Onward

Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney/Pixar’s Onward introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to bring back their deceased father for one day.

Onward is everything viewers will hope it’ll be with an original and exciting premise supported by mature and heartfelt themes. The movie does an excellent job at world-building and atmosphere; this suburban version of Lord of the Rings is brought to life with so much creativity and we get to see plenty of corners in this new, fascinating world. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s roles fit like a glove — their already known personalities wonderfully amplify the characters that felt like they could’ve been written just for these specific performers. The fact that Holland and Pratt have already shared the screen before in Avengers: Infinity War just makes it even more entertaining, but it’s also the writing for Ian and Barley that makes their brotherhood the anchor of the film. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also great their badass mom, but Octavia Spencer is a standout as the Manticore — a mystical beast who now runs a restaurant and misses the glory days of magic, fighting, and flight. Not only is the character brilliant but Spencer makes the role of a “scary on the outside, soft on the inside” character feel fun and fresh.

Onward is the kind of film where the quality increases as the runtime progresses — the objective is creative and every obstacle, physical or emotional, is exciting to watch and our heroes’ quest never feels dull. Not to mention the plot is more mature than most family-aimed films — even for a Pixar movie. When it comes to down to the true emotion of the film, it lands at all the right moments and manages to craft a realistic representation of sibling-hood and family, even if the main characters happen to be elves. The film is very much mystical yet its roots lies in the real world — it’s based on director Dan Scanlon’s real-life experiences as he lost his father at a young age, meaning it may especially reach viewers who have lost a parent. In my case, this movie did get me emotional but for a much different reason — as an older brother, watching Barley play older brother/mentor to Ian made me reflect on my own experiences with brotherhood (in only positive ways, don’t worry). This is the power of family films — to tell stories about family. While I felt Frozen 2 was lacking of that sort of merit, this proves that may have only been a one-time miss for Disney, and while Onward might not be able to reach Nemo or WALL-E levels of classic — and maybe not better than some of their recent hits like Inside Out and Coco — I can say it’s as great as I was wishing it would be, and certainly has potential to hold up among the rest of Pixar’s library, but only time can tell. Pixar has held a special place in my heart for a reason, and Onward once again proves their strengths in delivering stories that audiences can cherish and grow up with, regardless of age.

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Frozen 2

Elsa sets out to discover the origin of her powers and save Arendelle, with the help of her sister Anna, as well as Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven.

The first Frozen was a phenomenon when it was released six years ago; audiences loved it because of the inspirational and empowering story about sisterhood, family, and independence. Unfortunately, I can’t quite tell you what the second film is really about, even days after I’ve seen it. Frozen 2 has no stakes, resonant themes, memorable songs, or character changes throughout the story. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel are still impressive and the connection between Anna and Elsa is strong, but although they take up the most screen-time, the film in its core isn’t really about them — more so about their deceased parents and some ancient war they took part in. The forest storyline also gets very complicated and uninteresting with a completely wasted performance from Sterling K. Brown. At least Evan Rachel Wood’s voice is a standout in the opening scene. The animation also isn’t as resonant as it was in the first film or Zootopia, Moana, and all of Disney’s most recent animated works. The plot feels very inconsequential and most the characters barely have an arc, so there aren’t any inspiring messages that shine through. There’s also a plot twist that anyone who has seen a single Disney film can see coming. I normally go to animated films in the theaters because I want a film that appeals equally to all generations. Yet unfortunately, this has none of the depth or intelligence the first film had, and is strictly for the pleasure of youngsters. I didn’t even laugh more than once.

Frozen 2 could’ve been a meaningful sequel, but rather it feels more like the unnecessary direct-to-DVD sequels like Aladdin: The Return of Jafar and Mulan II, films I like to pretend never existed because of their disposable and impossible-to-remember-plots. Good cast and animation can’t make up for a muddled story without much reward for the 6-year wait.

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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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Aladdin (2019)

A modern rendition of the beloved story of a thief who meets a beautiful young princess, finds a lamp and befriends a Genie, and must fight against the evil royal advisor Jafar.

There is no real reason as to why Disney’s new wave of live-action remakes is needed, other than for the studio to gather more money, but some have even shown potential and paid off like The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast. We’ve also recently gotten Dumbo and will soon have a CGI Lion King. However, Aladdin was the one I was most skeptical about because of how close to my heart the original was and how many times I’ve viewed it. There’s so many aspects that can’t be changed or replaced, especially not Robin Williams’ Genie. This live-action rendition finds some highs and lows but ultimately never justifies its existence, but then again, I wasn’t really expecting it to. Aladdin plays it mostly by the books but even when it tries to reinvent itself, it often fails. The musical numbers don’t have much energy into them with weary long takes that don’t feel engaging, and attempts to “modernize” some of the songs with the addition of a drum backdrop was not a good call. We didn’t ask it to beat the original, but we certainly didn’t ask for an autotuned Will Smith singing “Arabian Nights” or a credits version of “Friend Like Me” that includes DJ Khaled. I know, I don’t believe it either. The cast finds some faults to but also brings the film its greatest strengths. Mena Massoud feels like the perfect embodiment of how a live-action Aladdin should look and sound. Naomi Scott is fantastic as Jasmine, who not only has a powerful arc as she seeks to bring Agrabah the true leadership it deserves and speak out against those who silence her and say she is better “seen than heard”, but the actress also has a gorgeous look and singing voice that make her one of the best parts of the film. Will Smith is also one of the most entertaining parts as the Genie. Does he live up to the performance of the role by Robin Williams? No, nobody ever can and it’s too much to ask from someone to do so. However, Smith still captures the fun spirit the Genie has and embraces every moment he has on screen, even though the horrid CGI on his blue form takes some getting used to. My main problem with the cast is definitely Jafar. Growing up, Jafar was one of my favorite Disney villains because of his menacing and thundering presence and how intimidating he felt. Jafar’s execution in this remake is rather weak and annoying, with his monotonous delivery making him feel extremely generic and unlikable. Other great actors cast in the film are Nasim Pedrad, Navid Neghaban, and Billy Magnussen, but they all have to do weird voices throughout the whole film. Pedrad’s new character is a highlight but her unnecessary “elegant” accent slightly bothered me, Neghaban was a good choice for the Sultan by doesn’t have the hilarity and over-the-top personality the Sultan is known for having, and Magnussen had no reason to be in the film and his terrible German accent makes you dislike his new and unnecessary character — he was definitely better off doing other projects.

