‘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!

frown

Most Rewatchable Disney Canon Films

I will be seeing Big Hero 6 in the next 3 hours! Oh boy!

I was talking with a friend about Robin Hood and told her despite its problems it is one of the most rewatchable Disney’s.  What I mean by that is some movies are masterpieces but more weighty than the kind of thing I want to watch over and over again .

So what are those movies that I don’t mind repeat and frequent rewatching?  What’s the one that if I’m feeling like a movie that will entertain but not challenge me what do I pick?  I will add that I seem to have a unique high tolerance for repetition.  Other people tire of music, movies, food, books and I just don’t.  If it is something I like than I like it forever and repeatedly.

That said, some films like The Lion King I love but the intensity makes it tough to rewatch again and again.

I will also say that all of the Pixar movies with the exception of Brave (yes even Cars 2) are very rewatchable.   That’s why I’ve struggled to write up reviews of Pixar ,movies . How many ways can I say masterpiece?

pixar

 

Here goes in no particular order:

1.  Tangled- romantic comedies are probably my favorite genre to rewatch.  Tangled is funny, light, joyous, beautiful and a terrific villain.

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2. Robin Hood- Maybe not the most ambitious Disney film but the humor makes it very rewatchable.  I love the voice performances and while it is a bit too long it is so much fun I enjoy rewatching it.

robin hood poster

3. Jungle Book- I hate the ending but other than that it is charming, funny, and the music is the true star.  It clips along so well with moments of real heart.  It is certainly up there in the movies I’ve seen the most.

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4. Emperor’s New Groove- Again not the most ambitious but so full of laughs that it is great to rewatch.  Comedies are often the best for rewatching as we don’t always feel up to an intense emotional experience.

emperors poster

5. Aladdin- Another comedy makes the list but Aladdin is so much fun with the manic energy of Robin Williams.  Every time I see it I spot a new impression or moment I had missed before.  It will entertain both boys and girls equally and it is just one I wouldn’t mind watching on most any day.

aladdin poster

6. Frozen- I can see many of you roll your eyes because you are sick of this movie.  I repeat I don’t get sick of movies.  If I like them I like them and I like Frozen.  I could listen to the music all day and the humor is great, pacing a lot of fun and I just enjoy watching it most any day.

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7. Lady and the Tramp- sweet, simple, romantic and with some tension and laughs.  Just something so pleasant I can’t think of a time when I would not enjoy watching it. As the poster says the ‘happiest motion picture’ from early Disney.

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8. 101 Dalmatians- A lot of of humor with Cruella,  fun lively story, lots of great characters.  Dry with with Horace and Jasper.  Always at the top of my rewatch list.

101 dalmations

9. Lilo and Stitch- Probably my most emotional film on this list but it is so lovingly told and Lilo is such a real kid I am drawn to the picture despite my dislike for Stitch.  Maybe part of it is I find the Hawaiian local and music so relaxing it’s an easy rewatch for me..  It brings back many happy memories.

lilo and stitch poster

10. Mulan- Another movie with a lot of humor, romance, heart, and excitement.  Just thoroughly entertaining and not too deep or morose like other less rewatchable films.

Movie_poster_mulanHonorable Mentions- Beauty and the Beast although it feels a little long for a frequent rewatch, Little Mermaid because of my nostalgia for it, and Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh which is probably the most rewatchable for little one’s.

 

Off to see Big Hero 6!!!!

Movie 37: Tarzan

posterSo do you like Phil Collins?

I ask because in the end enjoyment of Tarzan will radically lie whether you like Phil Collins or not.  Also, if you aren’t a big fan of The Lion King style of movie,  I don’t know if you will like Tarzan.

I, however, am a fan of both, so I do like it.  It isn’t perfect but there is a lot to like in Tarzan.

Production-

Released in 1999 it marked the end of the Disney Renaissance and the last film to make a lot of money before the slump of the 2000s (it’s going to be interesting reviewing the next decade).

Directed by Disney  regular Chris Buck and Kevin Lima, Tarzan is adapted from the movie adaptations and novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan and the Apes.

It’s actually the only Tarzan movie I’ve ever seen so I can’t tell you how close it is to any other version.

