2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Disney turned a theme park ride that mostly involved sitting into a billion-dollar supernatural adventure franchise, so why not try another swing at reshaping its existing park properties into would-be blockbuster tentpoles? Jungle Cruise owes a lot to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and actually owes a little too much for its own good. For the first half of the movie, it coasts on the charms of stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt and some light-footed visual misadventures. Then the second half turn involves a significant personal revelation, and that’s where the movie felt like it was being folded and crushed into form to closely resemble the Pirates franchise. It gets quite convoluted and littered with lackluster villains, too many and too stock to ever establish as intriguing or memorable (one of them is a man made of honey, so that’s a thing). I found myself also pulling away in the second half because of the inevitable romance. Their screwball combative banter between Johnson and Blunt gave me some smiles and entertainment and then, as they warm to one another, it sadly dissipated, as did my interest. The comedy is really labored at points. Johnson keeps referring to Blunt as “Pants” because she’s a woman and she wears pants in the twentieth century. It was not funny the first time and it’s not funny or endearing after the 80th rendition. The supernatural elements and curses feel extraneous and tacked on. With the Pirates films, at least the good ones, there are a lot of plot elements they need to keep in the air and you assume they’re be able to land them as needed. The competing character goals were so well established and developed in those movies and served as an anchor even amid the chaos of plot complications and double and triple crosses. With Jungle Cruise, it feels like a lot of effort but also a lot of dropped or mishandled story and thematic elements. This feels more creatively by committee and the heavily green screen action is harder to fully immerse with. As a wacky adventure serial, there may be enough to keep a viewer casually entertained, but Jungle Cruise feels too beholden to the Pirates formula without bringing anything exciting or fresh on its own imagination merits.
Nate’s Grade: C
Pixar’s second straight direct-to-Disney-plus outing, Luca, is a decidedly lesser movie from the creative powerhouse. It’s more in keeping with the low stakes and minimal characterization of something like the Cars franchise or Monster’s University. It has its gentle charms and important themes about acceptance, accessibility, and identity, but Luca feels a bit too shallow and lacking in magic. Two sea monster boys want to feel the thrill and freedom of living on land, and it just so happens they transform into looking like humans as long as they don’t get wet. They must learn the ways of blending in, keep their secret, and win the local triathlon to achieve their dream of owning a Vespa scooter. Yes, ostensibly it’s about two kids, and a third once they become friends with a rambunctious redheaded girl in town, wanting to win a race to get a scooter, and you can see the larger theme about friendship and self-acceptance in the name of intolerance, but the movie feels like Ponyo meets The Little Mermaid with the setting of Call Me By Your Name (with maybe some of its coming-of-age queer coding?). The movie barely gets to 84 minutes long, pre-credits, and even that feels very lackadaisical and padded, stretching a thin storyline with minimal development. The animation is expectantly gorgeous and colorful, the lovely daubs of light are so soothing to watch, though I didn’t care for the Gravity Falls-style character designs. The stakes are low and personal but I didn’t really care about the broad characters. There are some fun farcical hijinks trying to hide their monster selves from being seen, and the conclusion has a sweet message without being overtly sentimental, but Luca is little more than a fitfully amusing yet slight seaside vacation for your hungry eyes.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I don’t think I’ll be shocking any readers when I disclose that this Cruella doesn’t kill a single dog in her new movie. I hope I didn’t ruin the experience for anyone hoping for mass puppy slaughter. I figured Disney was going to go this route as they developed a villain biopic for Cruella DeVil, a woman obsessed with making coats from the skin of dalmatians. How exactly does one make a character like that sympathetic? Well by essentially making her a fan fiction version of Cruella DeVil and providing an even more dislikable antagonist to root against. The question then arises does this really count as a villain biopic when the character is so reconstructed? It follows the blueprint of 2014’s Maleficent where it posits that the story we’ve been told has been a matter of misunderstandings and smear campaigns from the Powers That Be. Cruella isn’t a puppy murderer. Now she’s a school outcast, plucky orphan with her own motley crew, and up-and-coming avant garde fashion designer looking to get her big break.
It presents her as an underdog on several fronts and with a back-story that might go down in history for its reclamation. Minor spoilers ahead, considering it’s early in the movie, but Cruella’s mother was literally killed by dalmatians pushing her off a cliff. The blunt re-imagining might even draw titters of laughter as the movie says, “Here’s the real reason she dislikes dogs.” However, even this tragic revision doesn’t make this Cruella hate dogs. There’s even a cute pooch on her team. This is a Cruella that’s not so cuddly but not unlovable either. She’s presented as a scrappy underdog with a punky attitude and whether this works will depend on your adherence to what a Disney villain biopic should be. Personally, I had no fidelity to the character of Cruella DeVil so I didn’t care. I wanted an entertaining movie with a strong lead performance from Emma Stone, and that’s what I got.
