The Lion King (2019)

Disney has been dominating the decade with Marvel, Star Wars, animation (both Pixar and their titular studio), but their series that has divided people the most is their live-action remakes of animated classics. So people were most excited but also nervous when it came to the photoreal-but-actually-still-animated remake of their defining animated feature from the 20th century, The Lion King. First off, on a visual standpoint, this movie is an achievement. It follows the same reign of The Jungle Book in recreating iconic characters and setting to look as real as possible, and it really delivers. All the animals and sets look like an actual picture, even though not a single frame was actually there. It’s amazing to see how far visuals have gone these days, and Disney has been headliner these last few years in consistently breaking the boundaries of what can be done with a computer, whether it’s the amazing action in Avengers and Star Wars films or breathtaking animation in films like Toy Story and Incredibles — but the feats of the CGI completely pay off here in making the illusion unnoticable and making it feel like a more immersive journey. The film is perfectly casted with Donald Glover shining and making something of his own out of Simba’s role here, and it helps that he’s experienced in both acting and singing. Also huge standouts are Timon and Pumbaa, who are scene-stealing and Seth Rogen’s voice espeically fit for Pumbaa. Also worth pointing out is John Oliver who is hysterical as Zazu. However, for some characters, like Scar for example, it’s sometimes hard not to make comparisons to superior versions, like Jeremy Irons who was perfect in the 1994 version. Perhaps neither he nor James Earl Jones needed recasting (the latter of which was thankfully able to return as Mufasa). Speaking of roles from the original, Rafiki’s role was unfortuantely reduced this time around so he feels like less of a mentor to Simba and barely even has dialogue.

The musical numbers are still very fun, espeically the classic “Hakuna Matata”, and the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” gag is extended and made even funnier. The shame is that they shortened the Scar’s menacing anthem “Be Prepared” to be much slower but as a result feels more like a whispered spoken word poem than a song. The Lion King is stuck in a loophole in terms of delivering for fans because people want a remake to somehow reinvent the story but at the same time poeple get angry as soon as something major is changed. Unfortuantely, some of the changes made in this remake are for the worse, and other than that, a lot of sequences in the film or a shot-for-shot copy-paste of what we’ve already seen. A lot of the dialogue is the same as well, and I just wish they had added some more story to what we already know because the fact that we recognize every scene and line so well will eventually make things boring. On the bright side, it manages to retain some of the soul that reminds us why we love the original so much (themes like confronting your past or lines from Mufasa about the truth of being a wise king). The problem is that once these characters are animated to look photorealistic, they can no longer exaggerate emotions like the original iterations do — Scar is no longer a charismatic Shakespearean character, and every character just looks like an animal talking. This movie has incredible visual technology that deserves plenty of praise for Jon Favreau, maybe next time he could have used it to make original content rather than remaking known stories, or just added a little more that we haven’t seen before to do something new with the story.

The Lion King is a visual marvel and filled with nostaliga, but it’s greatest strength and weakness is that it’s almost exactly the same as the original. If the original Lion King was so perfect, why change anything? But why do we want to see the same movie over again? That’s the problem that this new remake finds itself in which is why despite being nice to look at, the script is beat for beat the same, which is why the only way this movie can really be appreciated is in 3D and on the biggest movie screen you can find. Does it offer much new? Not really, or even at all to be honest. But in terms of recommendation for the theaters I have to say go for the visuals and for the story which still stays strong, but the emotional expressions that came through the original versions of the characters (which didn’t need to feel photoreal and therefore could be exaggerated for animals) is exactly what will make the original Lion King forever superior.

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Toy Story 4

When a new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy. Soon, Woody runs into an old friend and must rediscover his own purpose as a toy as well.

