Saturday, April 11, 2020

Catch Up, Part 2: Disney+

For those of you who missed the last installment...

I'm pumping out a bunch of mini-reviews for movies that aren't really new but also aren't all that old. These are basically all the big movies from the last few years I missed in the theaters, didn't watch in time to include in my end-of-year wrap up, but are still recent enough I was able to delude myself into thinking someone might care what I thought.

Today's is a BIG installment: I'm covering all the junk I've seen on Disney+ over the last few months. Well, all the junk that fits that criteria, anyway.

The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King remake presents its viewers with a choice: enjoy it or hate it. I suppose you could do both, but that feels like a lot of work, so you might as well pick a side.

To be fair, it offers compelling arguments for both options. Visually, this is one of the most incredible accomplishments ever put on film, a photo-realistic animated film. On the other hand, it's nearly a shot-for-shot remake that doesn't bother marrying the new style with the story, songs, or themes it's rehashing.

So it's an awesome, inspiring, cynical cash-grab. A gorgeous exploration of new techniques fueled by money and bereft of new ideas. Everything exciting and boring about Hollywood, all rolled together.

In the end, I chose to enjoy this for its merits. The effect was simply too impressive to ignore, and that won me over. Sure, the animal faces were too realistic to sell human emotion (particularly in the songs), but we give puppetry a pass for that constantly. Why not this?

It goes without saying I'd have preferred a new story (particularly one without racist subtext around the lion/hyena premise), but if Disney absolutely had to bank another 1.6 billion on a recycled script, I'm glad we got something pretty to look at out of the deal.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
[edit: I actually watched this elsewhere but figured it was easier grouping it here since it's obviously on Disney+ anyway, right? Turns out it's NOT, so apologies to anyone who immediately signed up for Disney+ after reading my middling review only to be disappointed].

Wow. And I thought the first Maleficent movie had tonal issues.

Approximately a third of the sequel is an utterly absurd comedy about Maleficent trying to be Aurora’s mother, while the other two-thirds is a surprisingly dark epic fantasy about a race of magical beings on the verge of extinction torn between philosophies of peace and war.

The comedy’s the good part. Honestly, the comedy sequences are fun enough to make the rest worth sitting through. Until things took a turn for the grimdark, I was thinking this might be one of my favorite films of 2019.

But then things get serious (or at least try to), and the movie starts feeling rote. If you’ve ever seen a fantasy movie before, you’ll be able to guess where things are headed well in advance. To be fair, you might not expect them to kill [redacted] with chemical weapons, but the plot is definitely on auto-pilot until it inexplicably turns back into a kids' movie at the end.

Other than the joys of seeing Maleficent attend an awkward dinner party, the movie also offers some gorgeous visuals. Like the tone, this is hit-or-miss, but when the designs work, they’re stunning.

Overall, this is a deeply flawed film that manages to get enough right to make it worth a viewing. That’s more or less how I remember the first installment, so credit for consistency.

Oh, and I assume this goes without saying, but Jolie is once again phenomenal in the role. Pity there probably won’t be a part three.

Kim Possible (2019)
I have fond memories of watching the animated series a few decades ago and was curious whether the live-action adaptation managed to capture any of the original’s charm. I was pleasantly surprised to find it (mostly) did.

Let’s not set unreasonable expectations, though – this was a made-for-TV movie, and it shows. If you’re expecting the production values of a theatrically-released action movie, you’re going to be disappointed. Just not as disappointed as you’d think. The action sequences are quite a bit better than I expected. The opening sequence in particular does a good job recreating the spirit of the cartoon.

On top of that, there's some good casting, particularly around the three generations of Possible women. Likewise, Patton Oswalt's only around briefly, but he's clearly having the time of his life.

All that being said, this was anything but perfect. They took Ron’s dorky side a little too far, and the result was cringe-worthy at times. Likewise, the movie’s plot was a bit overly dramatic – I’d have preferred more fun and less character growth.

But considering how bad of an idea rebooting this as a low-budget, live-action franchise should have been, I was impressed with the result.

Aladdin (2019)
I’m having a hard time summarizing my thoughts on this into a narrative. It’s at once indicative of the best and worst aspects of the live-action remakes, depending on which parts you focus on and which you ignore. Take the design, for example. The costumes and sets draw from Bollywood, which allows those elements to stand out from the original. But then the Genie shows up and they reuse a bunch of old ideas.

The movie’s equal parts intriguing and frustrating, which seems to be a running theme with these remakes. It takes some characters in innovative directions but doesn’t adjust the overall story to compensate. As a result, the movie kind of falls apart but leaves enough interesting pieces to offer a decent experience.

