What to do with a comedy that just isn’t that funny? I come to co-writer/director Judd Apatow’s The Bubble with a rhetorical surgeon’s scalpel ready to figure out this conundrum. There are plenty of funny people involved with this Netflix project. Apatow has been an industry unto himself in developing comedic talent going back to his Freaks and Geeks TV days and with such heralded twenty-first century comedies to his credit like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The cast assembled for The Bubble has great comic potential. Even the premise is fun, a group of spoiled actors trying to film a bad sci-fi action movie under the challenges of the COVID-19 quarantine. So what went wrong here and why is The Bubble Apatow’s least engaging and least funny movie to date?
We follow the Hollywood production of Cliff Beasts 6, filming in rural England under the supervision of studio execs trying to keep the secluded production as problem-free as possible under the 2020 COVID outbreak. Karen Gillan (Avengers Endgame) plays Carol Cobb, an actress returning to the franchisee she had once left behind to star in a misguided Oscar bait movie where she, a white woman, was the solution to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s hoping to save her career, while her coworkers are just hoping not to go insane with the forced isolation and new safety protocols during their film shoot.
So let’s circle back to the central question of why The Bubble isn’t funny, and I think I have some theories. First, we can acknowledge comedy is subjective but at the same time also acknowledge that the construction of good comedy can be academically identified and appreciated, that there are tenets that hold and maintain, like setups and payoffs, rules of threes, etc. I think one of the big problems is that nothing is really that surprising throughout the protracted and unfocused duration of The Bubble.
The characters are intended to be shallow but are too shallow to even register as distinct comedy types played against one another. There are levels of general buffoonery, but so many of these characters are missing out on a more definite angle or perspective. Take for instance the smug movie star (David Duchovny) who takes it upon himself to rewrite the script. This should be an obvious route where the story comes undone or character actions are inconsistent or that other characters, especially those who had larger roles, become subservient to the star and his ballooning ego. There needs to be distinct differences for the comedy to land and be an indication of his ideas about what he thinks would be an improvement. This doesn’t really happen. Take the recent Oscar winner (Pedro Pascal). He’s not haughty and pompous, thinking himself beneath this kind of genre filmmaking. He’s simply a dumb hedonist who is seeking out pleasure he is denying himself. That’s fine, as at least one character is set up to be more of a wild card to stir trouble. This character spends the entire movie whining and having unfunny fantasies when they should be the one causing havoc and unexpected consequences from their behaviors. What a waste. Every character falls into this nebulous underwritten area without being distinct enough to be considered stock and ultimately useful for comparisons and generating comedic conflicts.
Another lack of surprise is how every character is exactly how they are presented, so with no points of change it all gets very redundant. If this was going to be the case, Apatow needed to be far more exacting with his satirical barbs. If he wants to really send up the industry and self-absorbed actors, we need something akin to 2008’s Tropic Thunder, which, by the way, had very distinct character differences it used for maximum comedy. This movie feels more like an extension of the privileged world populated by the bourgeoisie characters from 2012’s This is 40, a marked misstep for Apatow and his idea of recognizable midlife struggles (“Oh no, we’ll have to move from our ridiculously large house to… just a very large house!”). It’s the same pitiable rich people whining about their lives while they quarantine in luxury. Watching montage after montage of them being bored in their private hotel suites is not funny. It doesn’t even work as a criticism of the characters on display. They aren’t doing anything out there or particularly telling, they’re just being bored, and just watching bored people is boring.
The moviemaking process and the film-within-a-film itself is also shockingly unfunny. Apatow has worked in Hollywood for decades, so I was expecting harder-hitting satire of the moviemaking industry and the way that films are continuously compromised. As another example of shallow character writing, take the director (Fred Armison), a Sundance award-winning indie artist tackling their first studio project. The expected route would be to start with this character having big ideas about a grand artistic vision, taking real chances, and trying to do something different and compelling within the realm of giant dinosaur action movies, and then little by little, they have to compromise and delete this grand vision, taking studio notes, limitations from the actors, and bad luck. This would provide a foil for every bad item complicating the production, the artist struggling to watch their dream die piece-by-piece. This doesn’t happen and the director’s indie background is never utilized as a contrast for comedy.
