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Dolittle (2020)

Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Cats (2019)

Cats, beyond all reason, is a musical sensation. Andrew Lloyd Webber based the show on the poems of T.S. Eliot. The original production played on Broadway for eighteen years from 1982 to 2000 and I don’t know a single person that likes it. It was only a matter of time before these jellicle cats were headed for the big screen in a big-budget folly. The first look the public got of a Cats movie musical trailer was met with revulsion and horror. I was anticipating the worst and yet I still wasn’t fully prepared for the jellicle disaster strutting around with undue confidence.

Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) made the colossal misfire to film his action in motion capture bodysuits and provide CGI hair and cat features to them later. This choice dooms whatever meager chance a big screen Cats might have had. There’s a reason the Internet erupted in collective horror when the first trailer was released, and Hooper and his producers tried assuring the public that those were early renditions of the technology and it would be improved upon its holiday release. Dear reader, I am here to tell you that the horror of that first trailer is alive and well in every unnatural moment of this nightmare. The uncanny valley has been a busy transit stop this year with the unsettling live-action (?) Lion King and now Cats serves as a dire warning about the perils of modern technology. Just because you can try and give human beings CGI fur and ears and tails doesn’t mean you should. The look is never fully transporting and often it appears like human features have been slapped onto a furry background composite, like a snowman’s facial features while it might be melting. Then there’s the additional levels of scary anthropomorphism, with mice and marching cockroaches. Why not just use prosthetics and makeup like every stage production? I think the Cats producers wanted to do something to distinguish it and in doing so they unleashed one of apocalyptic seals.

Whatever film version of Cats was destined to be disappointing because the source material is so lackluster. The Broadway musical was so popular for so long, I assume, primarily from its creative use of costumes, makeup, and staging to bring to life a fanciful world of felines. The CGI decision takes away whatever admirable craftsmanship and charm the stage show might have conveyed and replaced with nightmare fuel for the eyes. Absent the initial appeal, we’re left with a truly underwhelming story populated with underwritten characters that only really exist when they’re singing and otherwise just operate in background space. It’s a show that feels powerfully redundant with a plot structure that amounts to cats being tapped to deliver an explanatory song about themselves and then to move onto the next. It’s very much, “I’m a cat. Here’s my cat song,” followed by, “I’m a different cat. Here’s my different cat song.” Without further plot advancement, it feels like the silliest job interview with the worst candidates seeking the position of Cat Who Gets the Honor of Being Reborn in the Sky. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that I was watching an even scarier version of Midsommar and that this cat gang was really a religious cult that was selecting a ritual sacrifice to their blood-thirsty Egyptian Gods.

It’s a storytelling experience that never connects because this is designed entirely for children. Much of the show feels like a children’s television series that was hijacked by a sexual deviant. The film is replete with simplistic moral messages that you would find in children’s television, things like “Believe in yourself,” and, “Invite others into your play,” and, “Wait your turn,” and, “Treat others with respect,” and other easily digestible platitudes. This isn’t a complicated show and children would not be tasked with remembering the many characters and their stupid names because most of them are meaningless to the larger story. There is nothing complex about this story, which was compensated by the production values of the original stage show. The large stages the actors frolic around are fun to watch because they’re built to scale, meaning the tables are gigantic to present the world from a cat’s perspective. However, the proportions vary wildly and at whim. The cats will seem much larger than their world and much smaller; dining cutlery will appear far larger than a cat’s whole body, or they’ll strut on a railway and look like they’re three inches tall. Couple that with inconsistent world building and ill-defined magic powers (teleportation works except when it doesn’t) and it becomes very hard to hold onto anything as a baseline. The attempts at whimsy through the exaggerated scale become another point of confusion and unease as this world continually feels like a simulation that doesn’t quite add up.

I really want to examine just how ridiculous so many of these character names are. Apparently, a cat chooses their name (sorry, pet owners, but you’ve been giving them slave names?) and they’re selecting some pretty insane identities. Without further ado, we have Bombalurina, Bustopher Jones, Grizabela, Macavity, Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, Rumpleteazer, Mungojerrie, Mr. Mistoffelees, Munustrap, Griddlebone, Tantomile, Jellylorum, Growltiger, and without a doubt, my favorite, Skimbleshanks. You could play a game guessing whether the names were cat names, pirate names, or something an elderly human said during a stroke.

