy’s life and literally put it on the page of a book. And don’t get me started on his action repertoire, which ranges from James Bond’s Quantum of Solace to Machine Gun Preacher and World War Z.

Perhaps the movie that shares the most similarities to Christopher Robin is 2004’s Finding Neverland, which tells the story of writer J.M. Barrie and his relationship with a family who served as the primary inspiration for his play Peter Pan. In many ways, Finding Neverland and Christopher Robin are essentially the same film. Both are centered on adults who have lost their way and are seeking to regain something they lost in their childhood. Both find themselves again through the young at heart and the imagination these kids inspire them. And they both learn that even though their bodies grow older, their ambition does not and their dreams extend beyond what you learn in boarding school or the work force.

It’s true, I grew up with Winnie the Pooh and have many fond memories of playing with Pooh and his friends in my room, just as I’m sure Christopher Robin did in his own room. But I don’t believe my personal experiences impacted my infatuation with this picture. Many films about Winnie the Pooh have been theatrically released before, and none of them were as profound or thoughtful as this one. Even Pooh’s last cinematic outing in 2011 was just an anthology of random, unrelated stories bow-tied together, despite how charming and lighthearted they were regardless. Christopher Robin is different. Yes it possesses the fun, the silliness, and the joy that Pooh and his friends brought us when we were younger. But it also possess the adult perspective as well, how our experiences impact the person we were and molds us into the person we become.

The magic in Christopher Robin is that Pooh finds happiness in simple, every day things; as if the things that bring us the most joy are not extraordinary, but rather quite ordinary albeit special to ourselves. I find it refreshing that in Pooh’s and Robin’s last exchange, they don’t say anything incredibly profound or philosophical, but are rather simply talking through life’s greatest mysteries as two friends going through it together. The moment from the film that touched me the most was when Christopher Robin confesses to Winnie the Pooh how lost he truly was. “Good thing I found you,” Pooh replies in his own simple-minded way. Silly old bear.

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“THE INCREDIBLES” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Buena Vista Pictures

Mister and Misses (Plus the kids)

I’ve never seen a film like The Incredibles before, and I doubt I will ever see another one like it again. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of my fair share of superhero movies before, including more recently X2 and Spider-Man 2. But The Incredibles in particular is special even compared to those movies. Like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo, The Incredibles challenges the visual and emotional capability of the animated motion picture and asserts it as equal to its live-action peers, and so it is. The Incredibles has earned every right to be compared to the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the many others that will come after it.

Taking place in a world where Supers are as common as regular folks are, The Incredibles follows one super-heroic family trying to re-accommodate into normal American life. Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is the super-strength super-dad of the family going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, while his wife Helen a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is just trying her best to be a good housewife and mother for her kids. Speaking of the kids, they’re facing adolescent issues of their own, with the force-field wielding Violet (Sarah Vowell) struggling with her shyness around a school crush, the speedster Dash (Spencer Fox) frustrated that he isn’t allowed to participate in school sports, and the baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile)… well, everything and anything that can go wrong with being a super-baby.

One day, Bob gets a secret message enticing him back into superhero work, despite it being outlawed by the federal government. Reminiscent of the old days of superheroing and wanting to give it one last go, Bob suits up as Mr. Incredible and sets off for one incredible adventure with his family.

The visuals are nothing short of astounding in this movie. Just like with Toy Story and Finding Nemo, The Incredibles is a colorful, vibrant adventure beaming with impressive detail and saturation. Yet, even by Pixar’s already impressive standards, The Incredibles still manages to stand out. How? Simple: the speed and motion of character’s animation is fast-paced and exciting, on-par with other superhero fan-fares that features similar exhilarating action.

It doesn’t take long for us to notice this. In fact, in the first 10 minutes alone, Mr. Incredible 1) Saves a cat from a tree, 2) Stops a high-speed car chase, 3) Interrupts a rooftop robbery, 4) Saves a citizen from leaping off of a building, 5) Fights a super villain in the middle of a bank heist, 6) Saves a child from a bomb attached to himself, 7) Stops a train from derailing off of its tracks, and 8) Makes it just in the knick of time for his own wedding. When I say this movie feels like the Spider-Man, X-Men, or Superman movies, I mean it. This movie is so exciting to watch that you feel like it can compete with most action movies, let alone animated ones as well.

