Tag: disney

The Lion King

The Lion King (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Jon Favreau’s photorealistic CGI orgy “The Lion King” exists solely to underscore the superiority of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 classic family film. On every level—from the animation, the dialogue, the timing between words and actions, down to the majestic score and toe-tapping songs—it is without question that the latter is better, stronger, more emotionally intelligent and involving. And so one is forced to wonder, “What’s the point of retelling the same story, one that is occasionally a shot-after-shot replica of the original?” The movie does not provide a good enough answer. If one were naive, one might believe it is out of curiosity and nostalgia. The reality, however, is that the film is meant to be another cash grab.

There is only one sequence in which this modern interpretation does something exactly right. At one point in the story, it is assumed that Simba (voiced by Donald Glover), future king of Pride Rock, perished in a stampede along with his father, Mufasa (the inimitable James Earl Jones). The knowledge of Simba’s survival, now an adult lion who lives in a faraway land, must make it to Pride Rock. Instead of copying a simplistic, straight-to-the-point sequence from the animated film, we a follow a clump of Simba’s mane going through a journey. It is executed with a sense of wonder, humor, patience, and magic. Had the rest of the work functioned on this level, the film could have served as a natural extension of the source material.

The voice acting leaves a lot to be desired. Jones as Mufasa is perfect and there is energy behind JD McCrary’s work as Young Simba. However, John Oliver’s interpretation of the motormouth Zazu, majordomo to the king, is awkward and forced. At times I found it to be irritating and unpleasant. Beyoncé’s Nala, Simba’s best friend and eventual romantic interest, is extremely distracting. Every time Nala speaks, it reeks of Beyoncé rather than the personality of the character. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s comic relief Pumbaa and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s villainous Scar, are tolerable but nothing special or memorable. The voice work is such a mixed bag that one cannot help but wonder if these people were cast simply because of their names, not because their voices actually fit the characters.

Every song is done better in the original; they had more life, were more transportive, and certainly more emotional. Perhaps it is because in this film, there is an attempt to modernize the songs. Listen to “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and notice there is a lack of verve behind brilliant one-liners that just so happen to be sung in a song. Emphasis is placed on the beat, for instance, rather than the clash between the cub who would be king and the annoying red-billed hornbill assigned to protect him. Do not get me started on “Be Prepared”—which is supposed to underline Scar’s thirst for power; he so wishes to be king that he is willing to forge a partnership with the hyenas to murder his own brother. This song is completely butchered here. “Hakuna Matata” is supposed to be fun, but the meta-jokes in terms of visuals overwhelm the meaning of the song. Meanwhile, “Spirit,” an original piece, does not hold a candle against any of the songs, new or old. In fact, it feels tacked on, a bizarre appendage.

Spiritualism oozes out of the original’s every pore. It is expressed through kaleidoscopic colors, voice talent that feels exactly right, humanistic dialogue (which is ironic since the characters are not human), down to the highly textured and detailed animation. At times the animation style may even undergo hyperbole in order to make a point. It goes to show that photorealism comes with an important cost: a story that is supposed to be larger-than-life is reduced to something ordinary. For a story that unfolds in the wild, it lacks joy and freedom.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The most refreshing element in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” based on the screenplay by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, is its lack of villain, especially for a film targeted toward young children. Having a big bad is the easier path to traverse because if there is someone else to root against, then taking some of the focus away from the central protagonists is not as noticeable. The most cathartic moment relies on defeating the enemy. So, in a way, an argument can be made that the sequel is more ambitious than its predecessor. Here, the “villain” is change—specifically, how changes in one’s goals or dreams may threaten to derail a friendship. While I enjoyed its more mature theme, it is far from consistently entertaining.

There is a wealth of detail in this colorful and lively animated picture. The plot revolves around Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) discovering the wonders of the internet. It is filled to the brim with visual jokes, from intense bidding experiences on eBay (even though the items to be “won” are so silly) to annoying pop-up advertisements that plague websites with heavy traffic. The online world is beautiful and vibrant; there is almost always something to appreciate in the background should one bother to look.