The songs are also another source of disappointment. There’s the lone exception of “Memory” and Jennifer Hudson kills it with the kind of emotion the rest of the movie was missing, but everything else feels like it’s droning on and absent a strong sense of melody. The synth score also feels very dated and hard on the ears. The only saving grace for a movie that puts this concerted emphasis on the performances would be the song and dance numbers, and the dance choreography is bland and undercut by the editing, and the songs are forgettable. The Skimbleshanks number is a slight variation because of the force of personality from the character, being introduced like a fancy feline member of the Village People, suspenders and literal handlebar mustache and all. He also has an impressive tap number that leads into the exciting world of… sleeping cars on a train. It’s hard for me to impart any emotional impact from the songs because they’re so plainly expository, explaining a different cat’s life from being mischievous to being fat and lazy. These are not interesting characters in the slightest (sorry, Skimbleshanks) and their songs are like boring third grade essays about their home lives.

Nobody walks away completely clean from this movie but the actors with singing experience come closest. James Corden (Into the Woods) is a real highlight from his comic asides that feel like he’s puncturing the bizarre self-serious nature of this silly movie. Jason Derulo has a slick amount of charm to be a commitment-challenged alley cat. Hudson (All Rise) is a strong singer and made me think of her character from Dreamgirls being a cat and singing her big number. The lead heroine, Francesca Hayward, has a genuine grace to her presence and a nice face to stand out amid a world of scary human-looking cat deformities. I wish she had more moments to showcase her balletic talents. The older actors fare the worst, unfortunately. Judi Dench (Murder on the Orient Express) looks pained and sounds it too. Her fourth-wall breaking song that concludes the film, instructing the audience on how to address and treat their kitties, is inherently awkward. Elba (Hobbes & Shaw) provides a palpable sense of menace to his devil figure, until he appears without clothes and I audible gasped and groaned. In one instant, any sense of menace vanished as I watched a naked black cat version of Idris Elba dance a jolly jig. I know these actors signed up for this but that didn’t stop me from feeling a resigned sense of embarrassment for them.

And now is the time to talk about the unspoken audience for a live-action Cats, and that’s the contingent of furries or soon-to-be discovered furries. I was wondering before if the filmmakers would be cognizant of the unorthodox appeal of their film production to a certain select group of audience members, and I am here to say they are completely aware and play into this. There’s a musical number where Taylor Swift sprays catnip (a.k.a. magic horny dust) that drives the cats crazy and they writhe and purr with wild abandon, striking evocative poses with legs raised. There may not be any visible genitals but that doesn’t stop Rebel Wilson’s character from a joke about neutering. In news reports, Derula has been upset by his phantom phallus in the movie, which is slightly hilarious considering he signed up for this, but it’s also indicative of the weirdly sexual vibes the movie is playing around with but at an infantile level of wonder. There is going to be a generation of moviegoers who watch Cats and discover that they are turned on by sexy human versions of animals slinking around, lifting their legs, and rubbing their fuzzy little butts.

I was waiting for Cats to end long before it did because so much felt so pointless. The false whimsy was covering ineffective and repetitive storytelling, malnourished and unimportant characters, confusing world building and powers, middling songs (with one sterling exception), and direction that seems to make the whole enterprise feel like a children’s cartoon. It’s too simple to be intellectually stimulating, too weird and confounding to be whimsical, too sporadic and repetitive to be emotionally involving, and vacillating between complete seriousness and wanton silliness. I’m not even a hater of Hooper when it comes to his idiosyncratic direction of big Broadway musicals. I enjoyed his rendition of Les Miserables and thought several of the artistic choices made the movie better, especially the live singing. With Cats, I don’t think there was a possibility of this ever being a good movie as long as it was a faithful adaptation of a not great stage show. However, there were decisions that made this movie much much worse, namely the scary marriage of technology and flesh. If somehow you were a fan of Cats, or somehow consider yourself one as an adult, or a furry, you might find some degree of enchantment. For everyone else, Cats is a cat-astrophe. Sorry.

Nate’s Grade: D

Here are some pun-laden blurbs offered by a colleague, Steven Gammeter, in preparation for writing this review:

1) “You’ll need to change the litter box after this movie.”

2) “Follow Bob Barker’s lead and spay and neuter these Cats.”

3) “It feels like you’re living all nine of your lives while sitting through this movie.”