I wondered why this movie felt so different compared to the rest of the animated genre? It doesn’t feel like its aimed at children, after all. What with its highly-stylized action violence, explosive spectacle, and more darker, mature moments, I wondered why this felt so adult-oriented despite its PG rating? Then I remembered: this film was directed by Brad Bird, who also helmed the animated science-fiction film The Iron Giant years ago. Like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles is a movie filled with ambitious vision; daring in its visual art and far-reaching in its emotional range. In many ways, they’re both very similar films. They both portray the modern American family robbed by normalcy and dysfunction. They are both thrown into extraordinary circumstances that they find mesmerizing and fascinating. And ultimately, they pull themselves out of their dire situations through the greatest superpower of all: family.

You’ll also notice how the movie has an aesthetic that satires 90’s spy movies such as James Bond and Mission Impossible. I wasn’t sure how exactly that was going to work for an animated superhero movie like The Incredibles, but it works beautifully. The scenery evokes the feel and grandeur of MI6 headquarters, while the Incredibles’ gadgets are reminiscent of the toys that Q provides Bond to bring with him on his missions. Speaking of Q, there’s a spoof of the character here named Edna Mode, who’s hilariously voiced by Brad Bird himself, and she provides a personality so melodramatic and overbearing that she couldn’t help but remind me of those high-strung fashionites not unlike Edith Head or Anna Wintour. And the music by Michal Giacchino is especially sleek and snazzy, with its jazz horns blaring and its drums beating like those smooth spy jams you listened to growing up.

Go and see The Incredibles. My review cannot get much simpler than that. It’s an exciting, action-packed, suspenseful, funny, and wildly entertaining thrill ride that not only blows most of its animated competition out of the water, but also most of its live-action superhero counterparts as well. To put it in one word, the movie is simply… incredible.

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Avengers Assemble: Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies

If you had told me in 2008 that Iron Man would propel a cinematic franchise that’s made more money and movies than the Star Wars, Batman, and Harry Potter franchises, I would have laughed at you all the way to class. “How could that be?” I would’ve asked. “Marvel doesn’t even own the rights to its most popular character, Spider-Man!” A decade later, I’m eating my words, and I couldn’t be happier for it.

It’s amazing to see how far Marvel has come since then. Avengers: Infinity War is the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and later this year, Ant-Man & The Wasp will be the 20th. That means Marvel has pumped out an average of two films every year since Iron Man’s release. The fact that Marvel has pushed out that many movies is impressive enough on its own. The fact that nearly all of them were as financially and critically successful as they were makes their feats all the more impressive. Before Marvel, Star Wars was the highest-grossing film franchise at $8 billion. The MCU has blown that away with a whopping $15 billion.

To say that Marvel has become successful at the movie business would be a severe understatement. It became successful, stacked billions of billions of dollars on top of it, threw on a cosplay, then break-danced in front of the movie theater like it was Flash Gordon. I would go so far as to say it’s the only considerable force at the box office. Even when you include Star Wars as competition, Walt Disney still owns both of those properties. So who else is there to offer serious cinematic competition at the likes of Disney?

With Avengers: Infinity War releasing past week and quickly on its way to grossing one billion dollars at the box office, it’s worth taking a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best. So without further adieu, here are my Top 10 films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

– David Dunn

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“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)” Review (✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

A tale as old as 20 years ago.

I’m going to be ostracized no matter what, so I may as well just come out with it: I didn’t like Beauty and the Beast. I really wanted to. I was a big fan of the original, I was really excited for this movie’s new look with updated visual effects, and I was especially looking forward to Emma Watson as everyone’s favorite book-loving heroine. Ultimately though, I felt as though this movie didn’t live up to its expectation as a remake of the iconic Disney classic. Then again though, who in their right mind would want to remake Beauty and the Beast anyway?

The Beauty and the Beast remake follows the original about as much as you expect, but with a few changes. There’s still Belle (Watson), there’s still Beast (Dan Stevens), there’s still that egotistical jock Gaston (Luke Evans) and his sidekick Le Fou (Josh Gad), as well as a slew of other characters. However, Disney thankfully updated their adaptation and made some changes to differ its live-action adaptation from its animated counterpart. Belle’s father Maurice (Kevin Kline) is a clockmaker instead of an inventor, Beast’s origin is visually portrayed in the introduction, and Le Fou is now a homosexual. Conservatives roar in upheaval.