This is, in short, fine. It’s not a train wreck like Dumbo or a home run like Jungle Book. It’s not a pointless rehash like Beauty and the Beast, but it’s not an entirely new spin like Maleficent.
It’s a weird film, all around. I certainly wouldn’t consider it essential viewing, but it’s not something I’d warn against, either. It’s fine, occasionally disappointing, but rarely boring. Sort of the platonic ideal of the “two-and-a-half star movie,” if you still believe in ranking films by fractured celestial bodies.

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)
I was curious about this direct-to-streaming live-action Disney+ movie because the trailer was intriguing and the premise was weird. A somewhat delusional kid detective with a (probably) imaginary polar bear sidekick? I figured I'd give it a chance.

Having seen it, I'm torn. On one hand, it actually does do some fun, interesting stuff with that premise. And, speaking as someone who's been living in the Pacific Northwest for a while now, it captures the surrealism of Portland beautifully. I think this movie does a good job delivering a unique point-of-view, showing you the world as it exists through the eyes and in the mind of its protagonist.

But the script suffers from having very little structure or story. I'm assuming a lot of this was due to this being an adaptation: you've got significantly more freedom in a book to follow numerous side plots and introduce peripheral characters. Usually, this kind of stuff gets streamlined, but it felt like that step got skipped.

You're left with a lot of great moments that feel unconnected and unfulfilling. The character drama at the core doesn't have much of an arc, and the little that is there feels like it's following a formula.

Overall, it's not a bad kids' movie. It manages to create a fascinating tone in the vein of Millions. But unlike Millions, it doesn't really feel like it's got much to say. At the end of the day, this gets props for style but not so much for substance.

Toy Story 4 (2019)
First off, I want to take a moment and acknowledge how refreshing it is to see a film franchise that still titles its sequels sequentially. Why is this going out of fashion? It's so useful.

At any rate, the movie is, like its predecessors, fantastic. It's less flashy than the first three installments (it doesn't create a new medium like the first, transform our understanding of sequels like the second, or challenge us to face our own mortality like part three), but it might be the most thematically complex entry in the series. It takes a deceptively simple starting point and uses that to explore branching themes and questions of identity and responsibility.

This is a movie about an aging man realizing his time as the center of attention is over, and he needs to stop fighting the inevitable shift in power dynamics around him. Woody literally allows a female character - one who was coded as the villain up to that point - to take his voice so she can effectively rise in his place. And this was the right choice, both because it allowed her to achieve her potential and because it freed him. And that's just one way to look at this film.

There are so many ways to spin the metaphors built into the characters' relationships I get dizzy. You could focus on Woody and Forky's father-son relationship. You could explore how the movie effectively treats Woody as a soldier who's done his duty but is having trouble reintegrating and finding a new purpose. You could look at the entire movie as being about retirement...

And I think any of these hold up. This thing's got layers to spare.

In the interest of being complete, it's also got characters to spare. As in, they probably could have trimmed the Key and Peele roles, as well as the Keanu guest spot. These were fun, but they felt superfluous and a bit distracting. And, yes, continuity with prior installments is getting a bit fast and loose (what even are the rules now?). But all that's minor nitpicking. Toy Story 4 once again demonstrates that, even when it seems like this series should have ended, Pixar's able to justify another chapter.

Frozen II (2019)
A decent enough movie but a poor excuse for a musical. That's not because the music is bad - on its own, it's fine - but in a musical (at least, in a good musical) the songs should really mean something, and here... not so much.

On paper, I'm sure this works. The songs all ostensibly reflect what each character is feeling at various points in the movie and serve to illustrate why they make various decisions. The problem is most of what they feel is vague indifference. Elsa's big breakout number is about her sort of, kind of wanting to stick around with her sister but also feeling like she might want to go somewhere for some unspecified reason.

Powerful drama, this is not.

The movie challenges character relationships in ways that are, well, minor and tedious. Like, Elsa and Anna are working out some issues around trust and being open with each other. So pretty insignificant compared against ice castles with frozen guardians and shards of magic lodged in the heart.

This tries to fill that gap with new stakes built around their nation's past and the princesses' relationships with their late parents, but all that feels tacked on. These characters were created around their relationship with each other, not Arendelle, and the movie never succeeds in convincing us otherwise.

All that being said, the last act features some effective plot twists and iconography that salvages the experience. Everything involving Elsa and the water horse is awesome to see, and the cave scene with Anna and Olaf was surprisingly effective despite the fact the resolution was obvious from the start.

You can add some solid humor to the list of pros, as well (though, come on... you're really going to skip the punchline of having Anna propose after you spent the entire movie setting it up?). All in all, it mostly works as entertainment, but it doesn't feel like the event I was expecting.

It's hard to watch this without wondering if this was the end result of a long negotiation with the studio over Elsa's story line and (one assumes) sexual orientation. This absolutely feels like the movie someone would make after executives strictly forbid them from making a more impactful one.

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