Set in 1970s London, Estella (Stone) is a lonely girl born brilliant but tempered by an uncaring society. After the dalmatian-assisted murder of her mother, Estella and her pals are meeting out their days with small-time grifts and cons. Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and her boys manage to get her an entry level job at a department store. Her experimental window display gets the attention of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), a sharp-tongued and formidable fashionista that makes the world tremble. Estella adopts the identity of “Cruella,” with her natural half-black and half-white hair, to upstage the Baroness, draw publicity for her own unique fashion creations, as well as enact vengeance and retrieve her mother’s missing necklace/family heirloom stolen by the Baroness, as if you needed even more reasons to dislike this lady.
Cruella in many ways feels like The Devil Wears Prada mixed with a superhero origin tale. The Estella/Cruella dynamic is played like a secret identity, wherein she adopts one to achieve a personal goal and becomes seduced by the freedom the alternate identity has to offer. The first half plays quite like Prada, with our fashion upstart working her way up the chain, gaining attention for her insights and designs while fighting against a system meant to squash new ideas. The character of the Baroness is very clearly patterned after Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and the command she wielded in her influential position atop the established fashion industry. At first, Estella wants to gain her approval and become a protégé, and then she wants to topple her, crush her, and it becomes a matter of how far she will go, with characters saying variations on, “You’ve changed. It used to be Estella, now it’s only Cruella.” Even The Devil Wears Prada featured a similar character descent for its protagonist. Except the question never seems too in doubt with Cruella because the character of Cruella is less a person succumbing and fraying, like the Oscar-winning 2019 Joker prequel, and more a tale of self-actualization and empowerment. That’s why it feels more like a superhero origin and less like the Joker’s origin. She’s becoming more confidant, more assertive, and more accepting of her true nature.
Under the direction of Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), Cruella feels like a colorful, sprightly caper, something with more attitude and dark humor than I would have believed capable of being forged from the Mouse House with their own intellectual properties. This could have easily been a cash grab but Gillespie and his team of screenwriters, including one of the writers from 2018’s The Favourite, decides to take that big Disney checkbook and have fun with it. This movie reminded me of a PG-friendly version of 2020’s Birds of Prey for adolescents. It’s got slapstick, schemes, contraptions, narrative shuffling, charming and weird characters, and a lot of visual style and attitude to spare. Above all else, this is a fun movie, and one that assembles set pieces and mini-goals that lead to enjoyable payoffs. There’s a funny big heist as the mid-point but it doesn’t go according to plan, as so we watch as Estella and her team have to adapt and get out of a series of escalating traps. The rivalry between Cruella and the Baroness leads to some gaga dress designs I’m certain will get Oscar attention in due time. There’s plenty of life simply coursing through this movie from the actors to the visuals to the extensive music library. Even when the movie is overstaying its welcome (this could have easily been trimmed down by 15 minutes) the movie still finds ways to keep you entertaining and pleased.
Chief among those reasons is Stone (La La Land) as our star. She’s honed her British accent after her Oscar-nominated performance from The Favourite and it’s easy to see a straight-line from that cunning social climber to this new role. Stone finds the right mix of camp and pathos to make the character work. She’s no exaggerated cartoon but she needs a certain energy level to keep you charged. She’s no mousy heroine but a powerful force looking for the right armor that fits. Stone might not be playing the Cruella DeVil of the 1961 cartoon but she’s playing a version of the character that is more capable of carrying a two-hour-plus movie. Special consideration should be paid out to Paul Walter Hauser, who was so memorably dimwitted in I, Tonya, and portrays Horace, a similarly dimwitted member of Cruella’s crew. The man knows what he’s doing when he’s given these roles and it’s easy to see why he keeps getting more.
The amount of needle-drop music cues in this movie puts 2016’s Suicide Squad to shame. I was amazed how that movie could literally go from song-to-song with barely a gap, sometimes only using mere seconds to make its sonic case. The Cruella soundtrack is wall-to-wall music selections, many from the 1960s and 1970s rock and punk scene, and it’s another holdover from I, Tonya that Gillespie has brought with him. The over reliance can become distracting in itself because of the sheer volume of musical selections, many of which can be exceedingly literal (you better believe, yet again, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is called in). It’s a sign of just how powerful the Disney brand can be as I’m sure a huge chunk of the movie’s budget went toward getting all these dozens and dozens of music clearances. If you consider it like a kid’s introduction to classic rock songs, it’s excusable, but the number of songs can also be distracting.