Apatow plays the same trick over and over with the film-within-a-film. It will be a dramatic sequence and then cut to the actors running on a treadmill or swinging behind a green screen, the same undercutting gag on repeat. It’s not funny and, frankly, gets tiresome. The ridiculous nature of blockbuster filmmaking should be ripe for satire (again, Tropic Thunder did it) but Apatow never pushes too hard, settling on the same soft-pedaled jokes on simple characters. Pascal is left to practice funny accents, but none of what they say within the movies is funny-bad; it’s just tin-eared dialogue that is merely bad only. The only segment that genuinely had me laughing was when the young actress (Iris Apatow) teaches a raptor how to do the latest TikTok dance. This is the only moment that feels biting on the out-of-touch desperation of modern moviemaking to chase and incorporate vaporous youth trends to remain hip. The Hollywood film gone awry should feel like a mess, it should be getting progressively worse or more out of control or at least something so outlandish it separates itself from its targets. I suppose shooting the CGI genitals off dinosaurs is something you don’t see every day but it too gets old fast.
Fortunately, these actors can still be charming even with lesser material, but you’ll simply walk away feeling enormous sympathy for them. Everyone is trying to do so much with so very little, and it can get painful at points, like Pascal’s character clinging to an amorphous evolution of an accent. There are very funny people here. Keegan Michael-Key is very funny, but he gets nothing here, especially with a ripe subplot where he might be starting a self-help cult. Maria Bakalova is very funny, and was even nominated for an Oscar, a rarity for a comedian, but she gets nothing here, being a horny hotel worker. Gillan is very funny, but she too gets nothing here as a slumming actress desperate to rehabilitate her career. It’s remarkable considering she’s the main character but really just an insecure straight man role. The main character needed to be Gavin (Peter Serafinowicz), the producer on location doing his best to herd all these spoiled and irresponsible people into getting this movie made and on time. You want to focus on the character with the most chaos to try and control, and that’s him. It just feels criminal that a cast this good, with fun supporting players like Samson Kayo (Our Flag Means Death) and Harry Trevaldwyn (Ten Percent) to round out the more famous faces.
This also made me think to reflect on the recent release of Moonfall, which looks like the big, schlocky sci-fi disaster movie that Judd Apatow would be satirizing with The Bubble. It’s a Roland Emmerich disaster movie where he does exactly what Roland Emmerich does best: expansive scenes of cataclysmic destruction on the biggest scale possible. It was believed by industry watchers that Moonfall would be the kind of epic that people would go back to the movies to experience, watching the scale of destruction on the biggest screen and cheering along. It didn’t work out that way and Moonfall reportedly will lose over a hundred million dollars for its investors. It seemed like a smart bet as disaster movies have performed well for Emmerich, like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. In times of struggle, human beings enjoy fantasies about surviving fantastic odds, or at least that was the established way of thinking. After two years of life during COVID-19, maybe our idea of sci-fi escapism isn’t quite what it used to be.
I watched Moonfall with general indifference. It felt like a mediocre hodgepodge of other Emmerich disaster movies and veered into campy nonsense at many points. It’s the kind of movie that demands you shut off your brain and just go along with the scientific gobbledygook, especially once the moon begins making Earth’s gravity go all haywire. At that point the movie becomes an inconsistent video game with its liberal use of physics. It doesn’t seem like it matters, but watching characters do Super Mario Brother-level jumps has a fun appeal as well as being impossibly goofy. One character says, “The moon can’t do these things,” and another character waves away that pertinent thought and says, almost directly to the audience, “Yeah, but this isn’t a normal moon, so forget everything.” The special effects are also quite hit or miss. Plenty of the larger effects are quite awe-inspiring and suitably terrifying in depicting an awesome reality, and then others look like they didn’t quite have enough money when it came time to render. Some of the CGI reminded me of moments from 2008’s Torque, where the high-speed backgrounds resembled badly composited video game texture blurs. If your movie is going to exist primarily in a junk food realm, then you need to either have as minimal distractions as possible to rip you from the believability of this world, or you simply need to veer into it and accept that the instability and chaos will be part of the general appeal. Provide the goods, and Moonfall just doesn’t.