TARZANFirst of all, the whole movie looks gorgeous.   Tarzan kind of surfs on the trees and the backgrounds zoom in and out and are so lush .  The water scenes look stunning.  If I was just going on visuals it would get an A++++.  I could turn off the sound and just watch it and be entertained.

To create some of the look they actually created a new technology called Deep Canvas which allows 3D painting and you can tell.  It looks great!

The reason why I said it reminded me of the Lion King is they are both very pop influenced films.  We even get the hook structure of pop music from the dramatic beginning with a bold title card just like Lion King.  All of the 5 songs Phil Collins wrote have a pop feel where Lion King did have Be Prepared, which was a little different.

Tarzan also has the comedic song/side characters, Terk and Tanto, which may as well be carbon copies of Timon and Pumba.

Incidentally, Tarzan was made into a Broadway musical and it was considered a big flop, but I actually prefer the music they added and the way the songs are sung by the characters not background.

The Story-

The story is pretty predictable but it is engagingly told.  We start out with our dramatic beginning showing us how Tarzan is adopted by the apes.  This might be a little scary for young kids under 5.

You either get hooked in with this intro or you don’t.  You either like Phil Collins singing or you don’t.  I’m always hooked.  I think it is pretty engrossing.

So Tarzan gets adopted by Kala voiced by Glen Close (another similarity to The Lion King lots of celebrity voices who don’t have to sing much).

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Kala rescues Tarzan but her mate Kerchak does not like the idea of having the ‘man cub’ (to use the Jungle Book) in the herd. So, he is hostile towards Tarzan from the beginning.

As Tarzan begins to cry Kala  sings the best song of the movie and my favorite lullaby- You’ll Be in my Heart.  If I am rocking one of my nieces it is the perfect song.  I LOVE it!

I actually prefer the Broadway version with the mother singing it the whole way so here it is:

We then get a bunch of  middling scenes with Tarzan feeling excluded and having a hard time making friends.  Eventually he makes 2 friends (the Timon and Pumba stand ins)

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He grows up and there is a song called Son of Man. My Mother hated the song because son of man is a title of Christ, and she felt it was sacrilege for a pop song to have the same name as the Lord. (We got into the biggest fight one time over it.  Sigh…)

Terk, his guerrilla friend was voiced by then talk queen Rosie O’Donnell and it is not my favorite vocal.  She kind of grates on me.

Eventually Tarzan hears a sound and follows it to find a woman running in distress, being chased by monkeys.

damsel in distress

Some people will no doubt groan at the Jame, damsel in distress, trope but I don’t mind it here.  She’s strong in other ways and I don’t think every female character has to be strong.  They just have to have a personality of some kind (that’s what drives me crazy in Bella.  She’s damsel in distress and no personality).

Plus, I am a mess in the outdoors and an animalphobe so if I was being chased by monkeys I would be screaming louder than Jane so I guess I relate.

I had a really hard time finding clips for this movie for some reason but I do like the encounter of Jane and Tarzan first meeting.  It is very well done.

This is the first movie I can recall where Disney uses the big eyes common in Japanese animation such as Studio Ghibli.  Some people don’t like the large eyes but it doesn’t bother me.

Jane is in the Jungle with her father and their guide Clayton to try and study the guerrillas.  Clayton is a snooze of a villain who like Radcliffe in Pocahontas is only there for the GOLD! Greed is only on his mind in the form of guerrillas to sell for money!

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Unlike Pocahontas who teaches John Smith her ways, Jane teaches Tarzan her ways which was very well done and then Tarzan shows Jane his world.  I really like the chemistry between Jane and Tarzan.   I liked that neither was stupid or patronizing.  They seemed sincerely interested in each other and their views. Minnie Driver is very good as Jane’s voice .

i-can-see-there-s-so-much-to-learn birdsWe also get a song sung by Terk called Trashing the Camp which is basically the Hakuna Matata of the movie and it’s ok.  I’m sure little kids love it.

Eventually the time for Jane to leave comes and Tarzan realizes he doesn’t want her to go.  Clayton convinces him if he shows them the guerrillas Jane might stay.  Kerchak has forbidden this for the safety of the herd.