Especially amusing is the effort put into the design and voices of the more memorable supporting characters like the search engine Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) who can speak faster than you can think (or type). Another welcome addition is the fashionable Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm that specializes in trending videos on BuzzTube, who decides to help Ralph and Vanellope find ways to earn enough money so they can purchase a replacement for the broken Sugar Rush wheel. Failing to do so would result in Ralph’s best friend no longer having a home since the game would be shut down permanently. (The wheel replacement costs more than how much the game makes in a year, according to the arcade owner.) These characters command distinct looks that match the voice performers’ level of enthusiasm.

Despite the details, however, the more interesting avenues are touched upon but never explored. When Ralph stumbles upon the comments section—specifically comments about how he looks, acts, and comes across—the material introduces the darker, more toxic side of the internet. This may be new to kids because, in reality, the internet offers more than playing the latest trendy games or watching cute cat videos. People can be mean—often for no reason—and they use the anonymity of the internet to say things they would never dare to express should their faces and actual names were exposed for the world to see. While this is on the more serious side, I believe that should the screenwriters made the topic more kid-friendly, the film would have commanded more urgency. Cyberbullying and toxic online environments are certainly more relevant now than ever. And the film’s main target audiences are going to grow up and deal with it.

The picture also suffers when it showcases characters from wildly popular franchises—especially when classic and modern Disney princesses take up the screen. The jokes are so specific, so amusing, and so clever that the original characters in this series fade into the background by comparison. At one point, I caught myself wishing that there was a movie of just the Disney princesses hanging out and saving the world. Sometimes less is more. Vanellope may be spunky, but she does not hold a candle against any one of the Disney princesses that makes a cameo. Speaking of less being more, I would have preferred not to have heard Vanellope’s awful song.

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is overlong, running out of steam about halfway through. While the more emotional moments may tug at the heartstrings for some, those who have grown impatient, like myself, are likely to see through the manipulation. Still, there are some chuckles to be had here.


Zootopia (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is depressing that too many animated films rely on vibrant colors and sugary cuteness to reel in and entertain children. But “Zootopia,” directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, with Jared Bush as co-director, subverts this pessimistic approach to genuinely entertain and educate young eyes and minds. It reminds everybody that we should expect and deserve more from the genre. It is most unexpected that the material touches upon subjects such as police profiling, racism (speci-sm?), and workplace discrimination. It reflects what we see in our world today.

Being a carrot farmer is considered to be a noble profession by Judy’s parents (voiced by Bonnie Hunt and Don Lake), but their highly enthusiastic daughter (Ginnifer Goodwin), one of two hundred in their rabbit family, has always dreamed of becoming a cop in Zootopia, the nearest metropolitan teeming with excitement and diversity.

Although she is discouraged by just about everyone not to try to reach so highly that she sets herself for disappointment, Judy, with hard work and determination, eventually earns her badge, graduates as valedictorian from the academy, and gets assigned to work in the city she loves. Yet despite her excellent qualifications and gusto as well as the department’s need of more officers to investigate a case involving twelve missing mammals, her superior (Idris Elba) assigns her to parking duty.

The filmmakers are able to create and establish a universe that is filled with possibilities. About twenty minutes into the picture, notice the way it takes its time to introduce the city to its main character, as well as audiences, as pavonine colors, flavorful textures, and numerous faces and bodies invade the screen to the point where we want to pause at each shot and appreciate both the foreground and background. Such a trait is very important because it inspires the viewer to revisit this world and capture beautiful images and jokes one might have missed the first go-round.

Seemingly effortless synergy is felt among voice work, personality of character through movement, and script. Let us take the fox character, Nick Wilde, our heroine’s unlikely ally, as an example. Jason Bateman provides the voice and he approaches the job with such vitality, often touching upon two or three emotions in just about every scene. (With sarcasm as a template.) During silent moments, notice way the character moves. Although Nick is an animated animal at first glance, he is given very human traits such as the way he walks down the street, how he lets out a sigh of frustration or disappointment, the manner in which recognition or an idea makes its way into his eyes.

