Deep breaths. Suck up that air. In goes the oxygen. Slow exhale. That's it, just like a helium balloon. Come on, this movie will not not be as bad as you have heard. So what if the trailers make it look godawful, and the only time Guy Ritchie's work didn't make you want to throw something at the screen was his first “Sherlock Holmes,” thanks to that Downey Jr./Law chemistry? But that was on - let's check Google - 2009. (We won't talk about that lousy Madonna remake.)
An unnecessary live-action remake of Disney's “Aladdin,” helmed by Ritchie. What could possibly go wrong? I pondered the prospect of a musical number staged by the wise-ass who inflicted macho swagger on late 1990s/early 2000s movie audiences, and my stomach churned. I take another swig of warm sake. You know, to dull the pain.
It's June 11, and I'm seated at the bar of the Sushi Siam across from the AMC Aventura 24. There's just enough time between an advance screening of the middling “Men In Black: International” and a late showing of “Aladdin” for me to grab a quick din-din. The couple to my left say they're psyched about to seeing the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.” I give them my Cliffs Notes thumbs-up appraisal. Then the older man to my right overhears I'm about to subject myself to Ritchie's “Arabian Nights.”
“Oh, it's fabulous. So colorful. And Will Smith is so funny as the Genie,” the diner gushes.
I smile politely but can't quite hide my skepticism. Oh, what the hell? If it's summer, it means time for big, dumb and loud fare at the multiplex. Maybe my colleagues were wrong and I'm being a willfull contrarian.
And yet “Aladdin,” one of four offerings from the Mouse House I'm reviewing in this midsummer grab-bag report, turned out to be about as mediocre as I feared, some surface pleasures notwithstanding.
Fast forward a month, and I'm walking down the stairs to the lobby of the AutoNation IMAX Theater in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I'm processing “The Lion King,” Jon Favreau's photorealistic spin on that most beloved of 1990s Disney animated juggernauts. Fellow critics at the screening I attended were split, with some praising the majestic visuals and others finding fault with some of the voice work and how the songs lend themselves to the state-of-the-art format. Me? I'm right on the fence, but we'll get to that.
A lot has happened over those four weeks. In a column he wrote for "The Guardian," my esteemed colleague Guy Lodge bemoaned Disney's “commercial supremacy,” citing the fact that as of mid-July, the four biggest moneymakers at the U.S. box office - “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” “Aladdin” and “Toy Story 4” - are products of the iconic studio, with Favreau's supersized African tale set to join their ranks later this month.
The question arises: Is it still possible to assess these films as artistic texts, separately from the effect they're having on the industry and diversity of content at the movies? The short answer is yes, but the fact that Mickey's evolution from cartoon icon to voracious capitalist has wiped out a lot of the competition makes it really difficult for this longtime Disney fan to defend the studio when they're imagineering these corporate maneuvers. (The studio's recently inked acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which includes 20th Century Fox's film and TV studios, feels more and more like one of the final nails in the coffin of healthy competition between studios, as well as a blow to mid-budgeted dramas geared at adults.)
So reviewers like me press on, undaunted by seismic shifts in the industry, but mindful that the kind of monopoly Disney is currently exerting is leaving a body count in its wake. I know it's the middle of the summer, but I think it's time for some of you to snap out of your stupor and start asking questions, because as much as I like to visit the pleasant (and unpleasantly overcrowded and overpriced) Disney theme parks, I sure wouldn't want to live there.
On with the show.
“Aladdin”: Okay, let's rip off this Band-Aid. This is a lumbering, unimaginatively rendered slog, lame when it should be funny and leaden when it should be light on its feet. (The sake helped, by the way.) The Disney spin machine has made a big deal of the movie's culturally diverse casting, but what stands out about stars Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott is how bland they are. But wait, defenders might argue, it makes perfect sense for the central couple to be blankly attractive. After all, they are playing, respectively, the titular street urchin who dreams of Something More, and Jasmine, the beautiful princess who dreams of a life beyond her constricting palace walls. To which I retort, who says they need to be this generic? Why not hire actors who possess the kind of sex appeal and charisma money can't buy in addition to movie-star looks? But Massoud and Scott, with their blinding Chiclets smile and a void where a personality should be, are a wash, and so is their tepid upstairs-downstairs romance. Also, that excuse doesn't explain why the role of the villainous Jafar, with his toxic lust for power, went to the meek and unremarkable Marwan Kenzari, who displays all the menace of an overworked tax accountant.
