Disney’s centennial emerges as its animation division experiences an awkward crossroads. Do animators lean into princesses, swashbucklers or steampunk? Do they focus on hand-drawn or computer generated animation? Tried and true Menkens and Mirandas or other new voices? Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s Wish (C+) is evidence of creative inertia, compromise and the wrong kind of recycling as its makers craft measures of vintage atmosphere but draw too heavily on fan service origin stories over forging interesting new paths. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: that’s actually a mixture of watercolor and CG, a literal tug-of-war for tone in cartoon compositions before you even fixate on the film’s undercooked but byzantine story. It’s all a mallet to the palette. The plot focuses on Asha (voiced by a spirited Ariana DeBose), who makes a passionate plea to the stars after sensing a darkness in her kingdom led by Magnifico (Chris Pine, all snark and bark). The so-so music by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice (frequent Selena Gomez collaborators) is a nod to contemporary sensibilities but feels overwrought against the frilly imagery; they feel like stand-ins for something more hummable. There are indeed some creative flourishes: the notion that the deepest wishes of a country’s citizenry live inside precious bubbles within a royal repository and must be rescued and returned to their rightful owners feels like the stuff of Pixar pop psychology fusing into Disney proper. Buck and Veerasunthorn have delivered a pleasant enough fairy tale with heart, but it’s not quite emotional or funny enough to score classic status. They don’t even score with funny sidekicks. For all the building blocks assembled in the service of a Disney formula, it rarely reaches its higher yearning.
Ironically, Peter Sohn’s Elemental (C-), in which the animated characters are allegorical and anthropomorphic elements of nature, is virtually chemistry-free. The story follows fiery, hot-tempered Ember (voiced by Leah Lewis) and go-with-the-flow liquid character Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who fall in love while helping avert a crisis in their murky metropolis. The two central characters in this misguided romcom are generally inert from their meet-not-so-cute opening moments until the point when their story is finally and mercifully extinguished. For a film as high-concept as this, the story, dialogue and voice acting are all quite basic; and attempted parallels to real-life don’t really land. Unlike WALL-E or Zootopia, for instance, there’s little discernible sense of time, place or genre. Frequent flashbacks simply prolong a tale that’s already treading water, and supporting characters lumber along rather aimlessly against hastily conceived backdrops lacking zest. Admirably, it’s one of the few Disney-Pixar movies which doesn’t rely on a pedigreed voice cast (save for a ho-hum Catherine O’Hara) for an immediate connection, but nobody in the ensemble adds any vocal vibrancy to this periodic tableau of mediocrity. After a largely charmless series of uninspiring episodes, there are a few mild sparks in the final act but not enough to give this not-so-golden-age entry any atomic weight.
Who would have guessed the mystifying problem with Rob Marshall’s live action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (B-) would be subpar animated visual content? Seemingly rendered in a murky millpond leagues away from where James Cameron toiled twelve years on his recent underwater opus, Marshall’s nautical nightmare of unsure blue hues and realistic looking talking sea creatures threatens to sink this ship before it even starts. Parting the waters of this production design debacle is a stunningly watchable fresh-faced pair in the lead performances as star-crossed lovers: the instantly endearing Halle Bailey in gorgeous voice as spirited mermaid Ariel and Jonah Hauer-King as earnest intrepid explorer Prince Eric. Together this dreamy duo could enchant viewers with a charm offensive against a blank backdrop and frankly probably should have. Sequences set in the ocean left much of the cast, including a cerebral Javier Bardem as King Triton, floundering. The story feels oddly like a submerged Bachelorette season: Thirst trap induced longing for life on land prompts the titular heroine to make a Faustian deal with villainous sea witch Ursula (a committed but CGI compromised Melissa McCarthy) to sprout human gams, and fortunately the sequences set on land are the sweet fantasia here. The musical numbers are a mixed bag with “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl” and the new “Wild Unchartered Waters” as standouts, but Oscar winner “Under the Sea” feels like a throwaway, and the less said of a final act sing-speak by a squawking Awkwafina the better. Sure the kitchen scene antics of “Les Poissons” have been excised, but a house of horrors embodied by uncanny valley crab Sebastian, fish Flounder and seagull Scuttle is an omnipresent trilogy of terror. When the movie does more than skim the surface and anchors its fortunes to the central romance with some modern-day thematic resonance, the film featuring curious choices and excellent voices finally begins to stand on its own two feet.
