The Lion King (2019)

2019 #103
Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Lion King

The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ‘90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real. CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

Be prepared for disappointment

Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

The box office king

This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

3 out of 5

The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

The Jungle Book (2016)

2018 #40
Jon Favreau | 106 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.78:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

The Jungle Book

One of the successes that has convinced Disney to remake basically their entire animated back catalogue in live-action, Jon Favreau’s take on Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories barely counts as “live-action” really: the vast majority of it is animated — often the only real bits are Mowgli and some (but by no means all) of the props and scenery he interacts with — but it’s done to be photo-real and so we pretend that’s live-action.

Whatever you want to call it, the visuals are stunning. It’s incredible stuff by the animators, though also by Favreau and DP Bill Pope to make all that hard work look great as a film too — they put special effort into making sure the CGI was properly lit, etc. And I reckon it’s even better in 3D. Presented in a screen-filling 1.78:1 ratio, unconstrained by the black bars of your nowadays-standard 2.35:1, it honestly feels like a window into another world. You sometimes see reviews of good 3D that say “you feel like you could reach out and touch it”, which I’ve always taken as A Thing People Say rather than an actual inclination, but at one point I did feel like I wanted to reach out and stroke Baloo’s fur, he looked so soft. The end credit sequence (a kind of pop-up book routine) looks particularly great in 3D, which helps to sell the miniaturised dimensions.

Bear necessities

Anyway, the film itself. Disney’s Jungle Book is such a well-known childhood classic that I don’t imagine you need me to recap its plot, though this version doesn’t ape it one-for-one. When Favreau was first brought on board the story treatment Disney had in development was much closer to Kipling’s work, including none of the changes Disney made when they adapted it before (i.e. adding songs and the character of King Louie), as well as being more violent, aimed at a PG-13 rating. So it was Favreau who decided it should be closer to the Disney classic, aiming to find the sweet spot between the two styles. I think he’s nailed that, mixing in enough that’s familiar from the animation with a bit more seriousness derived from Kipling.

That said, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the use of the songs. The rendition of Bare Necessities is disappointingly truncated, though at least fits in context. Conversely, King Louie’s song, I Wan’na Be Like You, is so out of place that I found the sequence kind of uncomfortable. Weirdly, its reprise at the start of the end credits is great. There it’s followed by Trust In Me, which isn’t included in the film proper but might actually have worked there.

I wanna be like you-oo-oo

Still, the film as a whole functions well; surprisingly well, one might even say. You may remember the Rotten Tomatoes score for it went crazy when it came out, hiding the high 90s — it ended up at 95%. And it’s the perfect example of why Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t score a film’s quality, but does score the chance that you’ll enjoy a film. I’m not sure many people would think this is a “9.5 out of 10” kind of film, but one there’s a 95% chance you’ll think is good? Yeah.

4 out of 5

The Jungle Book is available on Netflix UK from today.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

2011 #56
Jon Favreau | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13

With Thor out a couple of weeks ago and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 just hitting cinemas, 2011’s blockbuster season is well and truly underway. While you all head out to the cinema and enjoy this year’s delights (or disasters), I intend to do some catching up on the tonne of stuff I’ve missed from the last year or two (or three, or more).

Starting, naturally, here…

Iron Man 2I’ve always contended that the first Iron Man film was overrated. That’s not to say it was a bad film — I gave it four stars and, having re-watched recently, I liked it even more — but I think it took critics and audiences by surprise and that led to a level of praise from both sets that was unduly high. It’s not unreasonable: who would’ve expected anything special from the movie adaptation of a B-list superhero, helmed by a low-recognition director, starring a one-time leading man just about on his comeback? When it turned out to be both fun and funny, I think people overreacted. I saw it later, after hearing all that praise, so I think (without wishing to sound immodest) my view was slightly more tempered.

It’s for similar reasons I think Iron Man 2 has been underrated — I would contend that it is, more or less, as good as the first film. That didn’t seem to be the consensus at the time of release, which ranged from mediocre to rubbish. I don’t agree at all — and, again, I think this is in part due to viewers’ expectations. When one thinks a first film is better than it is, expectations for the sequel are heightened; when said sequel is only as good as the first film really was, it looks a lot worse by comparison — it fails to reach the audience’s over-raised expectations.

That’s my take, anyway. This being a review, I shall now offer more thoughts on why I think it’s a good action-adventure flick.

Techy techFor starters, it relies on the story rather than the action. There are certainly some good sequences of the latter (more about those later), but there’s also a lot of story in between them — it’s not wall-to-wall explosions and punch-ups. Neither was the first, if you remember, and so it fits in that respect. It’s helped along by the ending of the first film, in which Tony Stark revealed he was Iron Man. That’s not something you do in superhero movies, which immediately lends this one a few new plot devices to play around with. Considering the burgeoning critical assessment that all superhero movies ever only tell the same two or three stories (an argument I think has a lot of validity), it’s nice to see anything to challenge the norm.