The movie also takes an inordinate amount of time to get back to space after a prologue, almost halfway through its two hours. This first half stalls with setting up so many characters to follow that you simply won’t care about. I didn’t care what happened to anyone back on Earth. When the rednecks found our party (again!) in a petty car chase, I literally laughed out loud. The alien/moon mythology is also convoluted and vague enough to simply apply a good versus evil designation for technology, and the big sacrifice doesn’t feel so big when you find that character to be annoying for the duration of their grating screen time. It’s another movie tipping you off about a possible linked sequel and one that appears more appetizing than the film we just witnessed (just like Emmerich’s 2016 Independence Day sequel). In short, Moonfall is a bit of a mess, a mess I can imagine others enjoying and laughing with, but definitely one of the lower outputs in Emmerich’s long career of destroying global landmarks and formerly pristine vistas.
I found Moonfall and The Bubble to both be poor examples of what Hollywood thinks audiences will desire as escapism in the wake of COVID-19 disrupting routines and lives. Each of the movies is disappointing because it doesn’t fulfill what it promises. The Bubble has a bunch of combustible characters in a combustible scenario and squanders its time with weak satirical gags and lazy characterization. Moonfall wants to be the big, fun epic of Emmerich’s past, but it takes its sweet indulgent time with uninteresting characters, convoluted and underwritten lore, and a plot that would have been more entertaining had it better embraced the absurdity of its implications. You may likely have an enjoyable time watching either movie, and they’re almost the same length too, but I found both to be middling examples of Hollywood’s attempt to try and give the people what they think they want and missing the entertainment mark.
The Bubble: C
It’s full of big feelings, declarations of self-identity, an unabashed love of the transformative power of theater, and its power of positivity can be a balm to many during this holiday season. The Prom is based on a short-lived Broadway musical about a girl in Indiana who wants to bring her girlfriend to the school prom and the ensuing media controversy that erupts. A team of out-of-work theater actors (Meryl Streep, Anthony Rannels, Nicole Kidman, James Corden) see publicity value in rallying to her cause, so they decamp to Indiana and challenge the homophobic PTA leader (Kerry Washington) who refuses to hold an inclusive prom. Director Ryan Murphy’s style and sensibilities work well within the realm of musical theater; a decade of television curation for FX and now Netflix has made him an expert on camp and flash. The man loves applying slick gloss to trash. His camera is constantly, uncontrollably moving during the numerous musical numbers, attempting to compensate for the generic quality of the majority of them. There are two standouts. The first is when Corden’s character takes our lesbian teen to the mall for a makeover. It’s got a catchy hook and one that becomes a reoccurring theme for the show. The second is when Rannels’ character is pointing out the hypocrisy of local Christians decrying homosexuality but falling short of other Biblical teachings. The story is sweet but un-challenging. The plot exhausts so quickly that I was amazed at one point to discover there was still an hour left in the over two-hour production. Each member of the squad gets a signature number to varying degree of success. The happy ending is affirming and heartfelt but also quite easy and kind of unearned. The amount of catharsis and reconciliation doesn’t gel with the emotional investment and development of these characters. They’re nice but relatively dull, and the industry satire only goes so far to chide the out-of-touch Broadway elites for their own prejudices of Midwest life. The Prom is disposable fluff that will pacify an afternoon.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes movies on scrappy genre indies, following a band of creatives come together, build camaraderie, and serve as the underdogs we root for as they put on their fun show, so Dolemite is My Name is right up my alley. It’s a biopic on Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), who by the 1970s rebranded himself in his 40s when he began performing as an outrageous, rhyming pimp character named Dolemite. He recorded crude comedy albums, sold them out of the back of his trunk, and reached a new level of fame, but he sought a blaxploitation movie to get him to even further heights. This movie is akin to The Disaster Artist where we watch a lot of artists pull off a bad movie with little money, as well as 2004’s Baadasssss!, where Mario Van Peebles recreated the making of his father’s 1971 blaxploitation hit, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Chances are, if you enjoyed either of those two movies, or the hilarious blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, you will be smiling aplenty with this new Netflix movie (given a short theatrical run and soon to be widely available via streaming). The movie belongs to Murphy, who hasn’t had a part in three years, and he comes roaring to life as Moore, a man who won’t let anything stand in the way of his dreams. Murphy is fully captivating