4) “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

The Lion King (2019)

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

Show Dogs (2018)

I was expecting something much worse but ultimately it’s hard to get too upset with Show Dogs, a lowest common denominator slice of entertainment for the youngest of children. There are two separate Lego Movie references in relation to star Will Arnett, a cop who partners with a dog for an undercover operation. The weird part is that the movie seems to exist in a world where animals talk to one another but humans cannot hear them. Fine, except then why does Arnett treat a stray dog like an equal? Occasionally human beings will interact with the animals like they can hear them. World building inconsistency aside, it’s simply a very unfunny comedy. The lazy puns and slapstick are somewhat excusable in smaller doses but the movie is nothing but. The only reason to watch Show Dogs is to look for the former material relating to a storyline that literally involved the hero dog having to learn to go to a happy mental place while adult judges fondle his genitals. Shockingly, the filmmakers did not see any problem with this storyline aimed at children until weeks after its initial release, and then it was re-cut with the offending and abuse-grooming material wisely removed. How does something like this happen? How does it pass through so many editorial approvals? It wasn’t a simple joke but an ongoing character arc for the protagonist. Show Dogs is for the dogs.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Mowgli (2018)

Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

kuboandthetwostrings-poster13At this point the Laiki studio (ParaNorman, The Box Trolls) has earned as much good will and credibility as Pixar in their pre-Cars 2 prime. I almost was going to write off their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings. For the first forty minutes or so I was somewhat indifferent to it. Sure the stop-motion animation was stunningly realized and the creation of the environments was very meticulous, but I just couldn’t connect with the movie’s story of a young boy, Kubo, and his quest to claim magic items to thwart the advances of his dangerous and estranged mystical family. Then the first big set piece happened and then the next, and then the plot made some deft reveals and provided a strong emotional foundation, and I was hooked. This is Laika’s first real action film and the wide shots and long takes do plenty to serve the action and allow you to further marvel at the painstaking brilliance of these hard-working animators. It’s a full-fledged fantasy epic that tickles the imagination and provides a poignant undercurrent of emotion especially during the final act. As Kubo declares his real strength are his memories of loved ones past, I was starting to get teary. It’s a lovely message to top off an exciting and involving action movie with creepy villains and side characters that do more than throwaway one-liners. Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) gives a very expressive and emotive performance as our lead. Charlize Theron is outstanding as Kubo’s maternal protector who just happens to be a monkey. Rooney Mara is also genuinely eerie as an ethereal pair of flying sisters trying to snatch Kubo. Matthew McConaughey isn’t the best vocal actor due to the limited range of his vocal register but he’s still enjoyably daft. The Japanese setting and culture are recreated with loving touches that celebrate rather than appropriate. I still regard the arch silliness of The Box Trolls as my favorite film but Kubo is more than a worthy follow-up. The slow start is worth it by film’s end, so stick with it if you start to doubt yourself, because the emotional wallop of Kubo and the Two Strings, not to mention its creative high points, is well worth the invested effort.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Jungle Book (2016)

MV5BMTc3NTUzNTI4MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU0NjU5NzE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It seemed like only a matter of time before those in the Mouse House started looking through the back catalogue of hits for inspiration. The Jungle Book is a live-action remake of the 1967 Disney animated film, but it’s only the first of many such translations to come. A live-action Beauty and the Beast is being filmed currently and plans are underway for a possible live-action Aladdin as well, though I pity the actor with the unenviable task of replacing the beloved Robin Williams. I was wary of director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) version just because it seemed, on the surface, like a quick attempt to fleece the public of their hard-earned money with a repackaged movie. What I got instead was a brilliantly executed adventure story with a beating heart, amazing special effects, and ultimately an improvement on the original. Imagine that.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a boy raised by a pack of wolves. He tries to fit in with his pack but he grows a bit too slow and he can’t help himself with “tricks,” making tools. During a drought that signals a jungle wide peace between predator and prey, the feared tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) lets the rest of the animals know his demands. The “man cub” is to leave or Kahn will hunt him down. The mother wolf, Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), refuses to part with her child but Mowgli volunteers to leave to keep his pack safe. Kahn chases him deeper onto the outskirts of the jungle where Mowgli teams up with Baloo (Bill Murray), a lackadaisical bear who makes use of his partner’s affinity for tools and building contraptions. Mowgli’s new life is interrupted when he learns Kahn has attacked the wolf pack with the desire for Mowgli to return and face his wrath. Mowgli must team up with the friends of the jungle and use all his bravery and skills to defeat the ferocious Shere Kahn who has been lusting for vengeance for years.