Tarzan decides to anyway and at first it goes well.   It’s just beautiful!

meeting apes

But Kerchak comes and is enraged at Tarzan for betraying their home.  They fight and Tarzan leaves.  It is then that Kala takes Tarzan to the tree-house where she found him.  He learns who he is and decides to wear his father’s clothes and go with Jane and since Kerchak has forced him out what choice does he have?

The day of departure comes and they get on the ship only to find Clayton and all his men roping  everyone up and going to get the guerrillas to sell.

Terk and  Tantor help free Tarzan and the gang and they get back to help the herd and there is a great final battle with one of the gnarliest villain deaths in Disney history.  It is maybe too intense for little children to see a man hang himself? I don’t know.

Our ending with Jane and Tarzan ending up together in the jungle is predictable but I think done very well.  I liked it.

Movie Review-

I own this movie on blu-ray because it is so beautiful to watch, and I don’t mind the music, so I really enjoy it.  The vocal performances are good and I think Tarzan and Jane have nice chemistry and are a believable couple.

The comedic characters don’t work as well for me, but they aren’t terrible, and the villain is super one-note, but I still think it is a very satisfying picture.

I love You’ll Be in My Heart and like I said I just love watching him fly through those trees.  It’s stunning.

Overall Grade- B

Movie 32: The Lion King

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Some Pop Music…

Do you find yourself deciding whether to watch the Lion King?  Ask yourself this- how much do you like pop music?

In pop music there is a device called ‘the hook’.  This is a line, melody, riff or performance, usually in the chorus that hooks the audience in to the rest of the song.  Sometimes there are more than one hook like the huge hit Blurred Lines there are hooks in melody and even the hey, hey, hey’s at the beginning.  How many of the fans even know what the words are to that song?  There are a million examples of hooks.

The reason I mention hooks is it can certainly be used in movies as a way to draw people into the characters or story.  Pixar loves hooks in all of their movies.  They almost all start with a bold intro that draws you in and hooks you emotionally into the story.  Think beginning of Up, Wall-e, Incredibles, Cars etc.

The Lion King is the best Disney use of hooks I can think of (although Tarzan and Tangled both use them very effectively and have a pop music feel).  I don’t know if it is pop singer (yes, he’s pop not rock star) Elton John’s melodies but nearly every song, every scene in fact, has a strong hook.  You have the one idea you are supposed to be getting from the scene or song and the rest is kind of non-essential.

circle of life

Think of the difference between our intro to Lion King, Circle of Life, and the song Belle in Beauty and the Beast.  In Belle there really isn’t a chorus.  It’s just her singing about the poor provincial town and through the song we learn a ton about several characters and get the beginnings of the story laid out  for us.   In contrast,  I couldn’t even tell you the rest of the words to Circle of Life besides ‘it’s the circle of life’. All we need to take away from the song is there are animals and a baby has been christened.

Does that mean it isn’t a good movie?  No, I was actually quite blown away by it but I can also see how, just like some don’t like pop music for being contrived, people could feel manipulated and annoyed with The Lion King. And just like pop music can get a little grating after the 30th listen through The Lion King may not be a good choice for repeated viewings.

But I loved it! But I love pop music so go figure.

The Production-

What’s interesting is after Aladdin the studio split into projects.  Instead of all the top talent working on the next film together as had been done for a few years people could choose between Pocahontas or The Lion King, and surprisingly most picked Pocahontas feeling it was ‘more important’ of the two films.

Even Alan Menken moved over to Pocahontas, leaving The Lion King with kind of the Bad News Bears of Disney animation.  Tim Rice had taken over for Howard Ashman on Aladdin and won the Oscar for Whole New World.  Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were first time directors, Thomas Disch had written the strange The Brave Little Toaster,  Hans Zimmer had never done a score for animated film etc.

Elton John was recruited by Tim Rice and he had this pop music mentality from the start:

“Let’s do it for kids, because it’s just a great story” but most of Disney animated movies have a kind of Broadway score, and I said “Let’s not go for that, let’s go for a completely different feel and just write ultra-pop songs kids would like; then adults can go and see those movies and get just as much pleasure out of them” I mean, adults buy a lot of pop records”  (Billboard, Oct 4, 1997)

You see!  That’s why there are all those hooks!

lion king collage

They certainly spared no expense in their voice cast which also feels like  pop celebrity type thing to do.    We’ve got James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, teen king Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly (ala Cutting Edge fame), Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Cheech Marin and of course Whoopi Goldberg.  It is definitely the most ‘famous’ Disney cast ever assembled and they do a terrific job with the material.

The Lion King was also the first original story (takes inspiration from the Bible and Hamlet but not straight adaptation) and first movie to use no humans (Bambi had the hunters).

Unlike Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast which took 2 years to execute, The Lion King took 6 years from initial concept to release date.  It went through scores of animators and writers and from what I’ve read nobody was expecting it to be a big hit.

However, Disney marketing was brilliant, releasing the first 4 minutes instead of a trailer in November 1993 when only 1/3rd of the movie had been completed.  The intro is such a great hook it did it’s job and producer Don Hahn was actually “afraid of not living up to the expectations raised by the preview”.  They weren’t!   Lion King is the highest grossing hand drawn film in history so it did pretty well for itself!

The Story-

As I already mentioned we start off with a bang.  A huge hook of The Circle of Life.  It is a background song with African chanting and huge pan shots of baby Simba being presented (it’s basically a lion christening).

I can totally see why people saw this in 1993 and were counting down the days to see it in 1994 (1993 was a rare year with no annual Disney offering).

We then right away get another hook with the introduction to our villain, Scar.

mufasa and scar

The conversation between Mufasa and Scar kind of reminds me of the beginning of Sleeping Beauty.  First of all both Scar and Maleficent have obvious villain names and they are dripping with disdain for all around them.  It is very effective in drawing you into both characters and the story.

If anything the scene could have been longer.   We also get the first Moses/Ramseys biblical reference.  It probably goes without saying the voice work by James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons in the movie is perfect.

Then we lighten things up in our next section introduces us to the baby lions Simba and Nala and the hornbill bird Zazu.  Zazu is voiced by Rowan Atkinson and it is a very funny performance and character.  He’s a big nag but most of the time he is right to nag so it is funny.

zazu

Zazu’s nagging makes a nice comedic foil for ‘Can’t Wait to be King’ a song right out of a boy band pop album but I like it.  I think it is fun.

Simba and Nala sneak away to see an elephant graveyard Scar had told Simba about earlier (practically every scene in the movie is prophetic of future scenes to come).  The hyenas almost take out the cubs but Mufasa comes to the rescue and defeats them.

Afterwards he has some very biblical sounding advice for his son:

The whole stars thing is kind of corny but those kinds of father son moments are usually like that and they do a good job establishing plot and a bond with little time spent together on screen.

Next we are back to our villain in the strongest song of the movie (and the only one actually sung by the voice talent).  With the Nazi hyenas (who would have thought of that!) and the green boiler room atmosphere Be Prepared is one of the best villain songs.  It is also nice to have another movie with a male villain because usually in Disney it is female.

The Hans Zimmer score is perfect.  It brings emotional intensity into even rather trite scenes.  I have it on my ipod and it is one of my favorites to listen to when I’m working.  I love the choral and tribal elements.  It reminds me a little of On Bald Mountain in Fantasia.  Beautiful.

So Scar puts his dastardly plan into action tricking Simba into being in the path of a stampede.  I remember seeing this scene and being blown away and it totally holds up.  The computer graphics, music and sound effects are stunning.

Mufasa has died and Scar becomes the master manipulator.  Some people don’t like that Simba runs away but if you listen Scar doesn’t actually say anything which isn’t true.  Mufasa would be alive if Simba wasn’t in that gorge.  The King is gone and it wasn’t supposed to happen.  And remember Simba is little, the lion equivalent of a toddler who would be easy to manipulate.  So it is no wonder he is scared and runs away.

I like the heart in these segments.  Yes is it pulling at our heart strings pretty heavily but it’s all been so epic it works.  Plus, his Dad has just died.  If there was ever time for an over the top cry that is it.

simba criesSo Simba runs away and that’s where we get to the charming but admittedly weaker section of the movie.  In a lush jungle Simba meets Timon and Pumba who agree to teach him a new way to live.  (It’s actually an interesting thought study for kids.  It’s a softer version of what is presented with Pleasure Island in Pinocchio.  Timon and Pumba believe in being happy and only living for yourself, for what pleases you, just like the boys at the island were only concerned with having fun and sinning.

And it is here we get probably the most famous song from the movie (so the kid pop thing totally worked out).  I am not a big fan of potty humor so it was never my favorite but it is catchy no doubt about it.

Simba grows up in the song and we can assume has completely bought into the lifestyle of Timon and Pumba, basically forgetting his other life.

hakuna matata

Then he meets Nala, his cub girlfriend, and she tells him how much they need him.  He refuses and to me it makes sense.  Most of his life has been spent living a hakuna matata lifestyle so why would he want to go back to all that hurt?

We then get a forgettable musical number Can You Feel the Love  (won the Oscar.  They loved those syrupy romance ballads in the 90s).  It’s also a background vocal and the scene could be cut out no problem.  Some people hate the comedic intro they decided to use but as I’m not a big fan of the song I don’t really care about that.

Then he meets Rafiki, the wise but silly monkey, and this scene is just masterful storytelling.  It is epic and subtle and anyone who has grieved can relate to all of the emotions involved.

The past hurts but we can learn from it.  That is a great lesson for all of us.  How tempting is it to take the path of least resistance but sometimes in so doing we are denying who we are what makes us special.

So Simba arrives at Pride Rock to find it like the elephant graveyard of earlier.  No food, everything gray and wasted away.  Simba confronts Scar and again he is very good at saying the truth but not being truthful.  He tells all of the lions that Simba is the reason why Mufasa is gone which Simba cannot deny.

The other lions do not support Simba at first but can you blame them?  He’s been gone all this time, abandoning them.  They are under the rule of a dictator who will use any such assertions against them and Simba has just said he is responsible for Mufasa’s death.  Why should they think otherwise?  In fact, they have every right to be upset and unforgiving of him.

It is only when Scar admits he was the one who is responsible for Mufasa’s murder that they come to Simba’s defense.  Again, to me this makes total sense and is probably the way I would behave if confronted with similar betrayals, accusations and knowledge.  Yes, you learn from the past and move on but people need a decent enough time to absorb new information.  Even Simba wasn’t ready to accept the change in one conversation with Nala.

new king of pride rockAs we close we get a new king of pride rock and the kingdom is restored.  (I wonder if Simba keeps being a vegetarian lion?)

Movie Review/Conclusion-

I was 13 when The Lion King came out so I was just starting to get into the ‘cartoons are for kids’ phase and so I liked Lion King but it wasn’t the transcendent experience Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were.  But, I can totally see how if you were 8-10 when it came out it would be huge.

Unlike Aladdin which really made the entire film for adults and kids, The Lion King has segments like Hakuna Matata and Just Can’t Wait which are geared to literally hook kids into them.  I find them cheerful and fun but what moves me is the dramatic sections that probably bore kids (but I don’t think so much so they won’t enjoy the movie).

The score makes the movie.  It is perfect.  The songs are mostly good pop songs and I like them.

The animation is beautiful with segments reverting from the lush 2D animation  to geographic tribal motifs. justcantwait1The stampede is still impressive from all angles and Scar is a great villain with a great villain song.  All in all it is a very satisfying movie to watch.  I really found myself moved and excited by it.  (I probably hadn’t seen it in 15 years before yesterday despite owning the score.  That’s how much I love the score!).

timon and pumba

If I was going to be a little critical it would be the middle section lags a little bit and when push comes to shove I do like Broadway music better than pop music.  It’s kind of amazing it was made into such a great Broadway musical given it was trying to not be Broadway but that wouldn’t have happened without the  creative vision of Julie Taymor.  When I saw Lion King in New York I said it was like watching a living painting.  The music wasn’t the standout although it was fine.

broadway

So maybe The Lion King isn’t perfect but it has tons to like and a message I’m still pondering after all these years.  Plus, some catchy songs and visuals that draw you in.  I loved it!

Overall Score- A