in every scene as he turns the Dolemite persona on and off, sharing moments of personal insight and fear, like when he’s nervous over his physique with an upcoming sex scene for his movie. He’s a determined hustler and it’s hard not to fall for his grinning charm. The Dolemite movie has a special appeal because it was intended as a comedy, so the shoestring, scrappy nature of it works nicely with the good intentions of simply making a big, silly, kung-fu-filled action comedy with what audiences want. I’ll confess I never found any of Moore’s standup to be funny as the audiences at the time. However, the filmmakers have already answered this, as Moore and pals go see The Front Page, a movie dubbed by critics as a laugh-out-loud comedy, and the men sit stone-faced and confused throughout the pithy, erudite comedy that seems to be amusing the largely white, WASP-y crowd. Humor is subjective, but not only that it’s the kind of entertainment with the shortest shelf life. It’s naturally going to expire quickly. Comedy routines we found hilarious decades ago might not still be funny today, and that’s okay. Dolemite came out at the right time and influenced other artists and filmmakers. A behind-the-scenes film is destined to be a movie with a definite ceiling. Moore is an interesting success story but there’s only so much to be gleaned from this underdog tale. Thanks to writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Ed Wood, The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and the energy of Murphy, Dolemite is My Name is a fun two hours with a bunch of cut-ups.
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
The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.
Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box. It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.
In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.
Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.
The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.
If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.
It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.
As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s been 31 years since the first Predator strutted its camouflaged self onto the big screen and bedeviled Arnold Schwarzenegger and company. Since then the dreadlock-sporting intergalactic sportsman has become a familiar vaginal face to movie audiences around the world. One of those company deaths in the original movie was none other than Shane Black, years before the writer/director became a bankable Hollywood commodity. Black is going back home to revive the dormant franchise with The Predator, a big-budget sequel/reboot that aims for the stars and falls far, far too short.
An alien spaceship belonging to a rogue Predator crashes on Earth, scattering important debris. Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is a black ops sniper and the only surviving member of his team who happened to be on site when the ship crashed. The government says he’s crazy and transfers him onto a bus filled with other mentally disturbed military vets who call themselves “the Loonies” (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera). A tough-talking government agent, Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), seeks out a biological specialist, Dr. Brackett (Olivia Munn), to examine their interstellar prize. At the secret lab, the Predator breaks free, Dr. Brackett chases after the specimen, and she teams up with the “Loonies” to track down the alien. After his initial Predator encounter, Quinn mailed the alien helmet and other evidence to his son, Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with autism who cracks the alien code and becomes the target of a Predator, a Super Predator, and the government.
The Predator is a supremely messy movie, often feeling like two separate screenplays inelegantly stitched together, one a big bloody action thriller, the other a winky Shane Black vehicle with a cavalier, macabre sense of humor. It doesn’t quite work because the movie can’t fully settle on a tone, or a direction, and thus it keeps providing glimpses of the many versions of the kind of movie it could have been instead. I’ll openly admit to being a Shane Black fan when he embraces his sly instincts, command of genre, and ribald wit (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a modern comic masterpiece; The Nice Guys is… pretty good), so the Black touches were my favorite part especially because they stood out the most. I enjoyed the characters entering into scene-breaking asides, like Dr. Brackett questioning why the alien would be named a “predator” given its behavior is more akin to a hunter or a fisherman, and Traeger shrugging, “Yeah, well, we took a vote and ‘predator’ was cooler. Right guys?” Or when a character is being held at tranquilizer gunpoint and mocks the danger, only to be tranqued point blank in the eye, killing him. Or a bully suddenly getting drilled by the defense mechanisms of the Predator helmet and murdered. It’s these moments that kept me most entertained, demonstrating Black’s unique voice that can take genre filmmaking within a studio sphere and turn it on its head with a devilish grin. If The Predator had been more a Shane Black vehicle than a Shane Black studio reboot, then perhaps the final product would have risen above the mediocrity that sinks it.
