ALADDIN (2019)

May 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aladdin … come on down!  You are the next participant in Disney’s ongoing mission for live-action remakes of their classic films. And rest easy fans, this time the mega-studio has done right by the original. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises. How about Guy Ritchie as director?  How about a cast of mostly unknowns? How about modernized songs and even a new one sung by Jasmine? And it probably goes without asking, but how about a lot of CGI?

Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) stars as Aladdin, and he gets to showboat early in the film and flash some parkour skills in the familiar and high-octane chase through the village. Aladdin, of course, is labeled a ‘street rat’ and ‘riff-raff’, but he’s also charming, handsome, talented as a thief, and quite warm-hearted. He and his pet monkey Abu – or more accurately, partner in crime – are streetwise and work quite well together, both for theft and love.

Naomi Scott (slated to star in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS movie coming out later this year) is a beautiful and ambitious Princess Jasmine, who wants to succeed her father as Sultan of Agrabah, but is instead forced to choose between a steady stream of suitors – each a Prince, as required by law. Ms. Scott has a terrific singing voice and really gets to cut loose on the new woman power song “Speechless”.

The blue Genie is played by Will Smith, and this is what has fans of the beloved 1992 animated film so flustered. No, Will Smith is not Robin Williams, and few if any, could match the late great comedian for his energy and comedic flair. But Mr. Smith does a marvelous job of staying true to the original, while also adding his own style … a style that works very well for comedy, music, and dramatic moments. He is not likely to disappoint anyone who has an open mind.

So let’s talk about the villain. Marwan Kenzari is Jafar, the man so dissatisfied with being number 2. Personally, I would have preferred a more intimidating bad guy, but given the tone of the film (more on that below), he’s a solid fit. His sidekick and smart-aleck parrot Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk (it was the distinctive Gilbert Gottfried in the 1992 version). Two other key supporting roles include Nasim Padrad (“Saturday Night Live”) as Dalla, Jasmine’s handmaiden; and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in “Homeland”) as the Sultan and Jasmine’s father.

It’s been 27 years since Robin Williams’ Genie entertained so many, and the comparisons to that version are inevitable. It’s a relief that Disney opted to keep the film family friendly (Rated PG) and avoid the dark tone that had their recent projects aimed more at adults than kids, rather than the balance they’ve been known for more than 6 decades. Yes, this is the same director that made SNATCH (2000) and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), neither of which any decent parent would allow their young kids to watch. But, Mr. Ritchie has delivered a film which entertained (and didn’t overly frighten) kids as young as 5 in the screening I attended.

Director Ritchie co-wrote the script with John August, who is best known for his work with Tim Burton (BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE, DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE). The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes, 38 longer than the 1992 film … though it doesn’t feel too long. Gemma Jackson’s set design of Agrabah, the Palace, and the Cave of Wonders are all stunning, and then of course, there is the music. Alan Menken won an Oscar for ALADDIN (1992) and his music is back and modernized, and sounds wonderful … especially “A Whole New World” and Jasmine’s new song.

With a talented cast of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian actors, there should be no cries of “foul”, and there really is something special about a movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages. The Bollywood-type closing number provides a kaleidoscope of color, texture and dancing … and is a nice twist to “You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me”. And I’ll leave you with this final offer: you can have the monkey, if I can have the magic carpet.

watch the trailer:

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) revisited

January 24, 2014

little mermaid Greetings again from the darkness. The first of three true classics from the “middle era” of Disney animation … along with Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994) … this 1989 version of Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 story brought musical theatre to an animated children’s fairy tale. It was also the 28th Disney film, and the final to utilize hand-painted cel animation.

The Blu-Ray release (a Christmas present from my son) to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary is truly stunning in color, brightness, clarity and sound. An explosion of sight and sound occurs during the incredible cacophony of joy and cheer better known as the Best Song Oscar winner “Under the Sea”. The calypso style was a very creative choice by musical directors Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

Of course, the star of the show is Ariel, the rebellious 16 year old mermaid who dreams of walking on the beach and dancing with the Prince. Ariel’s remarkable vocals (“Part of Your World”) are provided by Jodi Benson, who beautifully captures the innocence and longing necessary for the character. Samuel E Wright is the smooth voiced Jamaican crab Sebastian, who not only takes lead on “Under the Sea”, but also on romantic ballad “Kiss the Girl”. The other standout is Pat Carroll as Ursula the Sea Witch. She is the perfect villain vs Ariel, and is quite a commentary on the actions of those who are power hungry.

Written and directed by John Clements and Ron Musker, the film was a bit different for its time because of the depth of Ariel’s character. This was a typical teenager going against her strict parent and dreaming of a better life. Ariel has a mind of her own and is willing to chase her dreams … even if it’s a boy from the proverbial “other side of the tracks” and with a Faustian negotiation. From a technical perspective, the artwork is spectacular and movements are full and fluid (sorry for the pun). This came 5 years after Ron Howard’s live action Splash with Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah. If you ever doubt the power that expert animation can possess, just compare the emotion and charm in these two mermaid films.

This latest Blu-Ray release has some very interesting special features. We are treated to interviews with the film’s animators as well as a peek inside the Disney Animation studios, now on its third generation of animators. Much reverence is provided to The Nine Old Men … the original group of animators hand picked by Walt Disney. The last of the nine men died in 2008, and their trainees are now mentoring the most excited current group that is kicking out some new classics like Frozen and Wreck-it Ralph. What’s that word … circle of life.

watch the “Under the Sea” segment (Best Song Oscar winner):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPQVrjnC1jo


MIRROR MIRROR (2012)

April 6, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fairy Tales. The Brothers Grimm. Expectations for a delightful story and fascinating characters should not be doused. Blah is the best word I have for this version of the classic children’s story. The “updated” story is a mess, the characters are quite bland, and the few sets are limited in scope. On the bright side, the costumes are colorful and, for a change, disliking Julia Roberts will not place me in the minority … she is after all, the evil Queen.

It seems logical that a classic fairy tale movie should be either designed for kids, enhanced for adults, or a mixture of each (The Princess Bride comes to mind).  Despite being one of the most beloved stories of all time, this one appears to have been made for an audience not consisting of kids or adults.  I spent much of the movie distracted by Julia Roberts’ lips and Lily Collins eyebrows. Both are characters unto themselves. Julia Roberts should be the perfect evil Queen, but she seemed to put forth little effort with her lines … an odd mix of sarcasm for a kids’ movie. Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) is just bland. She has no screen presence at all and is swallowed up in her scenes with Roberts, Armie Hammer (the Prince) and the band of dwarves.

There are so many things I could comment on, but most would be negative, so I’ll just (mostly) leave it alone. Being a fan of director Tarsem Singh (The Fall), there were moments where his remarkable eye for colorful visuals provided hope, but the lack of quality story-telling was just too much to overcome. The evil Queen spa treatment just seemed to be a one-off idea that got stuck into the film … scorpion and bee stings, parrot poop, and grub worms in ears probably seemed comical on the page.  Not so much on the screen.  The story has always made a statement on the quest for eternal beauty/youth, but this queen just comes across as desperate.  It was nice to see Danny Woodburn (Mickey on “Seinfeld”) as one of the dwarves, and I thought Armie Hammer found the proper chord in his performance.  As a viewer, stick to the 1937 Disney version, or hold out hope for the much darker version coming out later this year, Snow White and the Huntsman (with Kristen Stewart).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see how a creative director can turn a fascinating fairy tale into a bland ball at the palace.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have young kids … they probably won’t enjoy it, laugh much or even be frightened of the witch.

watch the trailer: