The Circle of Remakes: The Lion King (2019)

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I’ve been pretty generous to the recent live-action remakes as of late. I enjoyed Beauty and the Beast and thought Aladdin was overwhelming but cute. The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficent were fine. Pete’s Dragon was tragic. I thoroughly disliked Cinderella

But I have not been against these remakes on principle because for each of these films I see arguments to be made for updating them, whether that be to widen the scope, deepen the themes, or adjust to modern sensibilities. Besides, all of these films were basically fairy tales, and fairy tales are designed to explore different cultural anxieties and adapt with age. They are supposed to be reinvented, so a good adaptation will reinvent them in some way. While none of the films wowed me, I thought there was still an artistic reasoning Disney could give for making them, outside the obvious one of money. 

The Lion King though? I honestly cannot find a single thing in this remake that improves upon the original.

That’s the sentiment of many critics, but if there has been one redeeming factor for The Lion King, it is that people are wowed by the technology. And so was I, for about ten minutes. The character design is beautiful, the scenery is stunning, and the voice actors are very good (special shoutout to the constantly unappreciated Chiwetel Ejiofor, who here plays Scar but never tries to replicate Jeremy Irons, and elevates even the weakest of material with his Bond-villain approach).

But after the initial “whoa” wore off, I found the technology to be more like showing off than doing anything to service the story. What does making this live-action look do to service the story? No child is under the impression lions really act like this. The Lion King is a story about Simba, a fictional lion in a Hamlet-esque drama. It’s not a Nat Geo documentary. We’re supposed to relate to Simba, and the original movie did that through anthropomorphized animals and exaggerated facial expressions to communicate emotions. Real-life animals are simply not as expressive as humans, and so no matter how well the voice actors do, without the facial acting to back up the voices, the characters fall flat. There is nothing added to the story; it is almost a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake. Even with the “live action” and hyper-realistic approach, there are no elements of actual real-world lion pride dynamics added, because if so, Sarabi and Nala would be the main characters instead of Simba and Mufasa and Simba would die trying to convert to being vegetarian. The “realistic” treatment here calls for cutting out the fun of the original without substituting it for anything else. So what argument can there be made for “we need to make it live-action” outside of, “wouldn’t it be cool?” and I don’t think that is a compelling enough case.

A trend of the other live-action remakes has been to “fix” the problems of the original source material. These problems in many cases are not actual problems with the original films but instead are poor criticism that asks edgy questions such as, “does Belle have Stockholm syndrome? Cinderella isn’t a good role model for girls. In the real world dragons can’t sing!”

The desire from some audiences to have these live-action remakes over-explain every fantastic element from the original source seems to be a result of the rise of anti-intellectualism film criticism. This form of film criticism views films in an extremely literal lense and tends to ignore metaphorical readings. Plot holes become reasons a movie is objectively bad, rather than flawed, and these readings prioritize logic above all other aspects of the film. While I love watching things like Cinemasins for comedy, this is not good faith criticism because it does not seek to understand the vast potential of filmmaking nor does it show interest in discovering what the filmmaker may have been going for. For more on this subject, I recommend this video by Dan Olson, which looks at this phenomenon through my favorite movie of last year, Annihilation. 

All of that to say, this Lion King remake doesn’t actually fix any potential issues of the source material (and I personally can’t think of any issues), unless you consider “lions don’t actually look like cartoons” as a problem. And this itself isn’t a problem because 1) Hand-drawn animation is not an inferior genre. 2) Films do not need to strive for realism. As critic Roger Ebert put it, “I’ve always felt that movies are an emotional medium.” This movie misses that wholely. 

I think that history will remember this new live-action Lion King more like Avatar than the original 1994 Lion King. Avatar has just been passed by Avengers: Endgame as the highest-grossing film of all time, but consider that for ten years, it was the highest-grossing film of all time ($2.7897 billion) in part because of what a technological marvel it was and how it made use of the height of the 3D craze.

But Avatar’s cultural footprint is really only its reign as the highest-grossing film (well, until a few days ago) and as a joke. There is no strong fandom for Avatar, only probably 30% of the population can even remember the main character’s name or any substantial facts about the film. We’ll see if that changes with James Cameron’s 17 upcoming sequels, but Avatar was quickly outpaced and forgotten. And I believe it will be the same here. Technology doesn’t stick with people as much as stories do.