Much of that mediocrity comes from the middling plotting, mostly after the first act. For a solid half hour, I think Black has something promising, having set up the various characters and gotten them to intersect and go on the run together as a merry band of outlaws and amateur alien hunters. Once the “Loonies” break free with Dr. Brackett is where the movie loses its sense of direction. The plot just stumbles from one set piece to another, rarely with good reason. One minute they’re running away from a Predator creature and the next they run into an apparently unlocked high school building rather than flee in cars and RVs. Most of the plot movement follows little Rory, first reaching him before the bad men do, then rescuing him from Predator dogs, and Predator, and then he’s kidnapped by the bad guys, then he’s hunted by the Super Predator and I’m tired. This kid is a spectrum-walking, spectrum-talking plot device (more on that below). It feels decidedly odd to have a super sniper paired with a renegade group of mentally disturbed and dangerous military castoffs and instead of them primarily hunting and killing a space alien they are rescuing a little boy with special needs. It would be like having a Tarantino rouges gallery teaming up to teach a child how to read. It feels like a misapplication of the character dynamics onscreen, which again gets to my central criticism of the final film feeling too much like separate movies in conflict. The studio elements (supportive yet feisty ex-wife, autistic savant, Predator dogs) feel too obvious.
The action is serviceable with a few dandy practical gore effects. There’s a nasty, visceral quality of the action that proudly wears its R-rating as a badge of honor, as a PG-13 Predator movie would be a disservice to the universe’s most fearsome hunter (the first Alien vs. Predator was PG-13; I suppose acid and florescent blood are less traumatic to be seen gushing from hacked limbs?). The action gets a lot more boring once the Super Predator is introduced, an eleven-foot all-CGI monstrosity that needed a bit more work. Beforehand the Predator is a combination of makeup and practical effects, allowing longer interaction with its environment. I enjoyed the Predator breaking out of the lab. I did not enjoy the team taking on the Super Predator at night in the middle of the woods because it decided to go… sporting. Seriously, the second-to-last action set piece has the flimsiest formation. Rather than accomplish its mission, the Super Predator invites all the humans to one more game, though the alien acknowledges that “McKenna” is their only true champion. It devolves to jump scares in the spooky woods, but hey, at least characters can start being eliminated (some of them so abruptly that it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exit). There are touches throughout the action that keep things lively before ultimately succumbing yet again to the freefall of the project’s creative dissonance.
The actors are enjoyable but I felt bad they weren’t given more. Holbrook (Logan) is consistently upstaged by his eccentric band of compatriots, but only Jane, Key, and Rhodes get any personality. The other guys are just kind of there. I don’t think I laughed once at Key’s (Netflix’s Friends from College) many, many wisecracks. The Tourette’s syndrome tic given to Jane (TV’s The Expanse) is rarely funny, and yet Black goes back to it again and again (the adolescent kid behind me in my theater thought every profanity was the funniest thing ever committed to film). The actors glide by on Black’s signature macho, cocksure style, clinging to every new quip like a lifeline. Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse) has a few fun, feisty moments but is still basically featured as The Girl. Tremblay (Wonder) is making me rethink my evaluation of him after Room. The best actor in the movie, by far, is Brown (Black Panther) who has a malevolent charm that connects most fluidly with Black’s sensibilities. Even his self-satisfied laughter made me laugh.