Click here for Stephen’s review of the 1989 animated movie.
For its inaugural summer season, the “Big Screen” at Central Plaza in the Town at Trilith south of Atlanta will showcase the REEL Tuesday at Trilith Summer Movie Series on select weeknights in June and July. Family-friendly films will be the featured attraction on the 25-foot permanent screen with a powerful sound and projection system. Bring a chair or blanket, kick back, and relax to watch these fun, upbeat movies:
Tuesday, June 14: Sing 2
Tuesday, June 28: Captain America: The First Avenger
Tuesday, July 12: Luca
Tuesday, July 26: Jungle Cruise
Movies will start at 7:00 p.m., weather permitting. Admission is complimentary and open to the general public. Participants may park for free in the retail parking lot on Trilith Parkway and at Piedmont Wellness Center.
Before and after the movie, attendees can enjoy the evening strolling the Town at Trilith, shopping at charming boutiques, enjoying dinner at one of the variety of restaurants and topping off dinner with a delicious dessert. Honeysuckle Gelato’s ice cream cart will be on site, and additional activities will be available.
The Town at Trilith is located at 305 Trilith Parkway, Fayetteville, Ga. To stay informed of activities throughout the year at Trilith, follow @TownatTrilith on social media.
Along with the ever-expanding retail and restaurant district, Trilith’s 235-acre master-planned residential and mixed-use development is known for balancing small town community charm with big city creativity and storytelling for its residents, many with ties to the film industry. The award-winning new urbanist community includes nearly 1,400 residential homes, ranging from micro homes and treehouses to gated custom estates and Provencal cottages, all within walking distance of retail, restaurants and parks.
The Town at Trilith is located in south metro Atlanta, Georgia, adjacent to Trilith Studios. Envisioned as a gathering place for creatives, artists, storytellers and makers, this European-inspired community will include 750 single family homes, 600 multi-family lofts, 300 hotel rooms and 270,000 square feet of remarkable restaurants, retail, office, and commercial space. The residential neighborhoods at Trilith comprise one of the largest geothermal communities in the United States, with 51% of the development dedicated to green space that is currently home to more than 1,000 trees. Upon completion, residents will have access to 15 miles of nature trails, 54 acres of forest, 19 superbly landscaped parks and one of the most sophisticated and welcoming dog parks in the world.
Maneuvering the manic minefield of the female Chinese-Canadian tween growing up in early aughts Toronto can be a lot to handle: from flip phones to flipping out, juggling pimpled cuties and temple duties, hoarding both Tamogotchis and tampons and in general trying to find one’s way while on the brink of something new. Domee Shi’s Turning Red (B) leverages a fusion of anime stylings and daydreams with dollops of photo-realistic Pixar aesthetics to craft an animated adventure. But why simply chronicle the protagonist’s amusing and illuminating semi-autobiographical coming of age story when you can also foist an extra forced metaphor of turning into a giant red panda when emotions get heavy? It’s a balancing act for the filmmaking team ultimately working out the story kinks. Glimpses into the bonds of female friendship and some fascinating Cantonese cultural cues enliven the sillier moments, and the film works best when pursuing the genuine embarrassments of adolescence as opposed to plumbing the land grabs for plush merchandise sales. Rosalie Chiang gives a spry central voice performance, and Sandra Oh is effective as her demanding mom who thankfully can relate to her daughter’s strife with more haste that a recently frustrating animated Colombian abuela. Although this film is not a musical, the score and songs by Ludwig Göransson plus Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, respectively, keep proceedings lively, especially in some amusing boy band parody sequences. No doubt this will be the latest Disney endeavor to play on repeat for a good part of the upcoming season, so thankfully it’s a ritual with rewards.