Whether you consider Cruella a faithful or radical reinterpretation of the Disney villain, the live-action showcase is a star vehicle for its shining star. Stone is captivating and having a grand time in her fabulous fashions, and the movie makes it easy to feel her highs as well. It’s not exactly a great movie as many of its supporting characters are underwritten or overly convenient, and its question over the madness and identity of its heroine is more theory than practice, but Gillespie and his team have decided to make Cruella a fun movie, and to that end they have succeeded. It’s colorful, breezy, punky, funny, and consistently amusing, with outlandish set pieces, outlandish characters, and outlandish escapes. Yes, the mom-killed-by-dalmatians tragic back-story might elicit its own howls of bafflement, but the movie doesn’t belabor it for extra ironic impact. Cruella (or Cruella Lite, if you will) is an entertaining reinterpretation that knows what to scuttle to work on its own terms. Whether those alterations are too drastic or defang the character are up to you, but I’d rather watch a kinder, softer, yet still prickly Cruella than one skinning dogs.
Nate’s Grade: B
Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.
We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.
In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.
Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.
Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.
The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.
There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The new Mulan looked like something I’ve been begging for in this surging era of live-action Disney remakes, namely something different. I don’t need inferior live-action versions to shorter animated classics, and as Disney enters into a more modern trove of remakes, the courage to adapt becomes noticeably less. There’s a reason the 2019 Lion King was simply a sludgier, superfluous version that was beat-for-beat the same, and it’s called $1.5 billion dollars worldwide. People want their nostalgia as they remember it, thank you very much. The Mulan remake looked to be taking a different route; it eliminated the songs, the comic relief sidekicks, and overt supernatural characters. It was going to be more serious, more mature, and more action-packed, and I was all for it. The release was pushed back several months due to COVID and finally lands on Disney+ but at an extra cost. I would advise fans to wait. This new Mulan 2020 isn’t worth your time and it’s certainly not worth an additional $30 to be disappointed by.
Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a young maiden in old China who has trouble fitting into how society says a woman should behave. The Emperor (Jet Li) orders all families to supply one male into the royal army to combat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his powerful witch, Xianniang (Gong Li). Mulan takes her family armor and poses as a man to take the place of her ailing father. She wants to serve but she’s also hungry for adventure, and over the course of her training, she will come to fully understand her real power.
I knew within minutes that this movie was in trouble. In a flashback, we watch young Mulan chasing after a chicken, not listening to her father, causing havoc and consternation from neighbors, but then she effortlessly climbs to the roof of her neighborhood and then, as she falls off, is effortlessly able to recapture her balance and land perfectly like she was Spider-Man. From there, the first act tells us that Mulan is not just a super-powered being of high chi (think midi-chlorians and The Force) but also potentially the Chosen One (like Anakin Skywalker) and she must hide her real power to… not bring disgrace to her family? I’m sorry but this makes little sense. I understand the oppressive cultural expectations for women at this time and how women’s real value, as judged by their society, was through marriage and child-rearing. However, we’re now in a world of magic where living super-powered beings walk among us (mutants in X-Men), but rather than valuing this, it’s shunned because she’s a girl? That seems even more preposterous to me. The screenplay followed the Captain Marvel feminist theme and it’s about a woman finally coming into her own power, shunning the restraints, and embracing her full potential against the wishes of frightened men. If after reading all of this that sounds like a good start for a movie, let alone a live-action remake of Mulan, then have at it, dear reader. For me, this began as a thematic and tonal mess that didn’t get better. By making Mulan a super-powered being it eliminates her relatability and the stakes of the movie. She’s no longer an ordinary girl who struggles to do her best. Now she’s essentially a god who just has to turn on her powers and subdue easily outmatched opponents. That’s a significant loss and mistake.
If you were going to be a martial arts epic where characters have super powers, then be that movie and give me epic showdowns between epic warriors. Give me a heavy dose of magic realism and eye-popping imagery. Chinese cinema has plenty of examples of these kinds of movies in recent years. One needs to only start cycling through the filmography of Zhang Yimou for spellbinding supernatural martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and 2018’s Shadow. If you’re going to be a heightened world of extraordinary combat, then build your movie around that tonal decision and start from there. In Mulan 2020, people exist with amazing abilities but nobody treats this with the recognition it deserves. There appears to be a prevalent form of sexism as powerful men are seen as impressive but powerful women are seen as frightening and dangerous, often derided as witches. There was room for exploration of Gong Li’s (2046, Memoirs of a Geisha) character and the parallels with Mulan, both women feared for their powers and apparent threat to a hierarchy that wants to exploit them but not include them. My girlfriend was irate throughout the viewing and pointed specifically at the witch character and declared, “They’re going to give her a lame redemption story where she sacrifices herself at the end to save Mulan, and I will hate it.” And boy oh boy did she hate it.