Aladdin’s real main selling point is nostalgia, as for all of these remakes. Kids will find themselves bopping their heads to tunes like “Friend Like Me” or being enamored by the beloved anthem “A Whole New World”, but when this classic animated adventure was converted to the live-action treatment, it feels like a lot of the wonder was lost. Aladdin and Jasmine’s chemistry, is still there, as well as the friendship between the Genie and the titular character, but what feels loss is the character’s iconic journey from a street thief who steals for himself but also just cares for the other poor people around him, to a selfless, courageous hero who will fight for his love and the kingdom. His arc just doesn’t feel as effective and the movie doesn’t leave us thinking about the films’ themes and emotions like the original did for me all those years. It’s not like all animated stories can perfectly stay effective in all mediums, but Aladdin does definitely suffer from being too close but also changing too much of the wrong things. However, one thing that does land is the humor. There are some fun humorous moments that I did not expect, especially a scene involving a dance. There’s definitely some pacing issues that this remake faces, though. Since the original is 90 minutes but this remake is 130, there feels like a lot of unnecessary filler added to the third act which just makes it tiring and it drags on and doesn’t find much of a point until the climax. The visual look isn’t very impressive either. The cinematography looks so bland, sometimes almost as if someone went to the desert and started shooting on their iPhone. But even the production design isn’t very convincing and it all clearly looks shot on a film set. The movie also fails to capture the vastness of Agrabah that was so intriguing in the first film. Here, everything feels a lot smaller and less striking to the eye, as well as poor CGI for the Genie as well as a few action sequences which aren’t enticing at all. There’s even a character in the final battle who looks like all the DC Extended Universe villains combined, and believe me, that’s not a good thing. Making Iago look like a real parrot takes away all the humorous and cartoonish feel that’s made him a classic role, same with Raja, who’s just a tiger rather than a trusty sidekick for Jasmine. Guy Ritchie’s new Aladdin doesn’t necessarily ruin the film that inspired it, but it certainly doesn’t honor the beauty of the glamour and the story that’s taken us all by awe like something like, say, the new Broadway musical adaptation.

Aladdin clearly didn’t need to be made, but kids will still enjoy a remake that’s, not really different from the original and in the end is just an inferior rendition of a magnificent gem that came before. Despite some entertaining moments but mostly frustrating changes and updates, there isn’t too much to take away except lovable songs you already know, and a strong, fresher arc for Jasmine as well as a standout delivery from Will Smith.

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Mary Poppins Returns

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Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Mary Poppins Returns maintains a similar formula for a new generation, but some of what it maintains from the first film works and doesn’t work for a modern film. First off, Emily Blunt is fantastic in the titular role. I wasn’t sure if any actress could maintain that same spirit and charm Julie Andrews brought to the character 50 years ago, but Blunt did it perfectly and follows large footsteps yet makes the role feel like her own. Lin-Manuel Miranda was also well-cast in a role clearly meant as an homage to that of Bert (played by Dick van Dyke, who actually cameos here in his other role from the original as the banker), and the two leads get plenty of time to show off their singing skills that we’ve already known of. Also entertaining in her minor role is Meryl Streep who cameos in a comedic and funny scene as Mary Poppins’ eccentric cousin. However, a lot of what this movie goes for just feels inferior to the first film, like traditionally animated scenes and unconvincing visual effects that don’t really fit for a 2018 movie when animation has advanced so far, even in the last couple years alone. It felt like something new and groundbreaking in the ’60s but here it does not feel realistic or refreshing. The musical numbers are also forgettable in comparison, and don’t have that sing-along quality that classics like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” have, which are probably the first things that come into your head when you think of Mary Poppins. However, I did love the musical number called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” which was not only memorable but it also payed tribute to “Step in Time”, my favorite part from the original movie. There are also times when these songs go on for too long and forget to come back to the plot, but the musical score is definitely great and carries the film very s strongly. However, another gripe is that the child characters are at times annoying, like a character named Georgie who continuously makes frustratingly dim-witted decisions and messes everything up for the other kids. Though the climax is definitely entertaining and has some heartfelt conclusions to the character arcs and is a fun race against time, the first half especially feels painfully mediocre and feels very much like a kids/family movie, unlike other recent family films like How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which have merit that adults can connect to just as much as kids. The movie at times relies heavily on nostalgia, which sometimes works but at other times doesn’t feel necessary. The original Mary Poppins stuck with us for so long because it used the ability of imagination and the impossible to help the characters find the beauty in life — this movie does the exact same thing, in the exact same way, so if you’ve seen the first one you won’t be as impressed. The best you’ll get out of many parts is that Disney really knows who to hire to design their costumes and sets. It’s really only in the last 30 minutes that the film really redeems itself and meets its goal. Kids will definitely enjoy the concepts and musical numbers, but there isn’t too many new things for adults to discover about Mary Poppins Returns that wasn’t already established by the terrific classic that is Mary Poppins.

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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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