We need to talk about the film’s views on autism (there will be some spoilers in this paragraph, so skip ahead if desired). Rory McKenna is of that kind of Hollywood Autism, the kind we see on TV (The Good Doctor) or of classic movies (Rain Man). It’s the designation of autism as a gateway to super powers (never mind that having savant abilities only impacts ten percent at best). Whatever, it’s an unrealistic depiction in an age of better, more nuanced depictions of mental health and disabilities. Where The Predator gets crazy is when Dr. Brackett offers this nugget: “You know many people think autism is just the next step in human evolution.” No. Nobody thinks this. As someone who has worked extensively with children with autism, this is not a thing. I’m not saying by any rationale that those with autism are lesser by any means but they’re no more the next stage in human evolution than any other condition. Ask a person with autism if they feel like the next stage in human evolution, like an X-Men mutant. What makes matters worse is that Black confirms this strange notion when the Super Predator, surprise surprise, was most impressed with Rory McKenna and not his big bad dad. The Super Predator plans to take the kid back to, presumably, harvest his autism DNA so the future predators will… know how to fly their spaceships that they already know how to fly? I don’t know.
The Predator is part sequel, part reboot, part Shane Black genre riff, part muscular R-rated action movie, part chase movie, and part Hollywood mishmash. Apparently the film underwent extensive reshoots as well, retooling the entire third act, which seems obvious in hindsight and only magnifies the disconnect between the central story elements. Shane Black’s signature elements are but glimmers of what could have been. It needed to be more of a genre send-up of 80s-action farce, or a more straight-up action movie, or something where the plot generally made sense and had characters we liked. Was Shane Black playing a joke on the studio? The Predator will probably be most known for editing out a real-life sexual predator, or from its dreadlocked alien dog being domesticated after getting shot in the head, or its depiction of autism, or anything that isn’t really the entertainment level of a mediocre rehash. Check out Predators instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key are gifted comedic performers, as often evidenced from their often-brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. It was only a matter of time before they made the leap to feature-film players, and Keanu is a suitable springboard for the gents that portends to even better future results. Relying upon mistaken identity bluffs, Peele and Key play a pair of relatively straight-laced men who pretend to be violent gangsters in order to retrieve Peele’s stolen kitten. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t feel like an overextended sketch though it does have its narrative detours that dawdle (a celebrity drug deal is padded out with far too few jokes), running jokes that hold on for a beat too long and then some (the George Michael fascination culminates in a drug sequence that does absolutely nothing), and there are missed opportunities that seem obvious (Key using his new gangster friends to intimidate a man making advances on his wife). Will Forte’s hip-hop loving drug dealer feels like a character nobody knew what to do with, including Forte. What doesn’t disappoint is the natural comic chemistry of its leads as well as the movie’s ability to surprise, zigging rather than zagging, and finding small jokes just as satisfying as larger set pieces. I enjoyed when the guys’ insecurity butted against their bravado, like when Peele is trying to deflect credit for helping his new pal to do some very bad things. The onscreen action is somewhere between the wackier world of 21 Jump Street and the grisly, unfunny world of Pineapple Express but at least the filmmakers realize that an action-comedy still needs to present its action through a comic lens. I was laughing consistently throughout though it was mostly at a chuckle level, if I were to be honest. Keanu is a fairly fun comedy that you can’t help but think could have been more refined during its structureless periods, but then another joke appears and it’s hard to get too upset with the final enterprise. Keanu is funny enough but you sense that a better vehicle is on the horizon for these two gifted comedians. Oh and the cat is powerfully adorable.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Crafting movies around theme park rides is a rather risky creative proposition. For every Pirates of the Caribbean mega-franchise, there’s a Haunted Mansion. Theme park rides are more locations then they are stories, so it’s an adaptation where there’s nothing really to adapt except for a setting starting point. Tomorrowland has a few nods to its spiritual source material, but it’s an original science fiction film with much on its mind beyond entertainment. With Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Iron Giant) turning down the new Star Wars to make Tomorrowland, I had definite expectations. Bird hasn’t made a bad movie yet. He still hasn’t but Tomorrowland is definitely the worst film in Brad Bird’s heretofore-unshakable pedigree.
