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.
Despite clear technical craft in creating simulated forests and talking (sometimes singing) animals, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (C) is dramatically inert. Swinging wildly in tone and staking the weight of its storyline on a pint-sized protagonist of limited range, the film falls flat in moving emotions while it swirls episodically through remake facsimiles of Disney’s own animated feature. It squanders most of its visual effects wizardry in the beastly congregations of the first reel only to be followed by a long wasteland of coasting on mildly amusing Bill Murray voice-over work as a lazy bear. I’m sure there will be a man cub fan club for the action of this Kipling claptrap, but it fell staggeringly short of surprises and wonder in my book.
Expanding on a grand tradition of animated animal allegories ranging from Animal Farm to Watership Down to Fritz the Cat, Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s Zootopia (B) depicts the unlikely collaboration between a rabbit police officer voiced by Gennifer Goodwin and a red fox con artist played by Jason Bateman to uncover a conspiracy that involves missing predator civilians in an urban melting pot menagerie. This sprawl of the wild is chock full of colorful contours and lively landscapes with the atmosphere alluded to in the title providing home to a fable reflecting mature viewpoints on race and law enforcement. With additional voice talents such as Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons, it’s all pretty cunning and complex for a cartoon, evoking the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as a new brand of colorful, kaleidoscopic film noir. Alas several subplots are labored, and the mix of zaniness and gravitas causes zigzags in tone. Overall it’s great fun in the Disney tradition with a charming central duo and a few morals wedged into the mayhem.
Pete Docter’s animated Inside Out (B) is like a really inventive improv skit that wears out its welcome. It plumbs the goings-on inside a tween’s mind through the antics and skulduggery of five personified interior monologues. Color coded to match the memory marbles that the protagonist is losing, these sensory sprites (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) must summon every trick in the book to help the young lady keep it all together when her family uproots from Middle America to the West Coast. TV comedy stars Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith shine brightest as polar opposites; others such as Mindy Kaling are a bit wasted in underwritten voice roles. The overall conceit is intellectually stimulating as the film ponders how life’s most profound memories graft a combination of laughter and tears. Therapists will have a field day with the insider cognitive references; the rest of us may struggle to remember if the film had any big laughs or payoffs aside from set pieces and set-ups that mildly amuse. There’s a fine line between tickle and treacle. Aside from some delightful sentiment conjured up by the hero’s childhood imaginary friend (Richard Kind), there wasn’t much of an emotional arc. And the characters in the brain are lost a bit too long in the poppy field of forgetfulness as they race to re-unite and provide mental balance for viewers to remember why we’re supposed to care. Disney has done this cranium command before, but Pixar has made proceedings a bit too clever by half. Overall it’s got lots of great qualities but doesn’t quite win best personality. [Note: The animated short Lava that appears before the film is an enchanting take about the ballad of a lonely volcano and made all the better with new immersive Dolby technologies in select theatres].
A Word About #DolbyCinema:
I had the good fortune of viewing Inside Out courtesy of friends at Dolby. My screening was held at the new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime now open at AMC North Point Mall 12 in Atlanta.
Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime combines Dolby Atmos, the highest quality immersive sound system, with the dazzling, colorful images of Dolby Vision. Journalists who have been to early Dolby Cinema screenings are calling the experience revolutionary. Geoffrey Morrison of CNET called Dolby Cinema “a breathtaking cinema experience.” Ryan Waniata of Digital Trends said the combination of Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos is “mind-blowing.” This movie is one of the first titles shown in the Dolby Cinema format, so it’s a perfect way to be introduced to this revolutionary new movie experience. #DolbyCinema
Disney’s history of imagination is unparalleled, but the studio’s shaky track record of sci-fi is paved with the likes of The Black Hole, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Tron Legacy. So the squandered opportunity for redemption is mighty in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (C-), an ambitious film that is full of ideas but misses the mark on executing most of them. The vapid protagonist played by Britt Robertson speaks mainly in cliches, and when she partners with George Clooney in what is basically an extended cameo, he doesn’t add much either to the proceedings aside from faux Han Solo gruffness. There’s lots of overreach about saving mankind from its own destiny, but Bird doesn’t do a good job outlining the plot to properly take audiences along for the ride. What’s left are a few lovely nostalgia scenes, some half-sketched visions of the future, some awkward robots (TV’s Small Wonder was more believable) and an underdeveloped sense of majesty. The film, overstuffed with good intention, is mostly a bloated bore.
Don Hall and Chris Williams’ animated adventure Big Hero 6 (B-) is a triumph of style over substance, with an amazing hybrid metropolis imagined as a cross between San Francisco and Tokyo and a Marvel comic inspired origin story about a sextet of superheroes. There’s an Iron Giant-style central relationship between boy and gentle robot that provides much of the film’s comic and emotional heft, and there’s a sinister scientific subplot that propels the rise of a super villain. The characters are out of central casting, and there’s no breakout voice talent, prompting the most joyous parts to be the chase sequences through the cool cityscapes. The story is rather routine, down to the training montages and climactic showdown. Really, this is all about the action and the visual spectacle, and those elements are grandiose. It’s startlingly original for a Disney film but not that trailblazing otherwise.
An absentee wealthy father, three spinster sisters hawking wish fulfillment and blather, a conflicted surrogate aunt with mixed feelings about a visiting teenager and a 16-year-old with a strong attraction to a needle somehow manage to create a fairly inert melodrama in Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (C), a revisionist Sleeping Beauty told through the perspective of Angelina Jolie’s fabulous costumes. As the object of audience ambivalence, Jolie does strike a mighty mean pose and has some deliciously nasty lines from time to time. She was most surprising when her sensitive side shines through opposite Elle Fanning as about-to-be-a-cutter Aurora. The effects and characters of the enchanted forest are truly laughable: some look like second unit rejects from the Captain EO creature shop; and even though the running time is brisk, the lopsided narrative withholds most of the intrigue for most of the film’s duration. For reclaiming a villain from history, it’s no Wicked. But in saving Jolie’s virtually hit-free career from continued box office poison, she may have just earned her wings.