Since the homosexual aspect has been covered non-stop in mainstream media, I’m going to get that controversy out of the way first so I can focus more on the rest of the film. First of all: no, I don’t mind that Le Fou is gay. Gay characters have inhabited films numerous times over now, from Dog Day Afternoon all the way to Moonlight. Even in animated movies, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Finding Dory and Zootopia all had gay characters in them, however small of roles they played. To get outraged about a gay character to the point of banning the film is just ridiculous and over the top. For parents who are unreasonably angry about this, I would remind you that this is in a movie whose main characters experience Stockholm syndrome and bestiality. Where exactly do your priorities lie?

That being said, the character’s homosexuality was being heavily forced in the picture. I’m not criticizing Josh Gad, who plays Le Fou upbeat with energy and enthusiasm. I’m criticizing director Bill Condon, who paints the character as so on-the-nose gay that the only way to make it more obvious would be to nail a sign on Gad’s forehead. His high-pitched voice matches that of the women around him, his swagger so feminine that it’s surprising he’s not walking down a runway. His body posture and movements are so flamboyant that he comes off as pompous rather than genuine. Compare this to the nuanced performances of Stanley Tucci or Trevante Rhodes in The Devil Wears Prada or Moonlight. These were gay characters, but they weren’t so on-the-nose to the point where it was hokey or silly. Those characters felt like real people. Le Fou feels like a stereotype.

Again, I don’t mind that Le Fou is gay, but I do mind how it is portrayed as a caricature instead of a characteristic. Agenda or no agenda, topics such as sexuality need to be done well in film, and Le Fou’s is one that needed more finessing.

The rest of the film is… fine, I guess. Nothing really reaches out to you in the way that the animated film does, despite the added story content. I wondered why this was the case? From a technical standpoint, this film was produced at a higher quality than that of the original. The costumes are intricate and elegant, acutely embodying the traditional garb and style of the 19th century. The visual effects are astounding, and the castle characters pop out to you more than they did in the original. And the music, which recruits original composer Alan Menken, rejuvenates Beauty and the Beast’s soundtrack with newfound vigor for a modern audience.

Beauty and the Beast does all of this well, yet it’s still lacking. Why? When I look back on it, I think it comes down to the performances, or more accurately how they are captured. Stevens has his breakout role here as the Beast, but he never really sticks out beyond his roars and coarse deep voice. It feels like the CGI is doing more of the performance than he is, while he more or less just moves in the background, never really taking presence on-screen. Considering how much he stood out in television shows such as “Downton Abbey” to independent flicks such as The Guest, it’s sad to see his talents diluted down here to basically a motion performance.

His co-star Watson is sadly an even bigger disappointment. Her performance was the part I was most excited about in the film, but while watching her, I noticed that she felt more stiff and wooden than even the castle characters did. Everytime she spoke a line that Paige O’Hara spoke in the original, it didn’t feel like it was Belle speaking. It felt like Watson was just reading from the page during a script read. The only actor to wholly embrace his role was Luke Evans as Gaston, who ironically enough is the most cartoonish character out of the whole cast.

I don’t even necessarily blame the actors for their awkward placement in this film. I think Condon just didn’t know how to direct them to their fullest potential. Among his credits include the last two Twilight films and The Fifth Estate. He didn’t know how to guide his cast in the right direction in those movies either. Why would he suddenly learn how to do it now?

I know this review will be divisive among passionate Disney fans, who perhaps will love the source material too much to see when it isn’t done well. The film remains to be brilliantly produced, visually stunning, and pleasing to the ears. It’s a for-sure lock for multiple technical awards at the Oscars, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it even won a few as well.

But Beauty and the Beast feels too much like it’s trying to replicate the emotions from its animated counterpart instead of trying to fill it with its own life. It’s sad, really. Disney took a bold step in remaking one of its most well-known properties, only to crumble underneath the sensationalism of it all. And people thought the gay character would be the movie’s biggest problem.

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“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Beauty exists on the inside, not the outside.

The first time I watched Beauty and the Beast in theaters was nothing short of an enchanting experience. It was absolutely magical. The bright colors, the wondrous music, the dizzying animation, the brilliant voiceover work and the creative characters all combined into an experience that is ethereal, passionate, and everlasting. This is truly a standout among the Disney films, one that clearly demonstrates why animated film should be considered on equal footing to live-action.

In even the opening moments of the picture, we understand the scope of this movie and where exactly it wants to lead us. Sweeping through valleys, trees, and rivers until it arrives at a lone castle, we are told the story of an arrogant prince who refused to shelter an old woman from the cold. That woman, as it turns out, was an enchantress, and she placed a curse on this prince for his cruelty and his ego. The nails on his hands turned into claws like a lion. His smooth skin turned hairy like a wolf. And his human face was erased and replaced with the horns, teeth, and fur of an oxen. This prince was no longer royalty. He was now a Beast.