Casey (Britt Robertson) is a dreamer with a capital D. While her teachers bemoan the cataclysmic shape of world events and instability, she doggedly raises her hand to ask, “Yeah, but what can we do to fix it?” Her father works for NASA but the nation has lost interest in space and has stopped looking at the stars. Casey sneaks out every week to thwart the demolition of a NASA launch platform. She can’t let it go. She comes across a mysterious pin that, when touched, transports her to a hidden world, a future city called Tomorrowland. But there are others that are looking for this city too. A slew of androids chases after her to retrieve the pin. Robot child Athena (Raffey Cassidy) becomes a protector for Casey and the two set off to find Frank (George Clooney), a hermit and mechanical mastermind who once lived at Tomorrowland before becoming disillusioned.
This is one of the few movies where the more characters explained the plot the more confused I ultimately became. The story by Bird, Damon Lindeloff (Prometheus, HBO’s The Leftovers) and Jeff Jensen doesn’t exactly a clear narrative, and that begins with the structure, inserting two framing devices that are too cute for the movie. The first 15 minutes is Frank’s childhood experience discovering Tomorrowland, and this is probably because we won’t see Clooney’s grown-up Frank until an hour into the movie. It takes far too long to get going, instead becoming a series of unnecessary plot detours, like a trip to a collectibles store in Austin or a trip to the Eiffel Tower. Is there a reason that a return to Tomorrowland is saved for the very end of its final act? Probably because utopias are boring, which the movie itself admits and admonishes us for accepting. You see, dear reader, it’s all of us and our collective negativity poisoning the planet. Our use of cynicism and our love of dystopias in movies and literature are to blame. In this proclamation, a movie as madly genius as Mad Max: Fury Road is leading to the downward spiral of humanity, and nobody who sees that brilliant film could accept that. Tomorrowland has some legitimate points, precisely aimed at the inconvenience of action over the convenience of stasis. In one of the better articulations of its shiny happy message, a character says that people accept the worst because “they don’t have to do anything today.” It’s the global equivalent of, “I’ll start my homework tomorrow,” knowing we’ll probably never get around to it, to our own detriment.
Tomorrowland’s idealism would be easier to swallow if it wasn’t so oppressively scolding. First, allow me to reject its notion that popular culture wallows in darkness and there is no inherent value with this predisposition. If this was true then no one would read the wealth of Russian literature, which is reams and reams of pages of suffering, unrequited longing, confusion, anxiety, pressure, and finding what grace one can. One of Casey’s teachers upholds George Orwell’s 1984 as a living testament to what we’re going through today, but Orwell’s novel isn’t popular or well revered just because it’s desolate. Would millions of readers be foolish for finding something powerful and poignant in Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning dystopian cannibal road trip, The Road? Just because one is optimistic doesn’t mean you’re in the right, and just because one is pessimistic it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong. Perhaps the culture is too hesitant to take necessary action because it’s easier to buy into the argument that our actions are meaningless; hence why the newest argument against environmental reforms to curb the effects of climate change amount to, “Yeah, but what difference will it make now?” If Tomorrowland was trying to rouse its audience into action, it went about it the wrong way. The movie’s tone is far too scolding and stuck on can-do platitudes to be anything beyond an earnest motivational poster that will ultimately be ignored.
Then there’s the film’s restricted view on what constitutes the Right Dreams. Casey refuses to allow the NASA launch station to be demolished because it supplies her dad with a job, but really it comes down to her idealism of man’s capacity to achieve. And yet, her chosen way of expressing this, besides general perkiness, is to cling to an older definition of what constitutes achievement. The space shuttles were grand but we’ve outgrown them and space travel itself has migrated into the private sector. Just because U.S. astronauts aren’t being launched into space with the frequency they once were, does that means the country has somehow lost its ideals? Or are we allowed to adapt to the demands of the times? Strangely, Tomorrowland holds onto a retro definition of what constitutes achievement, something also touched upon in Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey shook his McConaugh-fist at all these young kids for not having the same level of interest in the old technologies and pursuits. Tomorrowland fixates on the scientific dreams of the 1960s, but that’s no longer a representation of our world. What it ends up pining for is a throwback to Disney’s own era of gee-whiz futurism, a world where flying cars are valued above, say, the Internet.