As for Smith, he's coasting in the most depressing way possible. To be sure it must have been daunting to step into Robin Williams' shoes, but whereas the late Oscar winner elevated the material with some mile-a-second improvising that gave viewers a look at the comedian's G-rated part of his id, the “Independence Day” star settles for lazily delivering lines that wouldn't look out of place at a lackluster daytime show in front of Cinderella's Castle. When he's in full Genie mode, the digital Blue Man Group look is not as disastrous as that early teaser suggested. But he's saddled with head-smackingly idiotic dialogue credited to Ritchie and frequent Tim Burton collaborator John August. They're the ones who ought to shoulder the blame for this underwhelming cash cow's dearth of creativity. This clunky magic carpet ride briefly comes to life in spurts, such as at the start of the end credits, when the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman song “Friend Like Me” gets the Bollywood treatment. That kind of buoyant, uncomplicated joy, alas, is largely M-I-A elsewhere.
“Spider-Man: Far from Home”: Speaking of screen couples grappling with subpar material, Tom Holland and Zendaya give it their best shot as this most recent, Generation Z incarnation of Peter Parker and Mary Jane (or MJ in this case). But they're adrift in a movie that ultimately never belongs to them. The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's long-running big-screen TV series pulls triple duty: attempting to tie some loose ends from the mammoth, good-versus-evil extravaganza that was “Avengers: Endgame,” laying some of the groundwork for the next phase of interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces, er, movies engineered to push Marvel fanboys' pleasure buttons, and, oh yes, continuing Parker's trial-and-error development of his role as costumed do-gooder.
On paper, director Jon Watts' strategy of molding the MCU formula into the shape of a high school rom-com with shades of John Hughes, with the picturesque bonus of a European vacation narrative, seems like a good idea, as it would ostensibly allow the characters' adolescent awkwardness to make the characters more empathetic. The good news is that Holland is considerably less of a pipsqueak than he was in “Homecoming,” his first Spider-Man feature, and Zendaya, by far the MVP here, almost makes you wish “Far from Home” focused even more on her. The bad news is that the cast that surrounds them continue to be insufferable Gen-Z clichés, and watching their slim storylines play out felt to this reviewer like nails on a chalkboard. Plus, none of these actors look like high-schoolers anymore.
A notable exception is Jake Gyllenhaal, who as usual, turns in dependable work regardless of the quality of the film he's starring in. He plays a caped stranger, dubbed “Mysterio” by the Italian press, who claims to have come from another dimension to help Earth's inhabitants get rid of some gigantic creatures that destroyed his version of Earth. These same creatures, he says, are now threatening to do the same in this dimension and, most annoyingly, derailing the teens' overseas getaway in the process. MCU productions might not have the word “Disney” on most of their promotional materials, but they're most definitely willing to indulge in some Disney formula trappings, and here the hidden villain, that most tired chestnut, rears its unwelcome head, further taking the film out of Holland's hands.
Even more ill-advised, “Far from Home,” which, somebody needs to say it, is far from good, plays the mass disintegration of millions of lifeforms for laughs. Purple-hued villain Thanos' destructive finger snap, which for years gave survivors the impression that millions of loved ones were dead, is here dubbed “The Blip.” That right there gives you all you need to know about Watts' flippant wokeness. And with the truly Marvel-ous “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” already in existence, why would you even bother with this milquetoast wannabe?
“Toy Story 4”: If you want to see a franchise continue to grow and deepen when conventional wisdom would argue it was time to hang up the plastic cowboy hat long ago, look no further than this bright, immensely moving and bracingly mature chapter in the saga of those computer-generated playthings that helped put Pixar on the map. This clever and nimble group hug of a movie uses those comfort-food Disney/Pixar sequel trappings as a springboard for a profound exploration of loneliness and identity. Mostly set in an idyllic small town near summer's end, it sustains an aptly elegiac tone, but it's also the most breezily enjoyable film the Emeryville, California studio has made in at least a decade.
I'm aware I risk ruffling a few feathers by saying I wasn't the biggest fan of “Toy Story 3,” but I felt that overpraised installment was hampered by “Little Miss Sunshine” screenwriter Michael Arndt's penchant for facile gags and all-too-convenient resolutions. Sure, Michael Keaton was a gas as the voice of Ken (as in Barbie's Ken), and it boasted a powerful bittersweet ending, but it was also weighed down by irritating plot turns in a way that felt like a cover band's version of a “Toy Story” movie.
Not so this time. Filmmaker Josh Cooley, here making his feature directing debut, deftly balances big laughs, bigger pathos and peerlessly executed setpieces while not once undermining the growth of these animated inanimate travelers. He turns a road trip into an existential quest for Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks), who feels responsible for the welfare of Forky (a pitch perfect Tony Hale), a creation that Bonnie (Emily Hahn), his current owner, made out of a spork and googly eyes. Forky points out, not inaccurately, that he is trash, not a toy. The ensuing tug of war between this utensil with low self-esteem and Woody brings the pair face-to-face with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now an emancipated, owner-less toy with unfinished romantic business with Woody, and Gabby Gabby (“Mad Men's” Christina Hendricks), a calculating doll with designs on acquiring the cowboy's voice box.