The-Jungle-Book-Mowgli-and-Baloo-headerFavreau’s version of The Jungle Book is a thrilling and thrillingly immersive visual experience that opens up the big screen as an exciting canvas. The visual wizards have made an entire ecosystem look photo realistic to the point that if somebody said offhand that Jungle Book was shot on location in India, I wouldn’t think twice. The environments are entirely CGI and they are brilliantly brought to life in a seamless recreation I haven’t seen so effective since 2009’s Avatar. It’s stunning what can be accomplished with modern special effects, and then there’s Favreau’s smart decision not to radically anthropomorphize his animal cast. These are not some hybrid human-animal combination but rather flesh-and-blood wild creatures that just happen to speak English when they open their mouths (depending upon your territory). The animals don’t fall into that pesky uncanny valley where your brain is telling you what you’re watching is fake and unsettling to the senses (see: The Polar Express). The animals and behave like the real deal and further cement the exceptional level of realism of the movie. From a purely visual experience, The Jungle Book is a feast for the eyes that helps raise the bar just a little bit higher for the special effects industry and its proper application.

The movie would only succeed so far if it weren’t also for its engaging story. Let’s be honest about the 1967 Disney animated film: it’s not really a good movie. It’s fun and has some memorable songs (more on that below), but as a story it’s pretty redundant and flimsy. Mowgli bounces around one potential animal group to another trying to find a home only to move on to the next prospective foster situation. I never made the connection before but in a way the movie North is this plot, minus the talking animals and general entertainment value. There are long segments of the original Disney film that coast just on the charisma of the vocal actors and the animation. Certainly the Beatles parody characters haven’t aged well. There was plenty that could have been added to this story and screenwriter Justin Marks does just that, making the characters far more emotionally engaging. I felt a swell of sadness as Mowgli is separated from his wolf family, his mother declaring that no matter what he still is her son. Marks also personalizes the stakes between Mowgli and Shere Kahn. Each side has a grudge to settle when it comes to vengeance rather than Kahn rejecting the “man cub” out of general fear. This Mowgli is also a much more interesting protagonist; he’s plucky and uses his “man cub” other-ness as an asset when it comes to problem-solving. We have a better hero, a better villain, wonderfully brought to life through the velvety roar of Elba, and a small band of supporting characters that are more emotionally grounded. The wolf pack feels like a genuine family, a community. The relationship between Mowgli and Baloo becomes the backbone of the second half of a briskly paced movie, and the predictable narrative steps feel earned, from Baloo’s con job to caring for his lil’ buddy. The attention to the characters and their relationships provides a healthy sense of heart.

The vocal cast is expertly matched with their jungle creatures, notably Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Murray (St Vincent). Murray has an innate way to make his lazy character endearing. Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) gives a much better motion capture performance as a wolf than whatever the hell she was in The Force Awakens. Scarlet Johansson (The Avengers) is a nice addition as Ka the serpent, and as fans of Her can attest, her breathy voice can indeed be quite hypnotizing. Even the small comic relief animals are well done including the brilliant Gary Shandling in his last film role. Motion capture for non-primates seems like an iffy proposition considering that you’re either forcing the human actors to physically walk on all fours and pretend to be animals, which can be silly, or just copying the direct movements of animal models, which seems redundant then with the technological advances. I don’t know how they did it but it seems like The Jungle Book found a working middle ground that still showcases actor performances.

I think this picture cures infertility.

I think this picture cures infertility.

With a movie that works so well on so many levels, the few faulty areas tend to stand out, and I feel like somewhat of a cad to say that one of the biggest problems is the acting from its child star. I’ll give Sethi some leeway here considering he was never interacting with much more than a giant warehouse of blue screens, which I think we’ve shown doesn’t exactly lend itself toward the best live-acting performances (see: Star Wars prequels). When Sethi is in more action-oriented scenes, like running and jumping and generally being physically mobile, his performance improves. However, when he has to shift to portraying emotions beyond fight-or-flight that is where Sethi has trouble. When he’s playing “happy-go-lucky” early on with his wolf brethren, he’s way too animated in that way that unrestrained child actors can be without a proper anchor to moor their performance. There were moments that made me wince. I see no reason why an actor under ten should be immune to criticism when warranted. We live in an age of amazing child acting performances, notably evidenced by the incredible Jacob Tremblay in Room. We should expect better from our smaller actors. Unfortunately for Sethi, the visual spectacle is so luscious that the one human element sticks out more when he is also delivering a mediocre to poor lead performance.

