Post Updated: July 27, 2019 – with reviews of ‘Dumbo’ and ‘The Lion King’
I sat through all of Disney’s “live-action” (as much as Disney would like to tell you, The Lion King is not live-action) remakes so ya’ll don’t have to. JK, I know you’ve all seen these considering Disney made like fourteen billion dollars from all of these movies combined. Buckle up!
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The movie that started the current renaissance of Disney live-action remakes is Tim Burton’s plastic 3D cotton candy hellscape Alice in Wonderland. Released just three months after Avatar, the 3D craze was in full-swing, guaranteeing box office success for Alice, but failing to recreate what actually made Avatar so thrilling and visually astonishing. The CGI exists somewhere between full-blown animation and uncanny valley realism, creating a plastic, rubbery sheen that looks absolutely wrong. It’s a visually hideous movie that takes the playful surrealism of Lewis Carroll’s original story as well as the 1951 animated movie and molds it into a by-the-numbers modern blockbuster of unforgivable banality. I was high as hell when I first saw this in theaters and it still bored the ever-living shit out of me.
Disney’s attempt to flesh out one of their most iconic villains is notable for the presence of Angelina Jolie in the title role, but it’s ultimately a pointless movie and startlingly toothless for telling the story of one of cinema’s most diabolical villains. Despite a powerful sequence where Maleficent awakens to find that her wings have been stolen, the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of menace or sympathy. There’s quite a bit of unnecessary visual fluff that only serves to distract from the fact that nothing really interesting is happening, and Elle Fanning’s Aurora is so bland she may as well be invisible.
Like Alice in Wonderland, it’s a Disney live-action reimagining of a classic that plays the notes but not the music (you’ll see me write this again; foreshadowing – blammo). The original Maleficent, despite no backstory and sparing screen-time, registers more danger and fascination than this entire movie about her.
Despite relative box office success and critical acclaim, Cinderella never felt like it got the attention it deserved from audiences; a shame because it is Disney’s best live-action remake so far. Director Kenneth Branagh takes a classical approach to the story, staying true to the fairy tale and preserving the unfettered optimism of Disney’s best works. Nothing radical is done to the story which is a welcome relief after the pointless and unsatisfying deviations of Alice and Maleficent. All of the detail goes into the performances, the costumes, the production design – all magnificent. Cate Blanchett is a show-stopping force of nature as the wicked stepmother, and Lily James delivers a bona-fide movie star turn as Cinderella. Best of all, the movie is just downright NICE. Few movies in this cinematic climate are so utterly devoid of cynicism. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Audiences are too jaded to appreciate magic and wholesomeness without detached irony.
The Jungle Book (2016)
The Jungle Book is equal parts silly and majestic, cutesy and dangerous, surreal and, like, so real. The balance works most of the time, and despite an annoying live-action Mowgli (sorry, I usually do not condone trash-talking child actors, but this human Mowgli was done no favors by the direction and writing), the visuals alone are jaw-dropping. Jon Favreau beautifully directs the mostly-CGI action, creating a world that feels familiar yet strikingly imaginative. Tonally, the movie may be going for a slightly darker atmosphere than the original animated classic. As a result, some of the song and dance numbers feel slightly jarring, but it’s nowhere near the level of creepy, uncanny gloom of Netflix’s Mowgli. All together it’s a successful and vivid reinterpretation of the Jungle Book mythos.
Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
This dreadfully pointless sequel to the already pointless Alice in Wonderland is an ugly, crumbling kitchen sink of a movie and thankfully an unsuccessful attempt at a cash-grab. It justifiably flopped with critics and audiences, hammering the nail in the coffin of the live-action Wonderland-verse. I don’t think there’s really anything else to say about this one. I could sit here and criticize the movie’s eye-rolling attempts at injecting a sort of feminist undercurrent to the plot, but why? It’s probably the only aspect of the movie worthy actually mentioning because it’s like, hey, they tried I guess. And I’d rather not go into whatever the fuck was going on with Johnny Depp’s interpretation of the Mad Hatter – unsettling enough in the first movie – downright delusional here. This one’s a hard pass.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Beauty and the Beast is arguably Disney’s most beloved property (update: someone informed me that The Lion King is actually their most beloved, so fuck me I guess) – it’s the only Disney animation film to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards – so it’s a shame that Bill Condon’s remake is sorta flavorless and, well, lame. Sure, it’s nowhere near the ugly visual shit-show of Alice and its sequel. The movie does have some gaudy charm, largely due to Luke Evan’s spot-on Gaston, but it’s also frustratingly underwhelming, and in some instances, just plain… off. Individual shots here and there are visibly uncanny, several musical numbers are awkwardly staged, and even the leads seem bored. Don’t even get me started on Belle’s iconic yellow ballgown, which, in its live-action rendering, looks like a Tallahassee high school prom dress Belle found on clearance at Plato’s Closet.