Imagine being super average in a pantheon of magical creations; yes, I’m referring to both the central character of Disney’s latest animated film as well as the movie itself. A Colombian girl faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without superpowers in Encanto (C+) co-directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith. Stephanie Beatriz is the tentative voice of protagonist Mirabel; and to her defense, she does ultimately get a better showcase after a spotty first act (even her “I want” number at the film’s opening is virtually indecipherable and atonal). The breakneck animation quality and the drudgery of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very subpar catalogue of B-sides don’t help matters as the plucky misfit pieces together a mystery causing a fission in her family’s fantastical abode. As the frosty Ambuela Alma, María Cecilia Botero gets a thankless role basically blaming the heroine for her every move; it’s quite tedious for a while and punctuated with more awkward folk hip hop. Neither John Leguizamo nor any of the sprawling cast really stand out or fare much better in the overly complex story. Then there are finally some decent emotional moments as the film reaches its crescendo, not really enough to recommend a watch.
Hot off a series of horror movies and Liam Neeson-led thrillers, director Jaume Collet-Serra is an unlikely choice to helm an old-fashioned Disney adventure based on a classic theme park ride but acquits himself nicely in the pleasant summer escapism fare of Jungle Cruise (B-). Similarly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, best known for muscular action films, gets to flex his unexpectedly assured comedic timing to successful avail as a South American skipper of a small riverboat who takes a group of travelers including siblings played by Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall through a jungle in search of the Tree of Life. Johnson and Blunt are winning comic and would-be romantic partners with verbal and physical pratfalls aplenty, as he wields dad jokes and swagger in equal doses to her acerbic and acrobatic spunkiness. Faring less on the likability scale are characters played by Jesse Plemmons, Paul Giamatti and a coterie of cursed conquistadors in cartoonish or CGI villainous roles which add very little menace opposite the explorers. The film works best in rip-roaring action sequences and when Blunt and Whitehall provide some droll fish-out-of-water entanglements. As for the plot, we’ve been down this river many times in much better films. The first hour is fairly breezy fun; then as the protagonists get closer to their goal, the sogginess sets into sluggishness for a good while. Still, it’s competently made family friendly fun, and most of the kids haven’t seen the movies this riffs on, so it may all be new to them. Like its Adventureland origin attraction, you get to sit down in the shade and take a breezy ride for a while with a smile on your face for much of its duration, and that may be all we need this summer.
It takes a while to justify a film’s existence when it’s an origin story prequel to a live action remake series based on an animated movie, but Craig Gillespie’s Cruella (B) proves to be an effective and stylish madcap romp set in the punk rock era of London in the 70s with character and couture to spare. Emma Stone is delicious as the titular antihero at the film’s center, an abandoned grifter with a flair for fashion. When she falls into a job as a clothing designer at a haute house led by an extremely arch Emma Thompson, a visually accomplished tale of rivalry and revenge ensues. There are also enjoyable supporting performances by a game Paul Walter Houser, a wily Joel Fry and a pack of real and digital pups. Although overlong with a screenplay that doesn’t hit all the right notes and a soundtrack so packed with classic ear-worms that it seems to be overcompensating, this is ultimately more creative and bolder fare than Disney has recently foisted on the world. It’s best when the droll, high-spirited what-the-frock oneupmanship is in full flourish.
It may seem an odd piece of critical feedback for a cartoon, but this one needed more character development. Although splendid to look at and deeply in command of its world-building in a mythical alternate Earth, Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (B-) is missing foundational elements, namely clearer characterizations of Raya and the titular last dragon. It’s an extremely exposition-heavy tale with many quirky notions and fantastical details to recommend, but the sumptuous visuals overshadow a color-by-numbers plot line and two meh lead characters. The young heroine, skillfully voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, must travel to the five lands of her world to reclaim missing pieces of a gem that can bring harmony to the planet, and she’s accompanied by a water dragon, voiced by comedienne Awkwafina. From the character’s arrival on the scene, this tacky, talky blue dragon/narwhal/unicorn hybrid is a weak link and not quite as funny as a Disney sidekick should be. She’s the “friend like me” you kinda want to unfriend. The gamified story – spelled out in quite linear fashion – may keep youngsters’ attention on the screen, but it’s all not quite creative or original enough to break through as a classic for the studio. Without the characters breaking out into song, James Newton Howard’s score is nonetheless quite rousing. See it for some wondrous South Asian influenced imagery and enough flights of fancy to make the adventure nominally recommended, but know going in that you may wish upon a star that Raya and her last dragon are more interesting than they are.
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 performance 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.