The other minor detraction for Jungle Book is the inclusion of the two songs that really anyone recalls from the original Disney version, “I Want to Be Like You” and “The Bear Necessities.” I’ll even charitably give “Bear Necessities” a pass as it involves a moment of levity and bonding between Mowgli and Baloo and they’re simply singing to themselves as they relax down the river. It’s also the most famous song and if you think about it the “Hakuna Matata” of its day. “I Want to Be Like You” does not deserve the same consideration. It comes at an awkward time and undercuts the build-up of tension and does nothing short of rip you out of the world of the movie. At this point, we’ve been introduced to the hulking presence of King Louie voiced by Christopher Walken. The giant ape is portrayed like a mafia don and his sit-down with Mowgli has a real menace to it as he wants to provide “protection” for the man club at a price. It’s a moody moment and then this big orangutan starts singing and dancing. The illusion and reality of the movie is broken. At no other point does The Jungle Book come close to breaking its reality and it’s all for such an extraneous moment. There’s nothing conveyed in this song that couldn’t have simply been communicated through speech. Instead, the live-action movie makes a tortured homage to the older Disney source material, and it’s the one major misstep in its approach.

The Jungle Book is a magical movie that actually improves upon its cinematic source material. It’s a visual stunner that is completely transporting and another high-level achievement for the art of modern special effects as well as the proper usage of them in connection with fundamentally good storytelling. Favreau is able to open up a new yet familiar world and allow the viewer a renewed sense of awe. We also get characters that we care about, a strongly grounded sense of emotional stakes, and some thrilling action to go along with the CGI playhouse. I only have a few misgivings with Disney’s new Jungle book and one of those is really a function of its homage to the older Jungle Book. I’ll take the rare step and advise moviegoers to seriously consider seeing this in 3D (I did not). It’s a great visual experience, however, that would only take the movie so far if it wasn’t for Justin Marks screenplay adaptation and Favreua’s skilled direction. Now The Jungle Book can be a great visual experience, a great story, and, simply put, a great movie.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn_of_apes_teaser_posterAnyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Ted (2012)

Seth MacFarlane has become an industry powerhouse. The man has three animated TV shows on air (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and essentially carved an entire niche of modern comedy. His brand of irreverent, offensive, tangential humor has turned the man into a demigod among young audiences and helped him rake in millions. A journey to the movies seemed inevitable, and so comes Ted, which MacFarlane directed and co-wrote with two of his Family Guy scribes. The best assessment I can give is that if you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor on TV, you’ll probably enjoy Ted. If not, then you’re in for a prolonged, obnoxious two hours.

One day when young John Bennett was a young boy, he wished his teddy bear would come alive so he’d always have a best friend. And as a narrator tells us, nothing is stronger than a young boy’s wish (curious gender is specified and then never touched upon for some kind of joke). The next morning Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) comes alive. Flash forward 30 years and Jon (Mark Wahlberg) works at a rental car company, has a stunning girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and regularly gets stoned with his best pal, Ted. The two guys are inseparable, which causes friction between John and Lori. After another notorious incident of Ted behaving badly, Lori insists that he move out. John has to start acting more responsible and treating Lori like she deserves, but Ted’s influence usually leads to trouble. Both Ted and John are in desperate need of growing up.

It was no surprise for me that Ted was exactly what I expected from Seth MacFarlane. It’s just a bigger, raunchier version of the style of humor he’s patented on television: tangential non-sequitors, scenes that go on far too long, obscure pop culture references, pointless shock material, and the basic premise that the jokes hinge around some creature merely doing things. Like Brian the Dog, or Roger the alien, Ted is a creature that shouldn’t necessarily exist, and thus so much humor is built around just seeing Ted exist. Is it supposed to be hilarious watching him drive? How about hit on women? Do bong hits? Far too often the only joke the movie seems to offer is that Ted is a teddy bear doing stuff. If you replaced him with, say, a normal human being, would any of those jokes work? Would it be funny watching a normal person drive, hit on women, and do bong hits? Maybe but probably not. It’s all one joke: look at something unnatural doing natural things. And that’s my issue with MacFarlane’s brand of humor. These jokes are not given proper attention, setup, and development. The film rarely subverts your expectations with how every joke will play out, and if you already know the jokes before the movie delivers them then what’s the point? The one joke I did laugh at, and a good guffaw at that, was Ted’s boss who kept responding to Ted’s screw-ups with good words and promotions. That was a surprise. But here’s the thing: once it’s established, you know what will happen the next time. So the second time it’s still funny but not as much. By the third time, his nonplussed reaction is completely expected and thus all traces of funny have been squeezed dry. In comedy, it’s all about surprise, and I find with MacFarlane that he rarely strays from his routine.

