‘The Lion King’ (2019) REVIEW

Recently director Jon Favreau defended his remake of the animated classic, The Lion King, to USA Today saying it is ‘not completely a shot for shot remake‘. Upon hearing this, I became hopeful that this remake might be similar to his version of The Jungle Book, which had its flaws but took a new approach to Mowgli and to the ending that I appreciated. Now having seen new remake, I am quite baffled by Favreau’s words because aside from the visuals, I saw no noticeable story differences between it and the animated classic. It’s as close to a shot-for-shot remake of a film as I’ve ever seen (Critic David Ehrlich compared it to the remake of Psycho by Gus Van Sant, and he’s absolutely correct.) Of course, the new version of The Lion King will make boat-loads of money but if you are asking for this critic’s advice I would give it a definite skip.

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Let’s start off talking about the film’s greatest strength, the visuals. Despite Disney’s reticence to use the term, they are an incredible achievement in ANIMATION! (The reason I believe they haven’t wanted to use the word is because it is one thing to remake an animated film with live action but to remake an animated film with another animated film feels like even more of a copycat than all the others!). Particularly in wide shots the photorealism is impressive. It seems hard to believe that everything down to the smallest blade of grass is fabricated on a computer and yet that is the reality. If people want to see this film for the visuals alone I wouldn’t fault them, but I guess I was hoping to have more to recommend given the original film is such a favorite of mine.

There are other positives like the voicecast is all competent and the music/songs are well executed. However, I was a little disappointed only one song from the Broadway musical is included as a song over the credits and the one original song ‘Spirit’ is just an accompaniment to a transitional scene when the characters are walking. I was hoping it would be part of a new narrative for Nala but that is not the case.

The only song I did not like was their rendition of ‘Be Prepared’, which felt like such an after-thought. It’s one of my all-time favorite Disney villain songs and it came and went without making any impact. There was no spectacle or gravitas, which made Scar a much less interesting villain.

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The best part of the film character-wise is Timon and Pumba (Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen). Their scenes, while identical to the original, have the most energy and life to them. They are also the closest to being believable as actually talking and singing animals. With the lions and other characters, their mouth movements never quite worked, with their faces not matching the words/lyrics in a natural easy way (maybe because real animals make individuals sounds like a purr or a roar rather than formulating whole words).

There’s also a problem with the photo-realistic character’s inability to emote in the way a 2D animated character can. Little Simba in the original can have big tears well up in his eyes, and his whole face can be full with the emotion of losing his Dad. That’s not possible with a photo-realistic lion; thereby, rendering the scenes one note and flat.

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Coming out of the film I felt it might actually be a better choice for young children (under 5) than the original for this very reason. The tense scenes feel more clinical when realistic; therefore, they aren’t as devastating to the viewer. If a child can handle a nature documentary where animals are in peril, they should be able to handle what they see in this remake.

I know when my brother used to watch the original he would get very upset at the dramatic scenes, and I don’t think that would be the case here. (My friend disagreed with me and felt it might be scarier to young kids because it is more realistic so I suppose it depends on the child). It is less emotionally manipulative than the original but that also means it is less impactful.

Unfortunately this lack of emotional investment strips The Lion King of what makes it special. It becomes an exercise in checking off boxes for the story we know and love instead of anything remotely memorable. The recent version of Dumbo had lots of problems but at least there was some attempt to offer a new take, with different visions for the characters. This is just bland. There are no two ways around it. It’s bland, bland, bland.

My advice is save your money. Stay home and watch the original classic film!

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Missing Link Review

Everyone who reads this blog knows animation is my first love. I adore the medium in all its formats- 2D, CGI, anime, stop motion, motion capture, whatever. I particularly love stop motion with its attention to detail and unique world-building. Aside from a rare Wes Anderson or Tim Burton project, most stop motion over the last 10 years has come from either Aardman or Laika studios.

I love both of these studios and admire so much the work these talented artists are doing. That said, I do not always love the movies the studios produce. Last year I found Early Man, with its soccer themes, to be underwhelming from Aardman and this year I found Laika’s latest Missing Link to be a disappointment.

Missing Link tells the story of adventurer Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who finds a sasquatch named Susan (Zach Galifianakis) and agrees to take the friendly beast to meet his family of yetis in Siberia. Along the way they meet Adelina (Zoe Saldana) who has a rocky past with Frost. It’s then mostly a road trip movie with these 3 on a series of adventures across the globe.

Let’s start with the positives. The animation in Missing Link is outstanding. They use a lot of CGI for a stop motion film but the amount of world building and action set pieces they designed is second to none. I can’t even fathom the amount of time spent on one short sequence in India or getting the action right in an old Western bar brawl scene. That would be incredibly difficult and I admire the animators for their great skill.