The script is soaked with sharp wit, great timing, and intelligence. The scene in the DMV where the workers are all sloths is not only a brilliant joke because of the punchline but through the way it unfolds. Credit must be given to the writers, Jared Bush and Phil Johnston who helmed the screenplay, for finding inspiration from the animal kingdom and creating funny bits around our expectations—and at times what we do not expect at all. Irony is one of the picture’s greatest weapons.

“Zootopia” is a marvelous animated film. It offers bright and amusing action, well-placed puns, some tense chase sequences, and an actual investigation with hilarious references to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” and Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Wonderful lessons about diversity and celebrating differences are not hackneyed. In fact, the approach is exactly right for the story and plot being told.

Inside Out

Inside Out (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Eleven-year-old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) has had a pretty stable and happy life so far until Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle McLachlan) decide to move from the comforts of small town Minnesota to the busy-buzzin’-bustlin’ San Francisco. Out of the five emotions headquartered inside Riley’s brain, Joy (Amy Poehler) has managed to keep things under control. That is, until the life-changing move that threatens the status quo—starting with Sadness (Phyllis Smith) being unable to keep herself from touching the little girl’s core memories, thereby turning otherwise positive memories negative.

“Inside Out,” directed by Pete Docter, is a picture worthy of the Pixar brand because although it is entertaining on the surface, there are important messages behind the story that are worth ruminating after the film is over. One lesson, or reminder, I took away from it was maturity is being able to wrestle with tough challenges and learning from them, even just a little bit, so that when similar difficulties arise the future, one is more equipped to handle a situation—not necessary walking away from such challenges untouched or unscathed. Children younger than eight or so will probably not recognize the lessons it has to impart which is why the material must be first and foremost entertaining.

The animation is easy on the eyes. For example, the first shot of the picture is a newborn baby. It has a surprising level of detail—almost tactile, appropriately soft and precious. Compare such an image to baby Jack Jack from the now Pixar masterpiece “The Incredibles” just a decade ago and the difference is astounding. As expected, the palate is colorful when appropriate but notice but how the colors are significantly brighter and more alive inside Riley’s mind compared to her reality. It gives the impression that anything is possible when we are inside her head.

The five personalities are adorable in terms of character design and voice work. These are characters I can imagine kids will recognize five or ten years from now. Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) have their charm, but Anger (Lewis Black) is my favorite because although he is the shortest of the bunch, he is perhaps the most overdramatic. Any little annoyance sets him off and I looked forward to his reactions when Riley encounters a potential source of trouble. I wished, however, that the screenplay had given each personality equal attention. In this installment—and I can imagine the film having a sequel for an excellent reason—Joy and Sadness are front and center. Still, the interplay between these two is highly amusing.

It cannot be denied that the picture is at the top of its game when we get a chance to peek at the personalities inside other characters’ heads—whether it be a cat, a dog, or a teenage boy. Thus, the dinner scene with Mom, Dad, and Riley is perhaps the best in terms of energy, creativity, as well as a quick summary of this story’s essence.

Compared to a child’s, notice that the personalities in adults’ minds are more collaborative and at ease around one another. They are sitting down in front of the monitor instead of standing up and running around. Not very many things surprise them anymore when it comes to each other because time and experience have allowed them to reach a level of relatively stable sense of equilibrium. There is a sense of trust and comfort among them that the younger counterparts do not yet have. That is another reason why I think it is worth making a sequel.

Based on the imaginative screenplay by Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Pete Docter, “Inside Out” is possibly one of Pixar’s most human films. It is worthy of analysis not just in terms of how solid it is as a movie but also in terms of how growing up—even just a little—can turn one’s world inside out and upside down. I look forward to an even stronger second installment which absolutely must happen because the possibilities of comedic, dramatic, as well as other complex human elements and situations are ripe for the picking.