After the marvelous ending of Toy Story 3, the saga felt over. It was as if a terrific 3-part story had come to a close so perfectly and should never be touched. So it was a surprise to hear that the franchise would continue for one more film, but what was even more surprising was how well everything in Toy Story 4 delivered. Rather than feeling unnecessary, Toy Story 4 crafts an intriguing story of its own that makes it feel exciting yet still deep. Tom Hanks is always perfect as Woody. Over the last four films he’s helped bring to life such a brilliant character who first must commit to being Andy’s toy, then gets passed on to a new kid, and now he questions if his purpose as a child’s toy has already been fulfilled. Also really enjoyable are comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, as well as Keanu Reeves as the sensational Duke Kaboom. Another element of the film I loved is the score. Randy Newman has done a spectacular job of composing catchy themes that are beautiful to the ear and unifying them over four films and he lets the music grow and develop just as the story does. I’ve always loved the music in these films but here it always stands out and almost feels like a character of its own. One thing I noticed is that the film has significantly lower stakes than the last film — in the third film the toys were hold hostage in a daycare and then nearly burnt to death but here they just have to get toys out of an antique shop and get back to an RV. Thing is, this film is less about “good guy vs bad guy” or “will they make it” — instead of that kind of suspense, this movie is more about Woody’s internal dilemmas that he must resolve. Also, I feel like the animation was less impressive this time around but there are still some sequences I thought were very visually pleasing — just not as much as Inside Out, Finding Dory, Coco, Incredibles 2, or most of Pixar’s recent outings. That’s pretty underwhelming considering I found Toy Story 3 to be one of the most beautifully animated films of all time — and that’s not saying the work of hundreds of Pixar animators over five years didn’t pay off, it’s just saying that there are less eye-popping or breathtaking moments than its gorgeous predecessor. And finally, the ending was a very emotional moment that brings a 25-year arc to a close — hopefully for real this time — and reminds us why we care so much about Woody, Buzz, and the entire gang.

I thought Toy Story 4 would be very unnecessary but instead it’s a welcome follow-up and (probably) conclusion, with some deep moments that remind us why Pixar is so great at crafting stories that audiences of all ages can be equally moved by. So go watch Toy Story 4 and let Pixar take you and your family on another adventure — well, you know where this is going — to infinity, and beyond.

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

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The citizens of Bricksburg face a dangerous new threat when LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space start to wreck everything in their path. The battle to defeat the enemy and restore harmony to the LEGO universe takes Emmet, Lucy, Batman and the rest of their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds that test their courage and creativity.

Under the childlike playfulness and humor of a film based on a popular children’s toy line, there’s some heart to be found in this enjoyable and amusing sequel. Despite a concept that was ridiculous when first announced, these Lego movies have actually resonated with critics and audiences as well as at the box office. Though there’s more merit to be found in other animated franchises, the Lego film franchise remains not only a great way for the company to sell more toys, but a pleasing showcase of great cast members, colorful animation, and effective humor. Though sometimes the humor doesn’t hit its mark and feels only aimed towards kids, there’s also some jokes that only adults will get, like references to previous Batman movies (Lego Batman even compares himself to Michael Keaton and Christian Bale at one point), Die Hard, and even an appearance from a Lego version of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As outrageous as it may seem, this film, that’s literally a Lego movie, isn’t afraid to not take itself seriously at all (there’s even a song called “This Song’s Going to Get Stuck Inside Your Head” used to brainwash some characters), but that’s what makes it work. The studios hit the jackpot when they were able to cast Chris Pratt as Emmet because nobody fits the role better than him, but Pratt also plays a new role who’s a clear compilation of Pratt’s live action roles from Avengers and Jurassic World. Will Arnett as Lego Batman is once again another standout, but so are Tiffany Haddish and Stephanie Beatriz as Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi and General Sweet Mayhem, especially Haddish who sings and entertains in her over-the-top but memorable role. Though her character is at times ridiculous to look at, like I said, the film’s ability to go all out on referencing other materials and embrace the ridiculousness of it all is what makes it quite fun, and Haddish as well as every cast member make the best out of their roles (even cameo appearances like Bruce Willis and Jason Momoa who reprise their roles from Die Hard and Aquaman, respectively)

Despite the absurd concepts and non-serious premise, the film finds away to make meaning out of these plastic characters and touch the viewer’s heart by the end. though the first half is basically what you’d expect in terms of story and direction, the movie, especially the second half, connects everything to a bigger theme that applies to the real world — be yourself and let others do the same. This will make for a touching message for audiences of all ages. My one minor problem is — at the end of The Lego Batman Movie, Batman became much more open and decided not to push away those who were like family to him, but here it feels like he’s still trying to not fill that void of losing his parents — I didn’t expect them to go too deep about it, but it almost felt like they undid his development from that movie by having Batman still try to push away any personal relationships. Even though the overall story and script won’t blow you away, the humor and entertaining cast, songs, themes, and references are enough for kids and parents to have a fun time at the movies.

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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After achieving his dream of establishing Berk as a utopia where dragons and humans can live in harmony, Hiccup and his dragon best friend Toothless encounter a new threat that forces him to lead the people of Berk away from their homes, on a journey to find the mythical Hidden World.