The emphasis on Woody's identity crisis means Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear is relegated to supporting player status, and while his character's arc mostly stays on the side of easy laughs, he and the rest of a solid ensemble cast work like a well-oiled machine. (With Keanu Reeves providing scene-stealing support as cocky toy daredevil Duke Caboom, there's no doubt the “Matrix” star is having a moment.) “Toy Story 4” follows familiar beats, but miraculously, they all feel freshly minted, and they culminate in a fully felt resolution that aims for the tear ducts in cathartic fashion, closing a winning chapter that excels in mixing a lightness of touch with larger-than-life emotions. So what are you waiting for?
“The Lion King”: You might be holding out for the release Disney's touting as the movie event of the summer, and nothing I say will probably stop you from shelling out big bucks to take the family. No, it doesn't come close to matching the stirring heights of the 1994 box office smash. But it also needs to be stressed that it is not the soulless fiasco some critics would have you believe.
To be honest, I was bracing for what looked like the personification of Disney's ruthless corporate greed. Much like me before going in to see the new “Aladdin,” I had resigned myself to the notion that Favreau's CGI showcase could mark a point of no return for the studio. And yet, part of me, that inner child who harbors fond memories of being taken to revivals of Disney animated classics in the '70s and '80s, held out hope that this “Lion King” would yield an interesting riff on a text so many know by heart. Maybe it would even have something new to say.
I'm glad I listened to my very own Jiminy Cricket, because the bottom line is that the pluses outweigh the minuses here. Just barely.
The finished product, and yes, admittedly a lot of it plays like a product, is tasked with honoring one of the studio's most popular works while making it relevant for a new audience. And, at least on this basic level, it succeeds more often than not.
Let's not sugarcoat things. A lot doesn't work, beginning with the format's inability to create compelling dramatic performances from the feline cast members. Favreau attempts to get around this problem by often cutting to long shots, but it seems like most of the other animal characters are operating at a livelier level than the lions, a major hurdle for a film called “The Lion King.” Further enhancing this disconnect, Donald Glover and Beyoncé, who voice the characters of Simba and Nala as adults, deliver flat, astonishingly listless performances. They lack the previous version's fire.
And, by and large, the new renditions of the film's beloved songs leave a lot to be desired. The “Circle of Life” opening, which plays like a virtual shot-by-shot recreation of the breathtaking sequence in the 1994 production, attempts to thrill audiences with richly detailed yet curiously unadventurous visuals, but it fails to convey the pageantry of the ceremony it's depicting. And, from a visual standpoint, that transporting shot of Zazu (voiced here by John Oliver) as he flies toward reigning lion Mufasa (voiced, once again, by James Earl Jones) is here changed to a more earthbound helicopter shot of sorts, so the sense that you're taking flight is gone.
Favreau knows this text is sacrosanct for many Disney fans, so he doesn't rock the boat. But he does make some changes that, while small, still make for some interesting wrinkles, Take, for instance, the film's depiction of the hyenas as genuinely frightening lethal predators, a far cry from the earlier film's portrayal of the animals as comic relief. Favreau reimagines young Simba and Nala's ill-fated visit to an elephant graveyard as a suspenseful escape through holes in the ground that make for good hiding places for hungry hyenas. The skillfully executed sequence cared this grown-up. (Parents, you are warned. This stuff is nightmare fuel.)
What also makes this “Lion King” worthwhile is the way it handles the climactic confrontation between adult Simba and the murderous Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor, taking over Jeremy Irons). The depiction of physical violence between the animals is more effective here than the way Favreau deals with Scar's emotional violence, but the fights are bruising and unpleasant to watch, and all the stronger for it.
The imperfectly okay 2019 “Lion King” might not hold a candle to the tighter, more enthralling 1994 “Lion King,” but as big screen diversions go, it makes admirable use of its larger-than-life canvas, despite underscoring the limitations of its newfangled technology.
Until next time, dear reader, I think I feel a song coming on. M-I-C. See you real soon. K-E-Y. Why? Because I like (most of) you. M-O-U-$-eeeee.
“The Lion King” pounces into theaters Friday. See it in IMAX, if possible. “Aladdin,” “Spider-Man: Far from Home” and “Toy Story 4” continue their screen dominance at multiplexes across the country. Let's hear it for the circle of cash.