Tomorrowland (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having been arrested for vandalism, Casey (Britt Robertson) soon makes bail and starts to collect her personal items. But she finds there is one thing extra in her belongings: a pin from 1964 which commemorates the New York World’s Fair. Other than being an antique, it has another special quality: When touched, Casey finds herself transported to another dimension—a futuristic place full of hope, scientific discoveries, and inspiration. She wishes to know who gave her this pin and why she had been selected to see this new world.

Based on the screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird, “Tomorrowland” is a stilted film, quite enthralling for about two-thirds its running time, especially as it lays out the circumstances of our heroine and eventually finding out about the futuristic world, but the payoff is weak, inconsistent, typical end-of-the-world template with nothing new to show or say. Regardless, there is a sense of wonder here that will appeal to more mature children, probably starting around eight or nine years of age. A younger age group is likely to appreciate the visuals but may not necessarily be able to relate to the dialogue.

Credit to the casting directors for choosing young performers who command a light about them. Robertson plays a character who is smart but convincingly rough around the edges. I believed that Casey is the kind of girl who has a natural ability in figuring out how machines work. Looking at her, I was reminded of Jennifer Lawrence at times because they both have that spice of guile but not so overpowering that it comes across either trying too hard or intimidating. Pierce Gagnon, who plays Casey’s younger brother, also has his moments. Their chemistry as siblings is so entertaining that I wished Nate was also a part of Casey’s adventures.

The adults are less impressive. George Clooney plays a man named Frank Walker who, as a kid (Thomas Robinson—another standout), was chosen by a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy—who I believe we will see more of in the future) to become a part of Tomorrowland. Although he is amusing during the character’s more sarcastic moments, I wished Frank were played by a less recognizable face. Because Clooney is such a superstar and the script does not transform him enough, it becomes a challenge to separate the actor from the character. His celebrity distracts from the story.

The film is criticized from the perspective of the material offering very preachy messages during the final third. Although there are moments that are too sugary for my liking, I did not consider such a thing to be too problematic. My disappointment largely stems from the final act revolving around the protagonists having to fight a villain, Nix (Hugh Laurie), to save the world. The fighting scenes are standard, not well-choreographed, and the sense of awe is pushed to the side for the sake of action.

I wished that the writers had taken more of a risk by minimizing or removing the action completely. Perhaps the picture might have been stronger if the screenplay had focused more on the differences among Casey the optimist, Frank the pessimist, and Nix the cynic. To take it a bit further, relate those differences to how the world can be changed, molded, or directed into a better society. That way, the film remains true to its premise: that ideas can, in fact, make a true impact in the world.

Directed by Brad Bird, “Tomorrowland” offers a generous amount of wonderful visuals and is meant to be enjoyed purely on an entertainment level. Maybe it might even inspire some children to want to become scientists or engineers. But evaluating the film solely or largely based on “the message” and how well that message is conveyed is to miss the point by a lightyear.


Cinderella (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

To have courage and to be kind: traits that young Ella promised to embody during her mother’s final moments. Years after giving her word, Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and she, as expected, moves into the house eventually, along with her two despicable daughters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). To give one’s word is one thing but to keep it is another beast entirely. Ella (Lily James), a dreamer who speaks to and befriends animals that live in her home, must endure her awful stepmother and stepsisters while father is away.

Based on the screenplay by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” is a loyal retelling of an animated film classic but it is one that can be enjoyed even by those who are very familiar with the story. The reason is because the material takes its time with the details, whether it be in terms of costume designs and how they complement each other or the finer details of its characters, even though they still remain archetypes, as to avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. I was surprised that there were moments when I felt humanity emanating from the cruel stepmother.

The casting proves to be a key ingredient. Blanchett, a consummate performer, manages to do a lot with few lines that might have been dismissed or downplayed in less experienced hands. Even though her character appears to have a black heart when we solely look at the stepmother’s actions, notice that Blanchett imbues pain or sadness in those eyes. The director has enough sense to allow the camera to linger a little bit during those small but rich moments. I admired that Blanchett did not play the character as a complete ice queen. It would have been easier, certainly, but less interesting.