Enter Belle (Paige O’Hara), a village girl that lived a few miles away from the Beast and his castle. Belle isn’t seen as normal by her fellow villagers. She’s not dainty like the other girls are. She’s not interested in looking for a man, birthing children, or settling down to have a family. She’s more than content in living at home with her father the inventor and the occasional book she checks out from the local library. Her independence is seen as strange, even dangerous by her fellow villagers. But that’s the time that she lives in.

One day, her father ventures too far into the woods and is attacked by a pack of wolves. As Belle races to rescue her father, she runs into a creature that looks like an animal but talks like a human. That creature is the Beast, and thus begins their adventure as old as time.

One of the most prolific elements in any Disney movie is always the music. “When You Wish Upon A Star” in Pinnocchio. “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. “Circle of Life” in Lion King. In most movies, the characters, the dialogue, and the action all make up the tone and feel of the film, while the music more or less rests in the background.

Not with Disney though. In their films, the music is elevated to the forefront as a form of expression for character’s moods and feelings, the lyrics expressing meaning and language much like the dialogue does. That rhythm and aesthetic is repeated masterfully here in Beauty and the Beast as composer Alan Menken takes us through an epic journey filled with upbeat melodies, climactic staccato, ominous foreshadowing, and beautiful voices that fill us with wonder and joy. This material would make for great opera if it hasn’t already in its animated form.

Seriously, the next time you watch Beauty and the Beast, close your eyes during one of the musical numbers and see if you can still follow what’s going on. I’m betting a 20 that you can. The conversation that characters carry while in movement, singing, and dancing carries the story in a way that flows just right while just slightly resisting the urge to be on-the-nose. Most musicals have that problem, in that they have to spell everything out like we’re second graders and can’t tell what’s going on unless it’s read to us like a bedtime story.

But Beauty and the Beast doesn’t ever fall into this mundane repetition of obviousness. Not once. Mostly because every scene comes alive with movement and energy, always moving on to the next scene, not slowing down to pause unless a scene calls for it. That’s because directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise have a clear understanding of pacing and build up, and how to make these elements work to escalate emotions in a film. Watch, for instance, how long they delay the reveal of the Beast. It’s at about the 30-minute mark when the Beast finally emerges from the shadows, and he doesn’t pop out like a Jack-in-the-box. His reveal is instead slow and ominous, ashamed by his ugly, animalistic appearance.

I find it interesting how the story parallels outward looks to inward personality, just like The Phantom of the Opera or Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. In many ways, Belle and the Beast are outsiders, their differences shamed by the people around them. Beast is an aggressive, angry individual who is just seeking love, but doesn’t know how to pursue it or even where to start. Belle is a compassionate and intelligent woman who is proud of her independence, but secretly yearns for something more. Both of these are character archetypes definitely, but they’re done with an energy and honesty here that feels original and vivid.

I was reminded of Pinocchio while watching this movie. They’re very similar in many ways, mostly because they pose the same questions. How do you define someone’s humanity? Where does real strength come from? And where does the concept of love fit into all of this? They go about these questions in different ways, but they arrive to the same conclusions. Humanity is honesty, strength comes from within, and love is the source to both of these.

It’s also interesting how screenwriter Linda Woolverton confronts gender stereotypes while defining concepts of masculinity and femininity. There’s a character in here named Gaston (Richard White), who’s filled with so much hot air that his character would make more sense if he were a balloon. Gaston embodies all of the characteristics in how society perceives masculinity. His muscles are bulging and his bones are strong. He loves to get into fights and show off in front of cute girls. He is cocky and arrogant. He lacks humility and humbleness. And he doesn’t have a willingness to learn or admit when he is wrong. If these characters existed in a woman, she would be shamed for being selfish and egotistical. Yet when they’re in a man, people shrug their shoulders and say “Eh, boys will be boys.”

Gaston is seen as a hero by the townspeople, when really he’s only interested in serving his own self interests. I find it interesting how in the more pressured moments, Gaston cowers in fear, whereas Belle and the Beast persevere through the struggles. Yet, Gaston is celebrated as the bravest man in town. Could anyone ever see the Beast as masculine, or would they be too scared by his appearance and call him a monster instead? And what about Belle? She’s braver than Gaston, yet she’s a woman. Do you call that masculine strength, or feminine strength?