The first two How to Train Your Dragon movies have set the bar high for DreamWorks as their greatest franchise, with emotional and visual quality that reaches near the heights set by the works of Pixar, unlike more playful animated comedies they’ve made like Madagascar or The Boss Baby. The Hidden World is a marvelous conclusion to this excellent trilogy, one that I remember watching the beginning of on the very first day it was out, nearly nine years ago. Along with lovable dragons like the absolutely adorable Toothless (who also has a girlfriend now), the voice cast kills it, including Jay Baruchel as a young man trying to bring together his love and compassion for the dragons with his duty to lead Berk as chief, as well as bigger headliners such as Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, and Gerard Butler. The one character I did not encessarily enjoy was the villain — unlike the villain from the 2nd movie, this one is rather annoying than threatening, and his motivation and presence weren’t strong enough on screen to care. The only reason to hate him is because his goal is to hurt Toothless. But otherwise, the story is packed with plenty of emotion from the main characters and sweet sequences that remind us why we love this ode to the friendship between a human and a mythical creature. There are lots of intense moments but enough heart and action for all audiences to enjoy. And to top it all, the animation is absolutely stunning and makes this a must on the big screen and in 3D. The visual appeal outdoes every past DreamWorks project and every scene, from the ordinary scenery to the vivid Hidden World, is done so beautifully. I was constantly in awe during the film, and watching this in theaters is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. There are some fantastic emotional moments that finally lead up to a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, that will hit you right in the heart and leave you talking. It’s perfect for all ages and I’d be surprised if any animated movie outdoes this one in 2019.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is not only a perfect family movie — it’s a near-perfect movie and a visual masterpiece. I’d be surprised if DreamWorks ever tops this amazing trilogy of touching and moving animated films and this consistently impressive saga will be remembered and rewatched for years. Go see it with your family in 3D when it’s out on February 22!

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Miles Morales is juggling his life between being a high school student and being Spider-Man. However, when Wilson Fisk uses a collider to open a portal to new dimensions, Peter Parker, another Spider-Man from another dimension, accidentally winds up in Miles’ dimension, joining others from across the “Spider-Verse”.

This animated version of Spider-Man is brought to life with a less popular iteration of the character, Miles Morales, and is animated to look like a comic-book with many different editions of the Spider-Man character appearing, as well as many familiar villains. Though it starts about the same as any Spider-Man story, the second half presents some unexpected and mature character moments that are touching and make the final act of the movie exciting and rewarding. There are some humorous moments throughout, and a solid voice cast, including Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Mahershala Ali. The animation is often vibrant and colorful, even though some scenes and details feel very vague and dull graphically. Even though it did make me laugh a few times, some moments do feel cringeworthy or only there for fan service. The soundtrack was also poorly chosen and the awful rap songs distract from the strong point some scenes were trying to make. Even though I enjoyed seeing villains like Doc Ock and Green Goblin appear, I don’t approve of them turning Fisk from a compelling and unpredictable human being into a heartless, soulless antagonist who doesn’t stop before making evil decisions and has no moral compass like the superior portrayal of the character in the Netflix series Daredevil. It’s clearly a kid’s film, so I don’t expect them to make him an R-rated character, but I was hoping for enough layer to stay true to what I love about the character but also fit for a PG-rated movie. I really loved Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, who I had no idea was also Spider-Woman before seeing this movie (and I’d easily watch a spin-off of her own should Sony choose to make one), and Spider-Ham is also an unexpectedly fun character. There’s also a terrific Stan Lee cameo and a touching tribute to the late legend during the credits. Even though the movie does teach kids that they can all be Spider-Man, we don’t need the line “Anyone can wear the mask” constantly repeated to understand that.

Kids and families will definitely have a good time with this new family-friendly version of the friendly neighborhood hero from New York. However, I personally felt that it’s only in the second half of the film where it really finds its heart and makes up for a predictable first half with some heartwarming moments, adding to its solid cast and characters as well as its unique style.

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Ralph Breaks the Internet

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When a Wi-Fi router is plugged into the arcade, Wreck-It Ralph and his best friend Vanellope embark on a journey into the Internet to save Vanellope’s game Sugar Rush.