I also thought the sound design was really good. As they go exploring everything feels tactile and real, which helps immerse you in the experience. I particularly liked scenes on an ice bridge where the sound of the ice crackling and characters sliding upon it felt just right.

I think kids will have fun with the adventure aspect of the film. The kids around me seemed moderately engaged. I doubt it will be a favorite but it has fun moments and the message of self-confidence and friendship is lovely so you could do worse than taking your kids to see it.

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And now let’s talk about some of the issues I had with Missing Link…The biggest problem I had (and I had felt this in the trailers but was hoping the movie would win me over) is the strange character designs. I guess I can understand designing a sasquatch any way they want but the bright red pig-like nose was so off-putting. But even stranger is designing adventurer Frost with a bright red triangle nose. It looks like he is in a perpetual state of having just sneezed, and I don’t get it. He’s supposed to be human. Why would you design his nose like that?

While I think Jackman is fine as Frost, I also didn’t love the voice casting. I especially didn’t like Zach Galifianakis as Susan. It didn’t fit for me, and I felt it missed out on huge comic potential. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the big beast with a big booming voice was actually really sweet and named Susan? Occasionally they’d have him roar and that was funny. The juxtaposition was humorous and could have been much more so if they had gotten someone like Brad Garrett with a lower voice.

Speaking of comedy, that’s my other major problem with Missing Link. I maybe chuckled twice in the film. The humor is a weird mixture of the adult and juvenile variety and it almost all lands flat. It felt kind of like Laika trying to do Aardman and failing. In particular, a whole sequence with the Emma Thompson yetti was long, drawn out and kind of dull. There’s lots of humor that revolves around fighting hijinks. Fighting at a bar, fighting on a train, fighting in the jungle, fighting at the yetis and while the animation in these sequences is impressive they didn’t make me laugh. Is this stuff kids think is funny? It felt very weird to me. Do kids like bar-room brawls and petty fighting between British elites? (I think the film is going to be a very tough sell. I don’t see it appealing to many families and kids unless they happen to like Westerns).

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I feel bad for being so harsh on a Laika film because I really value what the studio is doing. However,  I have to be honest with my response to a film like Missing Link. It just didn’t do it for me despite the incredible animation. My friend Jen had the same reaction but then my friend Larry loved it so it will be interesting to see what others think.

If you get a chance to see Missing Link let me know what you think. Do the character designs turn you off in the trailer or are you excited for the adventure?

Final Score 4 out of 10

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

It’s no secret that I am not the biggest fan of DreamWorks animation. Particularly their comedies are very hit and miss for me. However, the one consistently great series from the studio is the How to Train Your Dragon films. They are epic in scale but with sweet moments and the animation is always stunning. Now we get the 3rd and last installment entitled How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (breaks continuity with the other 2 that had simple numbers in the title but oh well!). While I did have my issues with the film, it’s still a very sweet and lovely way to end the series and most fans will be very pleased with it.

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The story of How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World starts in Berk where dragons and humans are living peacefully with Toothless being the alpha or intermediary between the two groups. One day they find a new Night Fury (Toothless was supposed to be the only one) but this dragon is white and is a female, which of course is very exciting for Toothless. Unfortunately a dragon hunter named Grimmel is after the dragons and wants to destroy everything in Berk. I won’t tell you any more so you aren’t spoiled but there is a lot of action, romance, and some sweet moments of friendship.

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The strongest parts of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World are in the animation and character moments. There is a particularly stunning sequence when they find the Hidden World and things look like under a fluorescent black light. It’s truly breathtaking. While I missed the flying sequences of the first 2 films (Toothless and Hiccup are separated or battling in most the movie), it is still a very beautiful film.

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Also we see growth from Hiccup as character as he comes to understand Toothless, Astrid, and even his father better through the course of the movie. A lot of the side characters who we have come to love during the movie including Astrid get nice endings and moments to shine. Some of the comedy with Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig) wasn’t my taste but the kids in the theater seemed to enjoy it so I may not be the target audience.

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My criticisms of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World may not be an issue for you if you love fantasy adventure and action. Aside from slasher flicks, fantasy action is probably my least favorite. There are a lot of battles and fighting in this movie and I found them to be more than a tad dull. I know other people will enjoy them but I kept nodding off during these sections. You would think with all the flames and warfare it would be exciting but it isn’t for me at all. At the very least they were too long and repetitive. I would have much rather had less action and more flying sequences or time in the Hidden World, but that’s probably just me.

Other than that I enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. It is a beautifully animated ending to our trilogy and one I bet you will find very satisfying if you loved the previous 2 films.

7 out of 10

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