Look, Disney already has my money. And it will have a lot of other people’s money, too. And if you’re desperate, I won’t blame you for seeing something you know will be fine and is a safe choice for the whole family. That familiarity is why Disney is so successful. But trust me, rewatching the original Lion King will be a much better use of your time, and there are better movies in theaters right now to see. Or save your money for the upcoming Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Or Frozen 2. Or Jungle Cruise with the Rock. Or Mulan. Or Little Mermaid. Or- well, you get it. It’s Disney’s world and we’re just living in it. 

-Madeleine D.

P.S,

You know who the only good, realistic but still emotive CGI animal is? Aslan, from The Chronicles of Narnia movies. Yes, those films were Not As Good As The Books®, but look at the range of expressions! Or even Richard Parker from Life of Pi! So it’s not that this approach couldn’t have worked, but the “cool technology and animal logic at all costs!” approach fails the story. Nothing but respect for my favorite furry Christ figure. 

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Next week: A very fast and furious review with a special guest

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Go Big Or Go (Spider-Man: Far From) Home

Related imageSpoilers for this film and Avengers: Endgame!

Spider-Man: Far From Home picks up shortly after Avengers: Endgame. Tony Stark is dead and the world is mourning his loss and is trying to move on after Thanos’s snap and then the reverse snap, which is being called “The Blip.” Eager to escape the mounting responsibilities being put on him by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins his class for a summer trip to Europe, where his only concerns are enjoying himself and trying to tell MJ (Zendaya) that he likes her. 

Unsurprisingly, he is soon caught up again into superhero antics when a set of new threats called Elementals appear, but it seems Peter is not alone in fighting them this time. He meets a new hero named Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who may not be everything he seems. 

Far From Home is a mixed bag, but it is undeniably entertaining. The Spider-Man corner of the MCU continues to be at its best when it focuses on normalcy. The humor that comes from the class and vacation situations are by far the best parts of Far From Home. Martin Starr and J.B Smoove are particularly delightful as Peter’s teachers, and Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon continue to be great as Peter’s inner circle who keep up the push-and-pull between Peter’s civilian identity and his role as Spider-Man. 

Beyond the humor, though, are some truly affecting dramatic moments. Similar to the tear-jerking part in Homecoming when Peter gets trapped under the rubble, or when Peter gets dusted in Infinity War, the scene where Mysterio first uses his illusions on Peter is startling because it emphasizes Peter’s youth, and it is truly disturbing to see him being manipulated and beaten down in such a brutal fashion. Holland has some solid dramatic chops, and he gets to use them again here. I applaud the film for not pulling any punches and letting this young hero get a true “dark night of the soul” moment. 

The film also lets Peter makes some terrible mistakes that make him look foolish at best and unworthy of being Spider-man at worst. It’s a touch of sophistication that is missing from many other MCU films that typically rely on the hero’s darkest hours coming from external forces and not from their own mistakes. In this regard, this second Marvel-Sony Spider-Man entry is quite ambitious. 

Far From Home falters, however, in part because of this ambition. It goes bigger, and it doesn’t hit the mark on everything. The multiple bombastic action sequences are bland because most of them are Peter against faceless entities of water or fire or drones, which result in no emotional connection to the audience and a CGI mess on the screen.

This ambition extends to the movie’s themes. The story seems relevant with its inclusion of fake news, drones, technological warfare, illusions, not being sure what is real and not, and an undercurrent of what I can only describe as Gen-Z Anxiety™. All of those things are relevant, but the movie never quite gets around to saying anything meaningful about those things. Peter defeats them through his superpowers, so what does that mean for those of us who don’t have superpowers? Ultimately, just because the movie has timely elements doesn’t make it so, because it fails to understand what makes these things timely in the first place. 

This brings us back to Mysterio, who, like Michael Keaton’s villain Vulture in Homecoming, is a regular man who feels like he was cast low by Tony Stark and decides to retaliate by becoming evil. But while the film, and the MCU at large, seems to want to give some commentary on Tony’s problematic aspects, by making his critics evil maniacs, the wind is taken out of any serious arguments against Tony and instead just affirms him. His critics are all evil, and he saved the world, so in the end, he must have been in the right. 

Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) does say late in the movie that Tony was a “mess” and “always doubted himself,” which is true and is in line with the character’s development in losing his self-assuredness and gaining humility. But then moments later Happy makes an explicit connection between Tony and Peter, and since Peter is our heroic protagonist, any legitimate criticism of Tony is once again undercut in favor of the MCU’s RDJ-worship. All of this renders Mysterio a promising character played well by an underused Gyllenhaal, who never quite gets to shine as he should.

In the end, Far From Home confirms what some other recent MCU films have been showing, which is that Marvel is getting bolder and riskier, but still doesn’t quite have it in them to either go all the way or have the proper execution. I’m glad they’re trying, but they’re still far from a home run.

