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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December Round-Up, Part One

If you’re anything like me, December, with the holidays, relatives, and breaks from school/work, becomes the perfect month to catch up on all of your movie watching before Oscar season and a new year. In my case, this is also the month where I have the time and mind to catch up on some reviews, so let me offer some suggestions for what movies should be on your “nice” list. Here are six smaller films, some of which were released earlier in the year.

Sorry to Bother You

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It’s useless to try to describe this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’m just going to say this: if you want to see one of the most bizarre, memorable, and radical pieces of art this year, see Sorry to Bother You. A defiant and explosive mix of satire, parable, and horror, it embodies the chaos our nation felt this year. It feels like 2018 in movie form, and it does so while feeling completely fresh and wholly unique.

A Simple Favor

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The movie equivalent of a twinkie, A Simple Favor is ridiculous and completely over-the-top but is well anchored by a great performance by Anna Kendrick and twists that never stop coming. Its mysteries are not ones the audience is supposed to be able to solve alongside the protagonists, so the fun comes from the absurd escalation of stakes. It’s not a good movie, and but it’s a perfect addition to the emerging Gone Girl knockoff genre. I think it has been well-established by now that yes, women can be crazy, but if you need more evidence, this film will suffice.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

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There have been lots of great films starring women this year, but less starring multiple women and close female friendships (no, Oceans 8 is not enough). The Spy Who Dumped Me then is a fun surprise for its likable and hilarious center of best friends played by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Sure, not every joke in this action caper comedy lands, and it doesn’t quite pay off in the end, but it’s hard for me to dislike a film that made me think of me and my best friend. It’s a solid perfect rental for a light movie night and despite some crudity and gory violence, it ends up being a sweet celebration of friendship.

The Grinch

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Dull. I’ve forgotten most of what happens in it. There is absolutely no reason to watch this instead of the original animated film.

Mowgli

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Thrown onto Netflix after seeing they wouldn’t be able to compete with Disney’s live-action remake, Andy Serkis’s version of the live-action Jungle Book is sadly in the right place, not on the big screen. I applaud the more mature tone and ambition of the film, but it ends up feeling like a joyless slog. Serkis’s effort to differentiate his version from the Disney versions means all of the characters are mean and without any strong characterization, making you wonder why Mowgli likes these unpleasant companions at all. The questionable choice of putting human faces on animals works against the film’s interest, actually keeping most of the actors from being able to get through, with the exception of Christian Bale as Bagheera, who is able to put in the strongest and tenderest performance. Mowgli is never able to give a spin on the story that justifies its existence.

Instant Family

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Instant Family, a movie about a couple (played by an extremely good Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg) who take in three foster children, isn’t a revolutionary family dramedy, but it gets the job done. It tells a sweet story that, while sanitized, is still able to get across many of the difficulties and complexities of its subject matter. I’ve been told by at least one family who fosters that the film is very realistic.

For what it’s worth, I cried at the end. True, I watched this right after finals, and its tear-jerker ending was the perfect outlet for my catharsis. But I also think it is just a good film without so much as a drop of cynicism, and I hope it is truly able to do some good and inspire people to accept the noble calling of being a foster parent.

 

-Madeleine D

Something There That Wasn’t There Before: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Come on. You know the story of Beauty and the Beast.

The story of Belle, a beautiful young maiden, ahead of her time and anxious to have more than just a provincial life, who, in exchange for saving her father, is held prisoner by a beast. The beast used to be a prince, but after he was cursed by an enchantress who saw the beastliness in his heart, became the beast and his servants became household objects. Belle and the beast fall in love, and the spell is broken.

Why this story has endured as a classic for so many years, despite criticisms about bestiality and Stockholm Syndrome, is probably because of this: we love stories about nerdy guys and hot chicks. Look to Back to the Future, Spider-Man, most of Woody Allen, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen’s entire film careers. Not that it hasn’t happened the other way around, but it’s a common trope that works. When you add that and a beloved 1991 Disney animated film with one of the best soundtracks of all time, that went on to be a musical, it makes it a pop-culture staple.

Fast forward to 2017, when Disney, down on its luck after only making seven billion dollars at the box office last year, decided to release a new live-action Beauty and the Beast, a film that nobody knew they wanted, but now enough people are pumped for to give it a $170 million domestic opening. That’s superhero movie level numbers we’re talking about! Turns out if you stall making a female superhero movie long enough, girls will turn the next available role model into one.

So does this new Beauty and the Beast do the original justice? Is it even necessary? And is Emma Watson (Harry Potter franchise), as Belle, a super-character?

This Beauty and the Beast follows all the same beats of the original. You’ve got everything from Belle’s singing on the mountain, to Maurice being locked up, to the Beast and Belle having dinner, to the iconic ball, to Gaston taking the mob to the castle. There are even shots that are direct replicas of the animated film. The primary appeal of this remake (besides the cast) are the details added. We get to learn about Belle’s mother and why Belle and Maurice moved to the village. Gaston and LeFou get more scheming time. The Prince’s curse is reenacted.

If that isn’t intriguing enough, then there’s the cast. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as the Beast, Luke Evans (The Hobbit Trilogy) as Gaston, Josh Gad (Frozen) as LeFou, Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts. Those are some pretty stellar actors, and most of them bring their A-game.

However, the real heart of the film is Emma Watson. Her version of Belle wouldn’t be here without Paige O’Hara’s animated Belle, but Watson makes the role her own. The character isn’t reinvented at all, but instead, small details build upon the character’s foundation. For example, Belle loves to read. But reading is a bit of a passive activity. Does she do anything besides read? This script builds upon that, giving Belle another hobby- inventing. She invents a washing machine that allows her to teach a girl of the village to read. It makes perfect sense within the story, and it pays the utmost respect to the original.