As the first woman to write a script for Disney, I’m assuming Woolverton comes from a personal space while writing this. She shows very clearly that people don’t exist inside stereotypes even though we create them. We are our own person, unique and irreplaceable in our own ways. This is a movie that celebrates individuality, diversity, and gender equality. While men and women exhibit different strengths from one another, they are strengths nonetheless. Woolverton has done a masterful job in making this film immediately relevant to her audience. I presume that’s why she would continue a long writing relationship with Disney that includes credits such as The Lion King, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland.

I could go on and on about all the amazing things about this picture. The animation is crisp and clear and brings detail and life into every person, every scene, and every setting that it paints in our minds. The characters come alive and dance to the beat and tune of every exciting moment in this picture. And at the center of it all are these two star-crossed strangers, who have every reason to be afraid of each other, yet fall in love despite all the odds.

I’m trying to levy where exactly I would rank Beauty and the Beast in comparison to its fellow Disney companions. Pinocchio is definitely first for me, then Bambi. I think Beauty and the Beast would rank third for me, but that’s still no small feat to achieve. With generations of different characters, stories, and mythology at their fingertips, how does Disney keep improving upon their franchise? This is a film that is so well made that you could see it being translated into live-action, although I almost don’t want it to. There really isn’t another film quite like Beauty and the Beast, and I seriously doubt there will be another one like it in the future.

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“FINDING NEMO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Fish are friends, not food.

Reviewing a film like Finding Nemo is an impossible task, because it isn’t meant to be reviewed. It’s meant to be experienced. Like Pixar’s other masterpieces, Finding Nemo finds joy and adventure in seemingly ordinary environments. Toy Story found theirs in a toy box, and A Bug’s Life found theirs in an anthill. Now Finding Nemo plunges into the ocean to tell us a story about family, fatherhood, and friendship. The resulting film is nothing short of Pixar’s best: iconic, entertaining, and meaningful.

After viewing what is perhaps the most heartbreaking opening I’ve ever seen in an animated movie, we are introduced to the film’s key characters. Marlin (Albert Brooks), a deep-sea clownfish, is the single father of Nemo (Alexander Gould), his son who suffers from a short, defective fin. He’s very protective of his son: so much so, that he will hide him away in his anemone, away from the rest of the ocean.

One day, Marlon goes through any parent’s worst nightmare: he sees his son kidnapped by human divers swimming out in the ocean. Now accompanied only by a short-minded regal tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), they set off across the ocean to save Marlin’s son.

The first thing you notice in any Pixar movie is its animation. Vibrant, elegant, and beaming with life, the one thing you can always appreciate about their films is the vivid details of their animation. With Finding Nemo, however, I’d argue that it is the most refined out of Pixar’s other films. This is the fifth film Pixar has produced now, and the fifth time that they’ve captured me with their ambient motions, intricate details, and complex characters. The colors are bright and saturated, reaching out to you in all of its eye-catching graphics and details. The fish feel fresh and alive, briskly swimming through the ocean as if they were real animals. The ocean itself breathes with just as much life as the fish do. Its plants flow in synchronization with the ocean streams, its currents moving like breaths in the ocean. This is easily Pixar’s most visually pleasing film yet, not just because of the colors and motions, but because of how real entire environments feel. This isn’t just an animated ocean: it is the ocean. That’s how authentic it feels and moves.

But the animation isn’t the only beautiful thing about Finding Nemo. Its story is equally breathtaking; simple and straightforward, yet creative and complex. On the surface, we have this father-son dynamic going on in between Marlin and Nemo, which serves as the emotional focal point of the film. In deeper insight, this is a movie about environment conservation and the effect our race is having on fish life.

Take Nemo’s plight as the most pure example of this. After being kidnapped, Nemo is dropped into a dentist’s fish tank with a collection of other fish, all of whom are terrified of the dentist’s reckless niece. It is in this tank where you see very simply that fish are not viewed as living creatures to these humans, but rather as objects, property, gifts. Seeing how poorly the fish are treated in this movie reflects a very sad truth under its layers of fun and humor, and it makes me ponder on how much of a threat we truly pose on the environments of the real clownfish, regal tangs, sharks, sea turtles, and the rest of the fish in the ocean.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is at heart a kids movie: a fun, colorful, and unique one at that. Yet this is a rare picture even among children’s films, an animated movie parents can enjoy just as much as their kids do. Perhaps that is because the main character is a parent himself, and it is easy to relate to his joy, his fears, and his solace as a father, and as someone who cares for something much bigger than himself. Animated films nowadays are like the ocean: vast, wide, never-ending, and impossible to predict. Finding Nemo is the pearl you find in it: small, hard to find, yet immensely valuable, just like its small-finned star.