If you think about it, Tomorrowland’s utopia is pretty much a progressive version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s famous ideological tome, the “best and brightest” (a.k.a. rich industrialists) decide they’ve had enough with the common man getting in their way, and so they up and leave and start their own secret paradise where they won’t be disturbed by the likes of us “normies.” With Tomorrowland, it’s not the business types who take their ball and go home but the inventors, scientists, and artists, the creative class, who are given magic passage to a hidden world where their work will be undisturbed by those deemed less creative and/or essential. It’s intended to be inspirational but it awkwardly falls into a murky class-consciousness it can’t escape. Who defines the value of creativity exactly? Is there a Tomorrowland board of directors that says, “You know what, we definitely need that guitar player. Forget having plumbers.” Are the day-to-day laborers and paper-pushers, the ordinary people that keep the infrastructure of the world running, are they just deemed less significant? Tomorrowland apparently only has the best and brightest when it comes to all things, including the people that take out your garbage and unclog your sinks. Are the gravediggers the finest from around the world? Is the world’s greatest and most creative gravedigger still a few notches below a rather lackluster environmental scientist? As you can see, it invites all sorts of questions that will go unanswered because, again, the film’s message is everything, and the particulars of its invite-only exclusive society are off limits.
The action sequences are also strangely dull for a filmmaker such as Bird. Each sequence has its moments of inventive orchestration, especially a brawl in the sci-fi collectible shop that squeezes in lots of homage. Too often the action is missing the creative spark Bird has showed in so many of his past films, particularly 2004’s The Incredibles. The mayhem is also a little too intense for younger children, especially with real people being so callously zapped into dust out in the open (not exactly keeping a low profile, robot henchmen). There’s also a child robot who factors into a lot of the peril, and then very uncomfortably into a late scene where she expresses her love for the grown-up Frank. I understand they had a connection when they were kids but the movie still ends with Clooney cradling a child in his arms and talking what could have been their tale of romantic love. It’s just a little creepier than affecting. Speaking of which, are children going to be entertained by something this message-laden and obtuse in plot? Are adults going to be entertained with this movie? Who is this movie actually for?
The saving grace of Tomorrowland is the performance of its plucky heroine played by Robertson (The Longest Ride, TV’s Under the Dome). She’s got great presence on screen and a naturally charm that is far less oppressive than the material she’s delivering. Clooney (The Monuments Men) is his standard appealing, handsome, wounded leading man, and it’s a mistake to hold his character out of the action for so long. When George Clooney is on the poster for your big-budget sci-fi movie about the power of dreamers, you shouldn’t wait a whole hour to get around to his character. Magnifying this problem is the fact that the narrative has so few characters who actually matter, mainly four, and one of them isn’t significant until an hour in and another isn’t until the very final act.
Tomorrowland is a sincere, hopeful, and idealistic film that shoves its message in your face and doesn’t offer much in the way of an alternative besides, “Do better.” The problem is that this message of hope and agency is lost amidst a plot that is swallowed whole by near-constant exposition, a clunky framing device, and a world-destroying scheme that seems horribly convoluted in a manner unfitting for the supposed smarty-pants antagonists. It’s simply not a very good story, not told in a very good way, and a message that needs to go beyond a simplistic slogan to be more inspirational. It’s a pretty film with some fun moments, but Tomorrowland is a reminder that not all nostalgia is credible, not all dreams are equal, and messages are digested better when the audience cares about what is happening and (key point here) understands it. Me? I’ll prefer going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, but that’s just me dooming humanity. Worth it.
Nate’s Grade: C+