-Madeleine D.

The Gospel of Place: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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“In the Christian imagination, where you live gets equal billing with what you believe. Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows…Biblical religion has a low tolerance for ‘great ideas’ or ‘sublime truths’ or ‘inspirational thoughts’ apart from the places in which they occur. God’s great love and purposes for us are worked out in the messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, working with us…where we are…and not where we would like to be.” 

-Eugene Peterson, in the forward to Sidewalks in the Kingdom by Eric O. Jacobsen 

“If we learn to see and even love these urban features, we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed” 

      -Jacobsen, 73 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, despite its provocative and apocalyptic title, is a meandering and tender eulogy about a number of things. The film follows a man named Jimmie Fails (played by the man of the same name, on whose life story the film is based on) as he squats in the home he lived in as a kid and tries to find a way to buy it back for himself. Jimmie’s love for the house (and San Francisco at large) is of the purest form and is possibly only rivaled by the love of his friend Monty (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright who supports Jimmie until he discovers the truth about the house. The film watches the characters navigate this increasingly strange and hostile city that they love but are being priced out of. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a movie unlike any other movie that has come out this year, and I’d like to look at a few more reasons why.

In American filmmaking, time is treated like it is in our society- something to be hastened and exploited and used to its very last drop. Time efficiency is considered great storytelling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t, and there becomes a point where efficiency in storytelling means the filmmaker may use her characters more as tools than as reflections of humans. In TLBMISF, the camera gazes upon human faces and human bodies in a way that aims to cut straight to the character’s humanity, and it does not hasten to do this or have an agenda. At one point Monty, after being berated by some men on the street, says to Jimmie, “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them because they’re mean to me? That’s silly.” This is the attitude the film takes. Some characters that seem to have no narrative function turn out to be of great importance. Some characters really do not have any greater plot function, but all are treated with care and dignity by the camera. I’ve talked a few times before about having an empathetic camera, but TLBMISF exemplifies the concept more fully than any other film I’ve seen. This is true visual storytelling and a better form of storytelling efficiency.  

An unexpected consequence of this narrative empathy was that this became a stressful viewing experience for me because there was no one to really root against, so there was no sense of, “Of course this bad guy will be defeated, good conquers evil!” I was constantly in suspense about what was going to happen, and the film continued to go in unexpected directions. I felt this anxiety early on because Jimmie and Monty are so dang likable, even when they’re not doing likable things. It’s impossible not to want them to succeed, and panic at all of the clear obstacles in their ways. 

Speaking of Monty and Jimmie, in films with friendship in the middle, one character often takes an extreme comedic relief role and the other plays the straight man. They have to be extremes to keep things interesting, and their quippy rapport is a shorthand to express their closeness. Monty and Jimmie don’t fit into these categories in any fashion. They have their differences, but the performances are so lived-in and organic, the chemistry between the leads so effortless, and the physical closeness they often share is so comfortable that there is no need to have any kind of shorthand or tropes to establish the relationship. And refreshingly, the film feels no need to “no homo” the character’s bond at any point, further exuding the confidence the film feels about its own presence. 

~

The quotes at the beginning of this review are from Sidewalks in the Kingdom, a book about Christianity and new urbanism. In it, author Eric O. Jacobsen argues what the Bible argues- that Christianity is not solely the realm of the head and heart, but has to be enacted on the streets of where we live, and increasingly, that place is a city. The Bible begins in the Garden of Eden but ends in the Kingdom of God, pointedly shown to be a city. 

TLBMISF sees the city, in this case, San Francisco, as the Bible sees cities. And as already discussed, it also sees people in the same way. As Jimmie tells some newcomers who already dislike San Francisco, “You can’t hate it unless you love it.” As Christians, we cannot recognize the problems in the world and in our cities until we at first truly, truly love it. 

I am writing this review and including these quotes because I encourage you to watch this film, and I think watching it in this framework will be helpful, thought-provoking, and hopefully, rewarding. It was impossible for me not to consider these things when I saw it. TLBMISF is not pointedly a spiritual film, but like all good movies, it illuminates truth. Christians are called to love the earth we are on, and work for its benefit and glory. If only we all saw the spaces we occupy and the communities we are a part of in the way Jimmie and Monty see San Francisco. If only we advocated for the restoration of the historical homes of our cities, called for walkable streets and sidewalks, for justice in our legal systems and in our economic policies, and for thoughtfulness and care put into the urban renewal that is not only gentrifying San Francisco but all of the United States. 

In other words, we can and should get to a point where we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed.