Niki Caro’s live-action remake of Mulan (B-) doesn’t really sing. Literally she doesn’t sing, but she sure does swing. The movie’s sometimes successful blend of swordsmanship, bow’s eye war sequences, wuxia-style fight choreography and awkwardly imprinted progressive values juxtaposed against Chinese tradition all serve to stack this new take on the Disney classic. The simple story of a young Chinese maiden played by Yifei Liu who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father (Tzi Ma) is overbaked with a notion of Qi, the film’s version of The Force, plus added villains including a Frozen-style female antagonist to buttress the girl power quotient (yes, this director really likes symmetry). The Mouse House’s remakes of late have been artistically cynical and still commercially successful, and thankfully this film largely benefits from pretty solid production values. The resplendent colors and widescreen vistas help paint in a somewhat hollow story with sometimes stilted dialogue. The earthbound action sequences are commendable, but an oft-appearing airborne spirit looks more like a pride kite. Liu in the lead role is noble and imminently watchable, and she does honor to the role.
An old axiom proclaims a feature film shouldn’t be less interesting than its makers sitting around discussing that very movie, but the reverse holds true for documentaries. Serviceable when it should be sensational, Don Hahn’s film about the life and word craft of Disney legend Howard Ashman, Howard (B-), strings very few pieces of found footage and plaintiff narration to memorialize a man who deserved a much more special tribute. After all, this lyricist and storyteller helped reinvent the wit and whimsy of an iconic animation studio while secretly harboring AIDS in the height of that epidemic. The film plumbs Ashman’s roots in theatre with glimpses into his stage musicals about man-eating plants and pageant queens before his breakthrough trilogy of animated mermaids, genies and a beauty who fell for a beast. His successes were largely posthumous, so there wasn’t as much AV evidence as is often the case of what it was like to know and work with him, and the eyewitnesses don’t really have the way with words that Howard did. The film does little more than sprinkle some pixie dust on a Wikipedia entry before it finally generates some tender moments toward the end. There’s also a nice bit in the recording studio with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing “Be Our Guest,” but it otherwise seems like Ursula the sea witch stole the soaring magic right out of the Disney vaults. While sometimes an interesting glimpse into a feisty and fabulous artist, this so-so documentary feels like it’s showing viewers just part of his world.
Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen 2 (C-) features lovely animation of an autumnal enchanted forest, but the most prominent lingering act of nature from the film is that of treading water. Unlike the first film’s brisk telling of a fairy tale anchored by sisterly love and icy ditties, the sequel meanders into a hodgepodge of splintered themes and subplots which fail to coalesce into anything revelatory or majestic. Mediocre songs, average new characters, recycled sight gags and over-reliance on flashbacks and folklore from the first film make this excursion feel more like a cash grab than a logical extension of the story. None of the voice actors gets much of a chance to shine, and the directors’ experimentation with a number of formats for songs and detours on the plot path doesn’t do the follow-up any favors. Luckily for parents who couldn’t get the earworm “Let It Go” out of their head, there’s not much of a tune or tale to remember this time around.
Disney’s Mouse House has found a way to corral more currency out of Casa Mufasa and despite critical carping blowing across the savanna will likely have hakuna mutata (no worries!) about doing so. Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King (C-) is a largely joyless and superfluous affair, replacing traditional line drawing with a photo-realistic nature documentary CGI animation style. Not one element improves on the original, even though most of the content about a lion’s exile and return to assume control of his kingdom is still there. Voice actors Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make the most of their Timon and Pumba characters amidst the dirge-like proceedings, riffing with abandon amidst an otherwise overly reverential storytelling format. Some of the best sequences in the original still work once transmitted through the Favreau facsimile, while many other emotional moments are rendered toothless. Donald Glover and Beyoncé deliver more lemon than lemonade in the voice talent department with indifferent line readings. The cuddly animated Simba cub will sell a lot of plush toys. Nostalgia factor and escape from the summer heatwave will lure folks in to the multiplex, but those expecting to have their pride rocked may be better served with a viewing of the delightful original.
While the studio that pioneered 2-D animation has evidently put that art form on ice, Disney has adapted its golden age cartoon musicals into Broadway shows and transformed them back into hybrid “revisal” live action movies to mixed effect. What was vintage or even moribund is now cryogenically reawakened as both blatant cash grab and opportunity to amend already sterling properties with new flourishes. Macho action film helmer Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin (B-) mines his man cave of wonders and faithfully recreates many of the nostalgic beats of the madcap magic lamp comedy, but here’s the rub: it doesn’t add enough new invention to distinctively better its predecessor in many remarkable categories. This live action lark is clearly bringing something borrowed and something blue: the latter, Will Smith’s cyan-hued comic Genie, is the surprise here and literally saves the movie at mid-point from an odd gloominess, the megawatt star nailing the iconic wish-granting role by simply being himself in fresh-prince mode as if the RuPaul’s Drag Race team had whispered him some funny shade to throw. He almost has to slow his droll to avoid eclipsing the rest of the ensemble, but his bromantic bond with the title character is shining, shimmering and sometimes a little splendid. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are attractive and in good voice in underwritten but appealing roles as Aladdin and Jasmine; Marwan Kenzari is less effective as villainous Jafar who comes across, well, too cartoonish. Lavish craftsmanship of handsome sets, vivid spectacle, eye-popping costumes, whimsical effects and fairly woke casting fill every frame in this entertaining bazaar, with rooftop parkour, a girl power anthem and Bollywood style dance moves adding spice to the pixel dust. Overlong and under-cooked, Ritchie’s romp finally gives Genie and company their wish to be real humans and gets a mild ride into recommended territory.
Nearly eight decades after the animated original, Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo (C+) has flown onto the scene again, and the pachyderm protagonist remains a charming silent star, no matter what’s going on in the peanut galleries around him. Disney executives appear to operate under the premise that, unlike elephants, moviegoers sometimes forget, so there’s liberty to color in some detail around the original 64-minute cartoon’s plot for those with only a hint of familiarity about the circus-set story. Burton adds generous dollops of fussiness around what was formerly a pretty simple storyline about a misfit animal who finds his big ears actually enable him to fly and become a sensational performer. The human actors including Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton and Eva Green have very little to do in underwritten roles. Characteristic of all but about a half dozen of Burton’s films is his propensity to deliver style over substance or story, and this entry comes up short on all of those metrics. The art direction and costumes are quite lovely, and there are some nice homage and heartstrings moments, but largely it’s a mediocre show at the multiplex.
Life’s a glitch for the best friends from the ‘80s arcade as they venture out into the worldwide web in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston’s uneven computer generated sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet (C). The great leap from the first film’s nostalgia fueled highjinks into the swirl of modernity is fraught with glaring shifts in tone and tenor, with voice actors John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman doing their darndest to keep the joy elevated. The best bits involve a woke encounter on a Disney princess fan site and a musical number set in a dystopian urban racing game. The animation is above average, and some of the jokes land, but not enough. The final reel is so off the rails, a blue screen of death would be preferable.
Lee Unkrich’s animated Disney Pixar adventure Coco (B) is alive with vibrant detail in painting a compelling Día de Muertos fantasia of light, color and music. The story of a Mexican boy torn between heeding a duty to family and following his clarion call to become a mariachi musician, the film toggles between Lands of the Dead and the Living in which the young man’s ancestors, sometimes skeletal relatives, help guide him to his destiny. Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt are among the voice actors breathing life into wholly original characters. The story starts and ends strong with fun surprises around every turn, even though there’s a long portion in the film’s center that drags with too much exposition. It’s such a breakthrough to secure inclusion of so many specific Latin traditions that the film sometimes seems overstuffed in its own bounty, with superfluous characters and a few too many bells and whistles. Also for a film about music, there could have been more of it, and it could have been better. Ultimately it’s a thoughtful and positive entry into the Disney Pixar kingdom, and it could have only been accomplished via animation.
Despite being overstuffed and overproduced, Emma Watson is by far the best special effect in Bill Condon’s live action Beauty & the Beast (B-) as the luminous leading lady who enlivens the fairy tale proceedings with enchanting radiance. Attempts to color outside the lines of the 1991 animated musical’s story and to lovingly re-create iconic classic sequences are both a mixed bag: the opulent “I want” song called “Belle” is simply smashing, awash with propulsive joy and resplendent color, but by the time an awkwardly unappetizing “Be Our Guest” is served up by curiously stilted anthropomorphic antiques, it’s more of a test of endurance than the whimsical showstopper that played out as a cartoon. A star-studded cast is squandered; set pieces seem limited to one village, one castle and one CGI forest; and the awkwardness of an inter-species romance feels a little strange when everyone isn’t rendered in line art. Luke Evans is quite good as Gaston, and there’s some new back story that provides intrigue for those concerned this will simply be a shot for shot remake. It’s good source material, so the original Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are a delight (the new Alan Menken/Tim Rice song snippets aren’t as good). See it mainly for Watson’s game take on a Disney heroine (better still, see this actress in Perks of Being a Wallflower). Otherwise, there’s not much here that wasn’t there before.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.
Steven Spielberg earns a C+ for The BFG (aka The Big Friendly Giant), and this family film is decidedly a GNAS (grower, not a shower), largely languid for nearly two thirds of its length and then unexpectedly rising like a wonder of Gulliver’s wanderlust to its rather lively and even mildly emotional climax. Child actor Ruby Barnhill is charming as a plucky orphan whose awkward custodial Brexit leads her into the hands of the titular tall man, a vegetarian loner charmingly played in unnecessary motion capture by Mark Rylance. Together their friendship blossoms and adventures ensue, complete with Roald Dahl-isms of gobbledegook dialogue that are alternatively delightful and laborious. After some tedious battles with nine unsavory carnivore giant villains and the dreariest depiction of dream-catching imaginable this side of James Cameron’s Pandora, the filmmakers endeavor to discover their stride late in the narrative. The bloated balloon of hideous production design, awkward effects and gloomy atmosphere is finally punctured in a comparatively brisk finale that almost redeems the film. There’s a really imaginative moment when the title character mixes up a dream from his nocturnal cannery, and the way it comes to life would make an inspired short film. This enterprise is closer to the Hook and Tintin side of Spielberg’s unusually uneven family film oeuvre, and one can’t help but remember that he and late screenwriter Melissa Mathison peaked in this genre 34 years ago with their collaboration on E.T. Unfortunately, despite flashes of grandeur, this lugubrious lark is far from his towering achievements.