As far as jokes going on too long, let’s talk about a myriad of subplots that seemed to go on forever. There’s an entire storyline where an obsessed fan played by Giovanni Ribisi (Contraband) kidnaps Ted. This storyline makes up almost the entire third act and occurs after the reconciliation between John and Lori, so the movie already feels like it should be over. And then it keeps going. And it keeps going longer. And then there’s a car chase and a foot race through Fenway Park, which serves no purpose other than to probably fulfill a childhood wish of MacFarlane’s to film on said hallowed grounds. And it’s during this final act where the crass movie tries to become… sentimental? It just doesn’t work. You can’t have 100 minutes of rude, offensive, vulgar humor and then try and then try and go all gooey and soft and make people feel something akin to emotion. The reason that the Judd Apatow films can work with emotion is because from the get-go they make you care about the characters and their relatable conflicts. But there’s a difference between emotion and cheap sentiment, and Ted hasn’t earned genuine emotion. I didn’t like any of these characters. They all seemed like louts and jerks and dolts, none of them charming. Thus the end and its wish-upon-a-star conclusion are cheap sentiment and the kind of conclusion that you believe without a doubt that the characters in Ted would mercilessly mock.

Let me specify for the moment that there is a distinct difference between gross-out gags and gags that are just gross. There is also a difference between jokes that are shocking but funny and jokes that are just desperate to offend. In my experience with MacFarlane’s brand of humor, as well as McFarlane’s fratty devotees (if I was rushing a fraternity, I have no doubt Ted would be my favorite movie, bro), that difference is not understood. Watching an over-the-top racist Asian stereotype is merely offensive without proper context to draw out humor beyond the odious and obvious. Just punching a child in the face isn’t funny. Just having someone defecate on the floor isn’t funny, though the panicked removal of said feces was humorous in flashback. I may have chuckled and giggled from time to time with Ted, but most of the time I was just saddened by how desperate McFarlane and his writers were to shock rather than to entertain.

Thank God Wahlberg (The Fighter) was in this movie. While Ted is best left in small doses, the boorish best friend archetype, Wahlberg has been sharpening his comedic muscles (the only muscle in need of work it seems) and has become a terrific straight man. Anyone who remembered 2010’s The Other Guys knows that Wahlberg can be flat-out funny when given great madness to play off of. With Ted, Wahlberg’s commitment to the innate absurdity of the movie goes a long way. His breathless rendition of an exhaustive list of white trash girl names had me laughing harder than anything else in the movie, and I admit I was also impressed by Wahlberg’s speedy delivery. The character of John is a pretty standard role at this point in American comedy, one of arrested development. However, it seems to take so long, blown chance after blown chance, for John to finally find some sense of responsibility. Just like everyone else, he is at the mercy of Ted’s corrosive influence.

I probably wasn’t the ideal specimen for MacFarlane’s first foray into movies. I’ve never been more than a mild fan of his TV work and its hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss brand of tangential humor, though I admit American Dad has grown on me (the only MacFarlane show where the jokes seem related to the story situations). MacFarlane unleashes the vulgar material he’s been holding back from TV, which makes for some laughs. The obviously stoned guys sitting in front of me thought the movie was hilarious, even during quiet moments where nothing was going on. I’m disappointed that a MacFarlane movie is pretty much exactly as I would have suspected, essentially a MacFarlane TV show blown up to a bigger screen. The jokes here are so limited, mostly deriving from Ted the teddy bear just doing things a teddy bear normally doesn’t. I wish the comedy were more developed, more nuanced, more concerned with doing something other than shock. The most shocking aspect of Ted is how utterly forgettable the whole enterprise is even with a magical talking teddy bear.

Nate’s Grade: C

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