Alas, Mulan 2020 cannot sustain itself as a supernatural martial arts epic. As an action spectacle, every moment is shortchanged, which is not good when you have a whopping $200 million budget. The action consists of a handful of characters, at most, and only a short display of activity. There are no strong action set pieces and well-developed sequences that keep your excitement pumping. There is some acceptable fight choreography here and there but little to tickle the imagination or approach the poetry of something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don’t know if director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) feels confident enough as an action director of big visual spectacle, and that uncertainty leaks throughout the finished film. Take for instance camera movements meant to be stylish but instead becomes perplexing. As our big bad villain and his crew ride toward the outer walls of a village, they leap from their horses and ascend the walls, and the camera shifts 90 degrees to follow the movement smoothly. That’s a good stylistic choice. Then mere seconds later, as they reach the top, the camera will abruptly shift again 90 degrees, then back again, but the characters haven’t shifted their stances or perspectives. Caro has taken a stylistic flourish that had meaning and seems to be hitting it again and again, but without the earlier context, it becomes confusing, arbitrary, and annoying, and it happens multiple times. Because the movie doesn’t fully embrace being a martial arts spectacle, when it does employ super human tricks, it runs the risk of being goofy. Mulan has several moments where she kicks flying arrows into her foes as if she was a soccer player setting up a wicked trick shot. I welcomed a martial arts epic version of Mulan but the filmmakers were too timid to commit.
There are several moments that left me scratching my head in the adaptation process. Take for instance Mulan deciding to take her father’s place. In the animated film, it’s a big moment and we watch her slice her hair with her ancestral sword, put on her father’s armor, and it’s treated like the big character-defining moment that the story demands. It’s like watching a superhero transform and suit up for battle. In Mulan 2020, this moment is denied to us and we skip to her turning around already in armor and riding off. Why? Why wouldn’t you want to savor and dwell in a moment of great drama and a turning point for the character? Likewise, late in the movie, once Mulan accepts her destiny and not to compromise her powers, she strips her father’s armor piece by piece and flings it off herself while riding into battle. I understand the symbolism of her stripping away the uniform of entrenched masculinity but two things: wasn’t this her family’s armor that meant something of value, and isn’t wearing armor a good defense in a battle? What’s the point of removing the supernatural ancestral elements from the animated film to simply give Mulan a flying phoenix that mainly serves as a cursor to point her in the right direction?
Let me open up one head-scratcher and how it could have been resolved. Mulan has a younger sister but her inclusion is practically meaningless. Mulan’s parents worry about her capability of being docile and husband-material, but they have the younger sister who will serve their needs. The movie doesn’t present the younger sister’s perspective. She’s just a bonus daughter. It’s a confounding creative decision but I think, with a little more shaping, it would have justified itself. This sister could have been resentful of her big sister, for being selfish and rejecting her eldest responsibilities that would protect their family. These duties now fall onto her with the added pressure of being the only daughter who has a chance of attaining a good marriage. This could and should cause friction between the sisters, a divide that can be healed over the course of the movie. Dearly missing from Mulan 2020 is the ability of its titular heroine to share herself. She doesn’t have her magic companions coaching her, so she has no audience to confide in. As a result, Mulan feels so impassive and inscrutable. My solution: she writes a series of letters to her sister to explain her actions as well as her day-to-day fears and hopes, and in doing so it opens up the Mulan character as well as provides an outlet where her sister can learn and relate to her. That would have worked, and it would have justified the younger sister in the narrative as well as provide Mulan herself with an ongoing opportunity for reflection, expression, and confession.
Sadly, I also had serious reservations about lead actress Yifei Liu (The Assassins, Forbidden Kingdom) from her first moment onscreen as the adult Mulan. Her line readings were overwhelmingly flat. This may well be a byproduct of her speaking English as opposed to Chinese, and on that front, why couldn’t this movie have been entirely Chinese and subtitled? I understand Disney would view a foreign language version as less profitable but if you’re going for a more serious, more grown-up version of Mulan set in ancient China, how about trusting Americans to read? Regardless, Liu certainly has the right look to anchor a movie but her acting is too stilted. There are many actors who have great martial arts skills (Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee) that aren’t called upon. Why hire actors with great fighting capability and then give them precious little to show off? My favorite performer in the movie was Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma, The Farewell).