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“THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)” Review (✫✫✫)

Introducing the legend of Tarza– oops, I meant Mowgli.

What is it with Jon Favreau taking the most obscure ideas and actually making good movies out of them? In 2008 he brought us Iron Man, which initially seemed like a sub par idea for a superhero, but then he delivered one of the greatest superhero films of our generation. Then he made Cowboys & Aliens, which sounds stupid by the title alone, yet he still managed to make a unique blend of genres in one exciting and interesting sci-fi western. Now we have his answer to Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, and even though it’s a remake, it’s remains to be one of the most original and compelling experiences you can have at the movies this weekend.

Anyone who is watching this movie already knows the story of The Jungle Book. There’s a jungle, an adventurous human child named Mowgli (Neel Sethi), his wolf pack family, a lazy, carefree bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), a black panther named Bageera (Ben Kingsley), and a vicious tiger named Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), who harbors an intense hatred of mankind. At learning about Mowgli’s presence in the jungle, Shere Kahn swears to find the child and maul him limb-from-limb. The jungle unites together to take Mowgli away to a human village and save him from Shere Kahn.

Those of you who frequently read my reviews will notice that I am not a big fan of remakes. I am also, surprisingly, not a big fan of the original Jungle Book, which I thought was thinly written despite some outstanding musical numbers. Yet, despite my negative outlook for both of these things, I found myself quite pleased with this movie, both as a remake and as an adaptation of The Jungle Book.

The first improvement Favreau makes over its predecessor is its characters. Yes, we liked Mowgli, Baloo, Bageera and others in the 1969 quote-unquote “classic”, but we didn’t really know them. We didn’t really understand them. We had their surface personalities to admire, but that’s it. Where did Mowgli come from? Why does Baloo want to adopt this man-cub straight for no reason whatsoever? Why does Shere Kahn hate mankind?

All of these are questions I had as a kid that 2016 provided me the answers to. This is a jungle fable that is fully fleshed out and realized, not unlike most of today’s modern fantasy epics. The characters of Mowgli, Baloo, Bageera, Shere Kahn, Kaa and others all have their place and function in the story, and their narrative flows as freely as the nile river. We come to relate to these characters not as Disney properties, but as personalities in their own right.

But the best thing about The Jungle Book is easily its visual effects. Yes, I know that’s a recycled compliment in today’s visually-dominated industry, but its a compliment that The Jungle Book is more than deserving in. Utilizing both motion capture from the voice actors and studying the motions and movements of real jungle animals, Favreau illustrates a smart attention to detail as these animals breathe, move, and feel like their real life counterparts, minus their speaking. Neel’s interactions with the environment, likewise, feel vivid and alert, as if he truly is swinging on vines, jumping into rivers, and running through the jungle, as opposed to acting in front of a green screen. For most other movies, it’s easy to say it’s visually stimulating because it has big explosions or large collateral damage. What makes The Jungle Book so praiseworthy is that it has none of these things, and yet, it has no evidence of being unreal despite being almost entirely computer-generated. This is easily an early contender for the visual effects Oscar at the Academy Awards, and even if it doesn’t win, it definitely deserves a nomination at the very least.

Neel is functional but not outstanding as Mowgli. What do you expect? The kid is 13 years old, barely enough to be in junior high. He’s not expected to demonstrate a bravura performance at his age, and he doesn’t. His performance centers mostly on his choreography and stuntwork, and that’s just about as far as his acting skills reach as well.

The key performance, however, doesn’t come from Neel. It comes from these jungle animals, captured so accurately on screen visually and aesthetically to its environment. It’s true, Neel isn’t that impressive on his own, but he doesn’t need to be. His interactions with the other animals is what makes this story believable and so easy to get wrapped up into.

The Jungle Book, of course, wraps its adventure up all nice and tidy, almost too much so in regards to my tastes with Disney. But the plain fact of the matter is that I was surprised. Surprised that I was actually invested in Mowgli and his jungle adventures. Surprised that when I saw the jungle and its inhabitants, my first instinct wasn’t to make fun of them, but to be absorbed by them. Surprised that when watching The Jungle Book, I was looking at it through the eyes of wonder and curiosity as a child, not the hardened, distrusting gaze of a critic.

Disney has plans to produce live-action remakes of many of their animated classics, among them including Pete’s Dragon and Beauty and the Beast. If they follow the pattern of The Jungle Book, Disney has a good road ahead of them.

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