Wreck-It Ralph was released in 2012 and remains one of Disney’s most impressive animated films in recent years, but do people still want to see Ralph on the big screen again six years later? Well, according to the box-office response of this newly-released sequel, adults are still taking their children and having a great time with characters like Ralph and the idea of a video game character going on a virtual journey. Thankfully, it wasn’t too late for a Wreck-It Ralph 2 and even though not everyone was sold with the product-placement-heavy idea of the Internet as a setting when it was first announced, it comes off as entertaining and expands the world of its setting and characters. With Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney adds a fun, well-animated, and at times touching family flick to their roster, even though it doesn’t reach the bar the first one set for this franchise. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman still fit very well in their main roles and even though Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun have roles demoted from the first film to very minor appearances, the new cast, especially Gal Gadot as a tough yet inspiring racer named Shank, is still impressive. The depiction of the Interent is creative and some of the references are fun, even though not all of them hit home and come off as trying too hard to feel relevant to the cringeworthy meme content of 2018. There’s a particular scene that’s been marketed in the trailers in which Vanellope goes to a Disney website where she meets Princesses, Stormtroopers, and other Marvel/Star Wars/Disney characters, and this could have easily been a simple declaration by Disney of how much they own. However, this scene turned out to be the highlight of the film, as it feels self-aware about cliches faced by the princesses and hits the mark with animation, humor, and eye-catching references. The humor will often make you laugh even though it does sometimes feel too childish, which is disappointing because usually Disney’s humor is more mature and can be enjoyed by both kids and adults, but that felt a tad less present here. The movie will touch some viewers with its profound themes of friendship — however, this arc for its lead characters only comes in around the final act, and before that it’s just a fun adventure with humor that doesn’t always achieve its goal. Lots of Disney’s films have a great message viewers of all ages can take away, and here it’s only present at the end and before that there isn’t a clear emotional arc to drive the characters. In the first film, Ralph embarked on a journey of self-discovery in which he made friends and learned that you don’t need a medal to be a villain. Here, despite the entertaining concept throughout, there isn’t that emotional core that drives the film the whole way like in the first movie. However, the animation, cast, and overall plot is pleasing enough for viewers and Disney fans to enjoy — just don’t expect it to be as meaningful and satisfying as the first one.

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The Grinch

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Christmas is arriving in Whoville, and everyone can’t wait — except for The Grinch, who despises the holiday. Together with his trusty dog Max, he sets out to steal everyone’s Christmas gifts and end the beloved holiday once and for all.

The Grinch is an adaptation of a classic Dr. Seuss story many grew up reading and knowing, which was previously adapted by Ron Howard in 2000 — so was there really a point in this movie being made? We all know how the story goes and this movie offers nothing knew that the story benefits from with another adaptation. The plot is very by-the-books and the humor is aimed for children and children only. This film is marketed as a “reimagining” but no imagination is put into the script or themes that will make audiences discover something new. Kids will have a blast with the ridiculous humor, but as one who has seen tons of animated movies, every joke was predictable and felt recycled to me. Some scenes made only to extend a short children’s story to a 90-minute feature film are so laughable it’s hard to imagine film executives sitting in a pitch room planning those scenes out for a movie. The computer animation is dull and not very exciting compared to Disney’s animated films which bring so much energy into their animation. The ultimate theme of kindness will likely appeal to young ones and teach them a lesson — one that adults have seen many times already and don’t need repeated to them. Benedict Cumberbatch was a solid choice to play the Grinch, but it feels like a missed opportunity that they chose to use his American accent instead of letting him use his natural English accent that has worked as menacing and villanous in many films before. There’s also one other entertaining voice role, played by SNL cast member Kenan Thompson, but lots of the film also focuses on a young girl named Cindy Lou, and this subplot feels like the most bloated and tough-to-sit-through part of the film until the message of it only makes sense at the very end. The book this movie is based on is called How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but the actual stealing of Christmas which is the objective of the whole film is mostly skimmed past in a montage. There are also some very weird soundtrack choices like an awful rap version of the classic hit “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the original adaptation, and other oddly placed music like a song from The Sound of Music. I enjoyed the first two Despicable Me movies, but after that it looks like Illumination has lost their originality when it comes to animated films with films like Minions, Despicable Me 3 and Sing which all felt like wastes of time and effort, retreading the same ground and offering less of a family invitation and more of a “kids drag their parents to it” kind of films to make money. It seems like Disney and Pixar are the only animation studios that still deliver new and unique family films in my eyes, and the rest have given up.

The Grinch offers no originality or justification to be watched or even made, compromising itself to please young children more than families, and covers the same kind of humor and themes that too many animated films have already taken on. You may want to your kids if they’re interested when it comes out next week, and you may even enjoy it like my sneak preview audience mostly did, but don’t expect anything insightful or fresh. We may just have to wait until Ralph Breaks the Internet for the deserving family film of the season.

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