After watching Mulan 2020, I then re-watched the 1998 animated original, and my opinion of the live-action remake sank even lower. The animated film has it beat in every measure. The mixture of drama and comedy is deft, the emotional core of the character is fierce, and the supporting characters have distinct and discernible personalities, and the songs aren’t too shabby either. The villain is more menacing and has those very necessary moments to establish their villainy. The bad guys in Mulan 2020 have no memorable moments that make you go, “Oh, that’s a baddie.” Plus, the hand-drawn animation is beautiful and allows far more emotional expression for the characters, making it even more transporting but also engaging. If you’re a fan of the original, I cannot see how you will enjoy Mulan 2020, and if you paid $30 for that opportunity, I imagine you’ll be even more incensed. If it was going to be different, the new Mulan needed to fully embrace those differences and develop its new big screen story to be best suited as a martial arts epic for older viewers. If it was going to make Mulan a superhero, it needed to embrace this decision and heighten the world, mixing in fantasy foundations. The moments needed to matter and be a reflection of our heroine’s emotional journey. Mulan 2020 is a frustrating disappointment and another reminder for myself that live-action Disney remakes will rarely, if ever, even come close to recreating the charm and magic of their predecessors.
Nate’s Grade: C
Disney’s latest talking animal movie is based on a real story. Not the talking animals part, more a gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who lived in a strip mall as a circus performer and then became a painter and the notoriety of his art built a movement to free him. The One and Only Ivan is a good-natured family film with affirming lessons and a conservationist advocacy. Kids may laugh at some of the silly animals, or they might cry as the maternal elephant (Angelina Jolie) entrusts onto Ivan the promise to break the newest baby elephant free of bondage. Ivan was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) who runs the strip mall circus, though times are tough and he may have lost sight of his priorities with his animals. Enter cute kid, cute baby elephant, cute and scrappy dog, and Ivan’s passion for the arts. The one element that makes this movie different, Ivan’s ability to paint his emotions and reflections, is barely included and that’s a real shame. Ivan becomes like the spider from Charlotte’s Web and uses his position to advocate for another animal, using the subsequent attention to spare this small creature. He paints once and the movie zips to its resolution. The thrust of the story is Ivan addressing his own personal tragedy and letting others in, risking his own safety and ego to protect those vulnerable. The CGI special effects are suitable if unremarkable, landing in that middle zone of meeting expectations of semi-reality but not exceeding them. I would have preferred a documentary going into the actual events of the real Ivan, getting interviews from the people who were there and mattered, their own insights and experiences, and really dwelling more on what the idea of artistic expression means for an ape and what it might mean concerning our connections to these creatures. I think there’s a compelling, enlightening, and heartfelt documentary to be had with the subject matter. The live-action talking-animal movie, however, is just more of the same inoffensive family film treacle and clearly not the one and only.
Nate’s Grade: C+
While it’s become somewhat fashionable to call Frozen overrated, I still think it’s a great movie with an even better soundtrack, songs that I can instantly think of and hear them immediately in my head. I figured Disney would be very careful about a Frozen sequel out of a tactic understanding that they didn’t want to damage their brand. It was six years ago so I figured they hatched a sequel worthy of the big screen and legacy of their billion-dollar hit, but what I received with Frozen II was more akin to a direct-to-DVD sequel that is meant to jump start an afternoon cartoon series called Elsa’s Magical Friends. Prepare for mediocrity, folks, and start dialing back those expectations. The story revolves around Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) discovering her past, traveling to a magical land, meeting magical tribes of creatures, and helping to unite a divided people. The sloppiness of the storytelling is staggering. The plot is filled with exposition and the world building is clunky and unclear, designed more to move things along and set up cute creatures ready for holiday merchandise. The characters arcs are nebulous, in the case of Elsa considering she’s never longed to discover a past, and resoundingly lightweight in the case of everyone else; Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is worried about having the perfect proposal (yawn), and Anna (Kristen Bell) wants to support her sister but also doesn’t want her to march off into danger needlessly (yeah, and…?). Olaf (Josh Gad), the magic snowman, remarks about the nature of change, but by the very end of the movie nothing has really changed, and that’s even after a gigantic potential sacrifice that Anna makes by her lonesome. I felt some emotional pull for the characters but that was because of the holdover of my feelings for them and less because of the situations they found themselves in with this sequel. And let’s get to the songs, which are shockingly forgettable. I was forgetting them even in the middle of them being performed. There’s no “Let It Go,” but there’s also nothing as low as the troll song, but what we’re left with are milquetoast ballads and tunes low on hum-worthy melodies. The best song might actually be a jokey power ballad along the lines of Bryan Adams where Kristoff sings his woes. That’s right, a Kristoff song is maybe the best track in this movie. That feels like a pretty big indication something went wrong. It felt like the kind of quality you’d expect from a direct-to-DVD sequel’s array of new songs. Frozen II feels so bizarrely perfunctory and routine, absent a cohesive theme holding everything together and providing a firm landscape to direct the characters, and going through the motions. It’s not a story that adds greater depth to this world. If you’re expecting something along the lines of quality from the first Frozen, it’s better to simply let those feelings go. And what’s the deal with Elsa’s neck on the poster? It’s far far too long.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ever since the run-up of Disney’s live-action remakes, I’ve been predicting what would happen with the newer films, and it all seems to be coming true. The problem with Disney remaking hit animated movies from the 80s and 90s is that there hasn’t been enough distance. The immediate audience is going to demand their nostalgia exactly as they remember it, and they will not be happy with anything less. It’s not like a scenario where the original movies could be improved upon, like 2016’s beautifully tender Pete’s Dragon. What these live-action remakes offer is an uglier, inferior version of an animated classic. There’s no reason for most of them to exist. They won’t be different; they won’t be interesting. It’s a sludgy, auto-tuned cash grab that shows no end in sight. Before this year, I did not expect Tim Burton’s Dumbo to be the best of the three 2019 Disney live-action remakes, but here we are. I guess the concept of Disney eating its own tail with these live-action remakes is symbolic of the studio “circle of life,” and the perfect segue way to The Lion King, a remake missing the wonder and magic of the 1994 original.