Besides Belle, another staple of the original is the music numbers, and they don’t disappoint here. Almost every song had me wanting to get up from my seat. While leaving the theater and coming home, I attempted to dance with every friend I was with. They were not as enthusiastic about dancing in front of the theater as I was, so I sang to them instead, which I’m sure they appreciated.

An infectious feeling of joy flooded through the movie. It was an immersive experience. During a tense moment, I looked back at the rest of my crowded theater. The stranger beside me was tearing up, behind me a couple were gripping hands and sitting on the edge of their seats, and in front of me a little kid was slapping his father’s knee whispering, “I told you so, I told you it would happen!” Simply put- I felt the story. Any logical fallacies from the original (wait, why is Gaston so beloved in this town?) are solved (ahh, war hero!) so I can enjoy the themes a little more. The film explores how Gaston is able to manipulate the fears of the villagers. Maurice points out to Belle, “Small town can mean small minds, but it also means safe.” The love between Belle and the Beast has more ground than, “you saved my life, I saved yours, so we’re even-steven.” They have things in common, similar worldviews and backgrounds and outlook. The original makes it clear the characters get together in the end because it’s a fairy tale. This movie makes it clear it’s a fairy tale because the characters get together in the end. The story feels less predestined, a little less certain, and therefore, takes you on a journey.

But let’s get to the real questions, shall we? Because it is one thing for a teenager to like this film. Will you, hypothetical adult reader of this review who probably has memories of seeing this film as a kid or at least is really cynical, like this film?

Is Beauty and the Beast a cash grab?

Yes. To be fair though, everything made by major studios is.

Is Beauty and the Beast an unnecessary remake?

Depends. It’s unnecessary in that we have a fantastic animated film already, plus a French 1946 version for the brave of heart (I watched it in preparation for this film. It is stunning aesthetically, and ahead of its time, but is unintentionally hilarious if you watch it in the right, or maybe wrong, mood).

Here is how I see it: This new Beauty and the Beast is a companion piece to the original animated film. It’s the extended director’s cut. It fills in any holes from the original, gives it some updates, and offers some more nuanced performances that only live-action can really do. I don’t think it is here to smash your childhood between its fingers and light Howard Ashman’s legacy on fire. It’s here to expand and deepen the messages the story provides. It allows you to embrace this tale as old as time in a new way.

-Madeleine D

THE JUNGLE BOOK

I remember watching the original 1967 Jungle Book when I was a kid. I’m not sure how many times I watched it, but I have vague memories ingrained in my head of sitting on the couch, watching Mowgli’s adventures. I had a complicated relationship with the movie to say the least. I adored Baloo, was terrified of the monkeys, and loved the songs. On the other hand, I thought King Louie was weird, Shere Khan never struck me as a scary villain, but Kaa was terrifying. The vultures had funny accents, and the girl seducing Mowgli at the end was weird.

But I remember the movie vividly, so when I saw the commercials for the new Jungle Book (2016), I was not impressed. Where was the fun? Where was the color and singing and personality?

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Then some of my favorite reviewers started raving about the film. It quickly became one of my top anticipated movies of the year. And that’s how I found myself sitting with my sister and friend in the theater the Friday it opened, waiting expectantly for an engrossing experience, as the critics had promised. Maybe I could replace my fuzzy childhood memories with a new, fresh one.

The plot of The Jungle Book is simple enough. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a human child who is found in an Indian jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). Bagheera gives Mowgli to a pack of wolves to be raised. When Mowgli is older though, a tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) swears to kill Mowgli, prompting Bagheera to take Mowgli to the man-village. However, their mission is interrupted by the cast of colorful characters they meet along the way.

When I started watching the film, it took me a while to get used to the hyper-realistic CGI used. It reminded me of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which has photo-realistic scenery, and cartoony characters. That serviced the story well, and I liked it a lot. Here, I think the difference was because I knew in my head everything was fake, and that the one flesh and blood actor there was interacting with green screen. It messed with how I viewed the way the characters, scenery, and actor interacted.

But, after a few minutes, I got used to it. The visual effects truly are masterful, and I think worthy of some technical Oscar nominations. And the fact that Neel Sethi was able to act so well with nothing, just increases my respect for him.

In fact, the whole cast was wonderful. I especially enjoyed Bill Murray (hilarious as always) as Baloo and Ben Kingsley (I want Ben Kingsley to narrate my life). I also really liked Christopher Walken as King Louie and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa. Lupita Nyong’o and Idris Elba I also thought were really solid. In fact, the only cast I am more excited about than this cast is the one for Andy Serkis’ upcoming Jungle Book: Origins (2018) with Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, and Christian Bale.

THE JUNGLE BOOK
THE JUNGLE BOOK (Pictured) MOWGLI and BALOO. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Jungle Book is very respectful to its source material, and is a pretty straightforward retelling except for a few changes. These changes overall help make a more coherent plot, which I appreciated. The acting was wonderful, the story solid, and effects were great. I was engaged throughout the whole movie. I think it will appeal to both kids and adults, although there are some moments that are too intense for young children.

But as I left the theater, something was nagging at me. Finally I was able to put my finger on it.

This Jungle Book just isn’t as much fun. It had funny moments for sure. But there is a distinct lack of personality in comparison to the original. The original was stylish. It had energy and heart. This Jungle Book has heart, but instead of proclaiming it in a loud voice, it says it in a whisper. The obligatory, half-hearted performance of the two famous songs “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” have none of the pizzaz of the original.

So The Jungle Book is a solid film, full of good things. But there is nothing great, nothing that will stick in your memory. I hope future Disney live action remakes will make sure to infuse more style and personality to their movies, because for now, I’m going to stick with my memories of seeing the original.

-Madeleine D