James is Blanchett’s equal. She commands a different kind of beauty—soft, delicate, approachable. This role, too, could have been boring if played like a wooden plank. In this Cinderella, I sensed an intelligence and fire without relying on quirks. She knows she is being mistreated but that awareness is communicated not through yelling, complaining, or glares. Instead, it is told through the eyes, the pity she feels toward the women who have it all and yet have nothing. At least nothing of substance or value.

I believed the story’s universe because a significant effort put into how certain things should look without relying on CGI overload. For instance, the costumes are appropriately bright, kid-friendly, and have a lot of eye-catching patterns. Instead of the clothes looking like they are simply hanging onto the actors, the materials are allowed to move and breathe. We notice their textures, we wonder what they are made from, if certain bits are computerized and to what extent. Observe the scene when Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) are dancing. It commands so much energy not only because James and Madden appear to be having fun or that the camera seems to be dancing with them, but it is also because the blue dress is alive instead of a bright but static thing.

There is one casting choice that can be considered a miscalculation. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother. Although the pivotal scene involving the transformation of a pumpkin, mice, and lizards is executed well, Carter, in my opinion, looks and acts too quirky to be a non-distracting fairy godmother. I think that in order to get around this, a lot of makeup was applied on her face. It made the actress look like she had botox or had undergone surgery that went awry. Looking at the character’s face closely made me feel very uncomfortable.

“Cinderella” is a lot of fun even though it does not break any new ground. There is chemistry between Cinderella and the prince, played wonderfully by James and Madden, and so we root for them to be together… despite the fact that we know they will. In Disney movies that involve some kind of romance, most of the time I find them to be syrupy and repetitive. Here, I actually wanted to see the lead characters to talk more, to touch each other more. There were times when I felt like I was watching just another story, not a Cinderella story—which is a compliment because it is a sign that the material has gone beyond what is expected.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having graduated high school by the time he was thirteen, Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) likes to spend his time building robots and participating in robot fighting in the back alleys of San Fransokyo. His older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), knows he can do a lot more with his life and insists that he not waste his potential.

To help him consider and possibly pursue an alternative track, Tadashi arranges for Hiro to visit his lab at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, a place where the boundaries of robotics are pushed to the limit. There, the fourteen-year-old meets his brother’s fellow inventors and sees the kind of technologies they have cooking. Highly inspired by what he has seen, Hiro becomes determined to attend the university… until tragedy strikes.

“Big Hero 6,” directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, is a funny, creative, modern, and at times poignant story of a young teenager who goes through a loss with the help of a huggable marshmallow-looking robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare companion. It is so energetic and amusing that at times I was reminded by Brad Bird’s excellent “The Incredibles.”

The setting of the story is inspired and beautifully rendered. Truly an amalgamation of Tokyo and San Francisco, one tends to notice and want to linger on the background—the sorts of people walking in the streets, the little trinket shops, the modes of transportation—even though the characters are chasing something important. This is one of a handful qualities that separates mediocre animated pictures from those that will be remembered fondly by adults—once children—fifteen to twenty years from now. Since the movie is generous in giving “something extra,” it is never boring nor is it a one-dimensional experience.

The action scenes in the latter half when it becomes a superhero film are more or less standard but it does not mean they are not enjoyable. It helps that each member of the group has a specific set of powers and unique personality. Perhaps it would have been more engaging if the screenplay by Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, took more risks by putting the characters under more intense levels of peril. I think the children that this movie targets can handle a bit more danger.

Most entertaining are scenes between Hiro and Baymax. This may sound strange but there are moments when my mind referred to John Connor and The Terminator’s relationship from James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the relationship between man and machine. Baymax says and does so many hilarious things that I’ve lost track the number of times I laughed because it was either so silly or very clever.

The film offers entertainment for kids and adults—without having to rely on innuendos to appeal to the latter. This is another positive quality that separates “Big Hero 6” from lesser animated pictures with even fewer ambition.