King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones again) rules over an African prairie and preparing his young son Simba (JD Mcrary and Donald Glover as an adult) for his eventual rule. Mufasa’s scornful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conspires to have Mufasa killed and Simba banished. Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away and finds kinship with a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner) and a warthog named Pumba (Seth Rogen). They preach a carefree life of “no worries.” This new life is interrupted when Nala (Beyoncé Knowles), Simba’s childhood friend, returns seeking help to remove Scar from the throne. Simba must confront his fate and treacherous uncle and bring balance back to his ailing homeland.
The biggest appeal of director Jon Favreau’s Lion King remake is the stunning special effects. It’s been ten years since James Cameron brought to life a photo realistic alien world that dazzled audiences, and the advances have only made the professional fakery more startling. This movie was completely “filmed” inside a computer. Every single shot, every blade of grass, every pebble, every photo realistic morsel onscreen is the result of digital wizards. In 2016’s The Jungle Book, there were still some physical elements filmed, chief among them the human boy, but now it’s all done away. The remake looks like an HD nature documentary. One could question the use of the technology, $250 million to recreate what ordinary cameras on location could achieve, but I’ll choose to congratulate Disney and Favreau on the remarkable technical achievement. The Jungle Book was a big leap forward and The Lion King is that next step. However, the special effects are ultimately the only selling point. Come see how real it all looks, kids. The rest of the remake left me feeling unmoved and occasionally perplexed.
This is an almost exact shot-for-shot recreation of the original movie. It made me think of Gus van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake and why anyone would go to this much trouble to make a copy. You’ll feel a tingle of recognition with different shots and scenes and then that feeling will transition to disappointment and lastly resignation. It’s the same, just not as good.
So what exactly is different with the live-action Lion King of 2019? Very very little. Despite totaling a half hour more movie, it really only has one added incidental Beyoncé song, a small character beat where Timon and Pumba explain their philosophy on more fatalistic terms, an explanation how Nala left the pride lands, and more poop and fart jokes. The filmmakers have added realism in appearance but also added more scatological humor, which seems like an odd combination. There is a literal plot point attached to giraffe poop. Instead of a whispery feather, petal, whatever finding its way to the baboon Rafiki to let him know Simba is still alive, now we watch the life of a tuft of fur as it travels from creature to creature, at one point being consumed on a leaf by a giraffe. The next image is a ball of poop being rolled by a beetle with our tell-tale tuft of lion fur. I guess it’s more emblematic of the whole “circle of life” theme, but I didn’t think Disney was going to literalize the poop aspect. The new Beyoncé song is fairly bland and unmemorable. That’s it, dear reader. Lion King 2019 is 95 percent identical to Lion King 1994 in plot, and yet the original writers do not earn a screenwriting credit thanks to arcane animation writing guild rules, and that is madness. It’s their story, it’s their characters, and it’s almost entirely their dialogue, and to not have their names rightfully credited where they belong is wrong.
There are some definite drawbacks to that photo realism as well. When lions and other animals are photo realistic, they have facial structures that don’t exactly emote, so it looks like all the animals often just have their jaws wired shut. You’ll listen to the vocal actors go through a range of emotions and watch these plain, unmoved faces that you start to wonder if maybe all of the dialogue should have just been voice over. As soon as I saw Mufasa speaking, I was immediately shaken by the image and longed for the expression of the animation. I never got over it and it made me feel removed from the film, even more so. This is the trade off of realism; animals don’t actually speak, you know. Another trade off is that the film becomes much more intense especially for younger kids. I would not recommend parents take the littlelest ones to this movie because now, instead of watching a traditionally animated band of characters brawl, you’re watching realistic lions and hyenas scrape, claw, and hurl one another to their deaths. If kids were traumatized by parts of the original movie, I can only imagine the nightmares that await. Strangely, the photo realism also mitigates the film’s sense of scope and impact. The stampede sequence feels far less dangerous because the camera doesn’t pull back that far, showing a massive herd from a distance. Subsequently the sequence loses some of its urgency. Then there’s also simply identifying who may be who when those fights come, because you’re trying to pick out realistic animals instead of distinct creatures with specific character designs.
The aspects you enjoyed with the 1994 Lion King will still be enjoyable, even if they suffer in direct comparison. Hans Zimmer’s score is still magnificent. The songs are still catchy, though some of the arrangements are a bit under-cooked, like the speak-sung “Be Prepared.” The song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” occurs absurdly early in the Simbla/Nala reunion and takes place in the sunny afternoon. So much for “tonight” (the famous Nala “bedroom eyes” moment is also quite diminished from a real lion’s face). The jokes are still funny because they were funny the first time. The things that worked the first time will still work to some degree, even if the presentation leaves something to desire. Several of the vocal artists just sound flat, especially Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) who comes across so blasé. I missed the casual menace of Jeremy Irons. The best vocal performances belong to Eichner (Difficult People) and Rogen (Long Shot), maybe because they’re already broad personalities, or maybe because they felt the most comfortable to occasionally steer away from the original script, finding small room to roam. Florence Kasumba (Black Panther) also delivers a snarling and effective performance as one of the hyena leaders, Shenzi. They’re the only vocal performances that fare well in competition.
I need to defend the art of animated films. There is nothing wrong with animated films simply because they are animated. A live-action version is not better simply because it’s more “real.” I hear this same argument when it comes to making a live-action anime. Animation is a wonderful medium and has a magic all its own that often live-action cannot emulate. The animated Lion King is beautiful with bold colors, strong visual compositions, and emotive characters with specific designs. The live-action Lion King is missing much of that, at least when it’s not recreating exact shots from its predecessor. I don’t know who this movie is going to appeal to. Parents will be better off just playing the original for their children at home. Die-hard fans of The Lion King might enjoy seeing their favorite story told with plenty of cutting-edge special effects magic. I would have been happier had the filmmakers attempted something like Julie Taymor’s transformative and ground-breaking Broadway show. I would have been happier had they just recorded the Broadway show. The new Lion King is a lesser version of the 1994 movie, plain and simple, and if that’s enough for you, then have at it. For me, these Disney live-action remakes are making me feel as dead in the eyes as a photo realistic lion.
Nate’s Grade: C
I walked away from the new live-action Aladdin feeling less agitated than I did for the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, and I’m trying to determine whether that was because this was a better interpretation or simply because my expectations have now been calibrated to know what to expect from these remakes, namely an inferior version of an animated classic. I’ve written about it before, recently with Dumbo, but the problem with the recent spate of live-action Disney releases is that they are too new, too beloved, and thus the audience is beholden to their nostalgia and resistant to dramatic changes from those original movies. The audiences demand fidelity over creative liberties. Without much attempted change, the finished versions end up feeling like big screen cover bands, going through the motions imitating the famous predecessor but ultimately reminding you how much more you’d rather be watching that original. I felt it with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast and now I’ve felt it again with the 2019 Aladdin.
The plot should be familiar to anyone who grew up with the 1992 classic. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is an orphaned street thief (“street rat”) who runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), a woman yearning to have a life on her own terms rather than being sold off via marriage. The evil advisor Jafar (Marwin Kenzari, a surprise highlight) is after a special hidden treasure, a long-lost lamp said to house a wish-granting genie. Aladdin is entrusted on this mission, gets trapped, and meets Genie (Will Smith), a boisterous figure trapped by the laws of the lamp. He must grant his new master’s three wishes, with some limitations. Aladdin wishes to become a prince and impress Jasmine, but he must withhold the truth, or so he feels. What rich woman could fall in love with a poor theif with nothing to offer but his heart?