So does the reliance on technology. Yes, Batman uses kit rather than powers gifted via supernatural or ‘scientific’ means, but even Christopher Nolan’s real-world version of that character takes the tech as read and gets on with some moral-based superhero antics. Iron Man does less of the hero stuff (see again: fewer action sequences; also, Stark’s self-centred character) and indulges a little more in arms-race tech-development, a very plausible side effect of this superset being unveiled to the world. The development of the technology is as much part of this story as the genre-typical mental anguish of the hero(es) and/or villain(s), which, again, makes it a little different.

This time, Iron Man faces two enemies. A recipe for disaster, some would say — look at Batman & Robin or Spider-Man 3. That conveniently ignores Batman Returns or The Dark Knight though, doesn’t it. Here it works because they’re two notably different characters and they complement each other — Villainous Vankoit’s the Penguin and whover-Christopher-Walken’s-character-was rather than Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy, if you will. They play to different sides of the hero: one is fighting Stark, one Iron Man (though there is naturally crossover); though they’re both intelligent, one functions as the brains and the other as the brawn. Mickey Rourke may go slightly underused, but it’s also part of the character, a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent hulk partnered with Sam Rockwell’s jabbering wannabe-Stark.

Turning to the action sequences, I think they’re better all round than the first film’s efforts. Iron Man comes up against things that are his match, rather than just the occasional virtually-unopposed rescue of a third-world village or what have you. The climax is certainly better than that in the original. Iron Man 1‘s climax was a brief encounter lacking punch, literally; here we have a more advanced villain with some variety in his weapons — it makes for a more visually interesting affair. Both films have been criticised for being just robot-on-robot fights, the same fault that riddled Transformers. I disagree. In Transformers you couldn’t tell who was who; in both Iron Mans, you can — that’s kinda important. Sure, a non-robot-suited villain would make even more of a change, but I don’t think it hampers this finale too much.

I also wonder if some negative reaction stemmed from being shown too much in the trailers. I distinctly remember how underwhelming I found Wanted at the cinema because I felt like I’d seen it all; watched again later on Blu-ray, I enjoyed it a lot more. With Iron Man 2 I’m obviously distanced from trailers by a good year or so, and though one of their best moments is missing from the final cut, and the suitcase-suit is unavoidably spoilt by being so thoroughly screened during the promotion, watching now doesn’t have all the trailer-generated expectation to live up to. That famous Onion spoof about the first film’s trailer is, perhaps, even more applicable to the sequel.

Despite that cut I mentioned (the whole little sequence where Pepper throws Iron Man’s helmet out of the plane, for the interested; which, actually, would make a nice counterpoint to one of the final scenes — maybe that cut is a fail after all), other nice moments abound — Rhodey’s opening line, for instance, which acknowledges the change in cast member without harping on about it. Admittedly, however, there’s no comic highlight quite as memorable as the best bits from the first film, though I did laugh out loud plenty often throughout (when I was meant to, I hasten to add).

The greatest negative reaction, however, seemed to be reserved for one subplot: some called the film little more than a two-hour trailer for The Avengers. That’s unfair. Furious FuryAside from one unnecessary scene featuring Captain America’s shield and Agent Coulson leaving for New Mexico, and the fact that the film assumes everyone will know who Nick Fury is despite him being introduced fleetingly after the credits of the last film, the whole S.H.I.E.L.D./Avengers Initiative thing is worked into the plot well. If we didn’t know it was the beginning of the build-up to The Avengers, I think it would have sat much better with viewers. Even if it does end up blatantly laying the foundation for further stories, that’s hardly uncommon in franchise films of all kinds these days — at least we know this series will definitely pay it off, unlike so many franchise-wannabes that don’t make it past their first film. Plus, the film’s primary plot has its own villains and comes complete with a resolution; Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. and co are a subplot that feed other subplots.

Naturally the film isn’t perfect — it’s a bit slow in the middle and some bits could stand to be chopped — but overall I think it stands up much better than the critical and audience consensus implied. While watching I kept waiting for it to turn sour; to suddenly see what everyone had moaned about. Halfway through the screen fades to black, then fades back up to introduce Nick Fury — “oh, here we go,” I thought, “everyone moaned about the Avengers stuff; this must be where the whole film goes south; and handily marked by that fade too” — but no, I kept on enjoying it. The clock kept ticking, it kept not getting bad.

I enjoyed Iron Man 2 more or less as much as I enjoyed Iron Man, and that’s rather a lot.

4 out of 5

Iron Man 2 begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 26th May.