Christopher Robin (2018)
Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin is a sometimes bewildering and often lovely film that I can’t believe was actually made. Imagine Winnie the Pooh directed by Terrence Malick and you have an idea of what this looks like; and if you don’t know who Terrence Malick is, this may not be the Disney movie for you. There’s a shot early in the film quietly observing Pooh’s life-like paw brushing against strands of wheat in striking close-up that feels straight out of the poetic visual lyricism of The Tree of Life. It’s borderline comical because it’s so surreal, and while that may put a lot of people off – especially families looking for a way to distract their kids with something safe and bubbly – it’s a touching movie for anyone who feels a pang of nostalgia for these delightful characters. I think it’s one of Disney’s more ambitious recent films, and while it doesn’t always work, it is surprisingly moving and introspective.
Tim Burton used to be one of Hollywood’s masters of the storybook visual aesthetic. His best films – Batman and Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd – told stories with real weight and were utterly alive with lurid, gothic visuals that enhanced the dark whimsy of Burton’s creative imagination. Now we have… Dumbo. Not only is it a dull, anemic re-imagining of a Disney “classic” (that isn’t even available in its original form anymore because of pretty blatant racism), it’s a shining example of Burton’s further deterioration into studio-backed, check-cashing joylessness. I hate saying that. I really do. Burton used to have a hold on my childhood imagination. His earlier works were unique and vivid acts of cinematic anarchy, while Alice, and now Dumbo, are soulless products.
There was a real chance here to take this charming, iconic character and do something special with the story. The filmmakers certainly do take liberties, as they should, but it’s all in the service of providing the safest, most palatable version of this legend as possible. All of the sense of wonder and joy has been sucked out. Poor Dumbo himself has been cast aside as a supporting character IN HIS OWN MOVIE, in favor of a cast of talented actors who couldn’t have appeared more bored. Again, as I mentioned in my Jungle Book review, I don’t like to bad-mouth child actors. I think it’s tacky. But holy shit these two kids, who are supposed to be the heart and soul of this movie, are so glaringly bad and cringe-worthy that it’s impossible to care at all. Of all the Disney remakes, this has been the most heart-breaking in its crushing disappointment. Just kidding, I don’t feel things anymore.
Oh boy. After months of pretty worrisome online buzz, Aladdin blazed its way into theaters offering the dizzying candy-colored spectacle we’d kinda been yearning for. Of all the Disney classics, Aladdin is a movie I enjoyed immensely as a child but found sort of dated and uninteresting now, despite an iconic Robin Williams performance. Guy Ritchie’s take smooths out some of the dated aspects of the story and while it doesn’t reach the euphoric highs of certain moments in the original, it is still a fanciful and lavish tale, told with high energy, charm and wit. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are perfectly cast as Aladdin and Jasmine, Scott especially delivering the kind of ready-for-my-fuckin-close-up performance that makes you realize you’re watching a star in the making. The movie itself is the kind of gee-whiz adventure romance that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore. Although I still contend that Tarsem Singh would have been a fantastic choice to direct a live action Aladdin, I have to say, Ritchie knocked it out of the park.
The Lion King (2019)
I had some good things to say about Jon Favreau only paragraphs ago, but like all things in life and on this blog, balance is critical. Unless you’re asking me to bad mouth a Jordan Peele film – he HAS the range. ANYWAY, Favreau has returned to the Disney remake machine with THE MOST BELOVED FILM IN THE ENTIRE GOD DAMN UNIVERSE: THE LION KING. Not to be that guy, but my childhood self wasn’t obsessed with Lion King like most other millennials. I’ve always liked the movie and even appreciate it more as an adult who understands things like scene composition and visual storytelling. Actually, my most-watched Disney movie as a child was The Little Mermaid, to this day my favorite of the 80s/90s renaissance animations – and also the anecdote my mother brought up during my coming out to express that she already knew – but that’s neither here nor there.
Favreau’s Lion King is a “colossal miscalculation”, a phrase I once remember Roger Ebert using in his review of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. I think the phrase applies here. The near photo-realistic CGI of Favreau’s The Jungle Book is taken to its ultimate extremes here, with animals and locations so lifelike you probably wouldn’t even realize you were looking at animation unless you already knew. The artistry and technical craft on display is so impressive that the movie deserves awards for all the animators, production designers and sound editors who achieved this. It all makes for a great visual effects reel. As a movie, it’s a total bust.
The dialogue, the songs, the overall material just does not fit with the photo-real aesthetic. The animals cannot physically show emotion beyond the body language the animators mimic from reality, and that’s just not as expressive as human emotions. Drama lives in the face. You can dub the sound of an actor screaming, “Dad! Nooo!” onto a “real” lion’s face, but the lack of physical expression will never make the added dialogue register. And that’s the problem with 2019’s The Lion King. It plays every note, every beat of the original (it’s basically a shot-by-shot remake) but none of the music (told you). The voice performances by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa deliver as much energy as they can while the rest of the movie codes itself into existence, scene by scene, strand by strand, like a 3D printer building a shiny, crappy replica of your favorite childhood toy.
The movie will make a billion dollars almost exclusively off of our society’s collective nostalgia for not just the 90s Disney classics, but for a time when the world wasn’t shit (or when we weren’t just ignorant about it), and that… is what it is, I suppose. The Lion King is immaculate as a visual effects display but a total slog as a piece of cinematic entertainment.