So does the new Aladdin bring anything new and improved? It does sport a more feminist-friendly message and a more active Jasmine, who wishes not to simply be a free-minded princess but her people’s sultan, taking on the responsibility of leadership. It’s a nice addition that makes her more integrated into the story and developed. Unfortunately, Jasmine is also the recipient of the newest songs and they are, in a word, dreadful. They have little life to them or are crushed to death by simplified intentions, like when Jasmine storms around in a quasi-dream sequence belting how she won’t be silenced by the sexist men of her kingdom (the song is called… “Speechless”). It’s a pretty tuneless number and it doesn’t help that the entirety of it feels screamed at the audience. The portraits of Arabs aren’t terribly improved. Thirty years later and much of the story is still built around rather stereotypical depictions of heroic and villainous Arabic figures, though the movie seems to also be influenced by neighboring Bollywood. It just feels like there were some areas the filmmakers could have updated in the ensuing 27 years, but perhaps again they were too hesitant to not anger their core audience of fans.
Guy Ritchie (Snatch, King Arthur) was a strange choice when he was tapped to direct and, having seen the finished product, he shows no feel for musicals whatsoever. It’s a surprising realization considering his background in action and crime movies, genres that likewise rely upon a heavy understanding of choreography, use of screen space, editing, and furthering plot with action. It’s apparent very early, by the time we segue into “One Jump Ahead,” that this is going to be a tepid experience devoid of a sense of energy and style. Ritchie isn’t a bland director even in his bad movies, but his Aladdin feels like a for-hire gig where he has mitigated any stylistic flourishes. Aladdin is also a mystifying 38 minutes longer than the original cartoon and yet feels far more rushed. Even the song numbers feel like we’re speeding through them. The signature showstopper “A Whole New World” feels less than revelatory as we quickly traverse the city at night, muddy colors making the magic carpet ride less than magical. The entire movie feels weirdly paced and awkwardly developed, rushing to hit familiar plot points and yet paradoxically taking longer to do so. I’ll say that it doesn’t feel like a movie that runs over two hours long.
There is a middle portion of Aladdin becomes something like a fantasy version of Hitch, a romantic comedy where Smith was playing the confident wingman to an awkward foil. This is the only part of the film that feels like it’s settling down and giving the characters time to develop in a more organic fashion. The interplay between Aladdin and the Genie is entertaining and Smith puts his smooth charm to maximum effect during this sequence. The filmmakers even add a love interest for the Genie himself played by Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live), and this allows him to put his own advice to the test and stumble in the game of affections as well. It’s quite reminiscent of Hitch but it made me smile and laugh more than any other part. It also felt like the one portion of the film where it was staking out its own identity and utilizing the talents of its own cast. I wish the entire movie had been retrofitted to be an Arabian Hitch of old.
Nobody can replace Robin Williams’ iconic performance as the Genie, but Smith is a mighty fine choice for a replacement. His effervescent charm cannot be killed but it can be dulled, and too often the new Aladdin feels like it’s misusing the man’s many natural talents. Smith has a very shaky singing voice, and I was wincing in the opening minutes as he began to warble “Arabian Nights.” Oh no, I feared, what have we gotten ourselves into? Smith is no stranger to musical performances but his career is in rap, so I was expecting the Disney folk to re-imagine several of the songs with a more contemporary hip-hop angle to play to his strengths. They do not. The best performance is easily “Prince Ali” with its propulsive drive that Smith stakes full command of like the head of a drumline, slowing the tempo down and asking for participation from the sultan in order to ramp things back up. It’s a fun moment and made me wish the songs (with brief additional lyrics by the team behind The Greatest Showman) had been allowed to stray further and discover new angles that make better use of this version of this story. Also, the special effects make his blue genie look horrifying and should have been scrubbed as soon as somebody first saw him as a blue Shrek creature.
The highlight performer for me was Scott as Jasmine, an actress that first caught my attention as the Pink Power Ranger in, what else, the big-budget Rangers reboot. She demonstrates the most range and has an immediate presence; her Jasmine seems to be holding back, always wary, always assessing, and knowing more than she lets on. It feels like a more politically astute figure that can still give in to carefree moments of jubilation. Her singing is also pretty good even if she’s saddled with the worst solo songs. It’s not her fault that her onscreen lover seems to have better chemistry with Smith than her.
The new Aladdin does have some of its own virtues. The costumes are gorgeous and the sets are carefully crafted, making the world feel lavish and real and often stunning. Smith is still a charming performer and Scott feels like a great pick for a character given more agency. I enjoyed that Jafar is given a new character inferiority complex about being second best, and this is better used to fool him into his downfall. Even a less accomplished rendition of great sings reminds you that they are still great. Likewise the story is so well constructed that it’s hard to completely mitigate its delights and payoffs. The 2019 Aladdin is everything you expect from it, though possibly less, and it never truly justifies its own existence. There are moments to tantalize what a slightly different big screen revitalization could have been, like its rendition of Hitch. If you’re a super fan of Aladdin, it might be enough to get you over the rough spots. However, if that’s your starting point, I would advise staying home and just watching the superior and shorter version.
Nate’s Grade: C