Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

Disney's recent foray into live-actionizing many of their classic animated films has had spotty results; 2010's Alice in Wonderland was a re-tooling that strayed too far from the original film, 2014's Maleficent de-fanged one of cinema's most memorable villains, and 2015's Cinderella was just fine, but not particularly memorable.  So although it doesn't have much to live up to, The Jungle Book is undoubtedly the best of this sub-sub-genre.  It honors the original, but adjusts the plot to be less episodic and more story-driven.  To call this a "live-action" film feels a bit misleading; every single shot features computer animation, with Neel Sethi acting as the sole on-screen star of the entire movie.  This would normally be a criticism, but oddly enough, it works; the decision to fully commit to fantasy helps make the film feel cohesive, and the world that the filmmakers create (while cherry-picking bits from Rudyard Kipling's book) is engaging and well-realized.

Somewhere in the jungles of India, a young boy named Mowgli (Sethi) lives among the animals and tries to fit in with them.  Raised by wolves, Mowgli is dubbed a "man cub," and despite his tendency to do things differently from the other animals (making tools), he never considers leaving the jungle and living among other humans.  When the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) gets word of a human living in the jungle, he seeks to kill Mowgli before he can grow into a dangerous man capable of controlling the "red flower," which is fire.  The wolves decide that it's best for Mowgli to leave the jungle, despite resistance from Mowgli's adopted wolf mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o).  Led by the black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsly), Mowgli reluctantly begins the journey to the "man village," but the two are attacked by Shere Khan and separated.  On his own, Mowgli runs into other beasts throughout the jungle, including the giant, creepy snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the giant, creepy ape King Louie (Christopher Walken), and the lovable oaf of a bear, Baloo (Bill Murray).

The Jungle Book is certainly better than expected.  Mowgli as a character works a bit better than the Mowgli from the 60s version by sheer virtue of not being annoying or whiny, which he easily could have been.  This is down to Sethi's naturalistic and laid back performance, something that could easily have been lost in all the CGI shuffle.  Although, he does lack a bit when it comes to reacting to scary or dangerous things (because, let's face it, he doesn't have anything to react to on the soundstage).  Giant Ape about to kill him?  Whatever.  Another thing he has up on the old school Mowgli is his active role in the story; there's not a lot of moping around waiting for the next episode of his life.  He has goals and makes his own decisions, and is a stronger character for it.  This affects the ending, and while I won't spoil anything here, I will say that it changes the entire message of the movie.  Whether that's for better or worse I really can't say.

Vocal performances are top notch; Murray, Kingsley, Walken and Elba (oh God, especially Elba) give it their all and breathe a lot of personality and life into their characters.  But what really brings them to life is the stunningly detailed CG animation, and love it or hate it, it opens up all kinds of doors for the filmmakers.  There's not limit to how the characters can interact, no uncanny valley of mixing live-action backgrounds with the computer effects... the look is uniform and created with so much care that it's easy to forget that what you're watching isn't real most of the time.  I don't think I've quite felt that way about a movie since Avatar.  It would have been so easy for the world to feel sterile and glossy, but the constant grime, bugs, and photorealistic surfaces give the world enough edge to be believable.  I doubt we'll see a movie with better visual effects in 2016.

The climax is exciting and more tense than I was expecting.  I think this comes down to the fact that Mowgli is allowed to be dirty, bruised up, bleed a little.  That helps the danger feel real and give it more edge than a standard Disney movie.  Characters die and stay dead.  Shere Khan is a legitimate threat, with a sinister look and, as I previously mentioned, a wonderful performance from Kingsley.  The character designs for the rest of the character are hit and miss in my opinion; Mowgli looks great, as do Bagheera and Baloo.  But King Louie is ridiculously huge, practically King Kong-sized, and he looks too much like Christopher Walken for me to take him seriously.  It doesn't help that he sings a bit of "Wanna be like You" in an awkward manner that feels totally out of synch with the rest of the movie.  What's odder is that the usage of "Bear Necessities" is really good; it's charmingly unpolished and totally natural.  The score is lovely as well, often homaging the original to great effect (something I think the Cinderella should have done).

So while not exactly an instant classic, the new Jungle Book is a nice surprise.  It's well written, improving some of the story problems of the original, while being visually stunning.  I will always endorse practical effects over CGI, but there are times like this where I just have to sit back and enjoy what beautiful things the tool can create.  The movie leaves itself open for a sequel, and honestly, bring it on.  Director John Favreau clearly has a lot of love for the source material (he told me so in a clip before the film started), and I'd love to see where he could take the characters and continue their adventures.  And now that it's been done to death, maybe even adopt other stories in Kipling's book.  You know there are more than just Mowgli's story, right Hollywood?


Friday, April 15, 2016


Let's get one thing straight: I freakin' love Disney.  Specifically, Disney animation (a major part of my childhood and millions of other '90s kids) has such a fascinating history and important place in pop culture, and its impact on the medium is unprecedented.  How many animation breakthroughs weren't in some way pioneered by Disney or under Disney's inspiration?  Despite a rollercoaster of quality over the past decade, the studio has produced a number of real gems as of late (John Lasseter's influence on the studio undoubtedly driving that).  The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 are all good-to-great movies that have cemented Disney's place in the feature animation industry and have proven that the studio's pretty much gotten its mojo back.  So how does their newest film, Zootopia, hold up?  Previews made it extremely hard to tell, most of the them focusing on a sloth joke that was funny, but told us next to nothing about how the story.  And honestly, thank God for that, because Zootopia is a movie that should be viewed with as little beforehand information as possible.  The writing is stellar, the characters are instantly lovable, and the animation is as good as CGI can get.  Yeah, that's a double-edged compliment, but more on that later.

In a world that only consists of mammals (except humans and domestic animals of course), there are predators and there are prey.  After millions of years of evolution, the two live together in harmony, but prejudices and stereotypes still plague the likes of each.  A bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has dreamed of being a police officer ever since she was a kid, despite her parents' warnings that there has never ever been a bunny cop.  But she's not the type to give up, and after training hard and achieving her dream, she moves to Zootopia to start her new life.  In this city, animals live and work together, which gets messy at times.  When tasked with an impossible missing persons case by her chief, Bogo (Idris Elba), she has to team up with the only witness she can find, a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).  The two explore the different regions of the city, encountering both funny and scary situations while discovering a larger conspiracy.

Zootopia is absolutely fantastic.  Its characters are strong and well-developed, there's plenty of solid world-building, and the mystery plot is genuinely compelling.  If the script occasionally falls back on a cliche, it often bounces back with something creative or even turns what you thought was something generic right on its head.  What I've seen the majority of critics focus on is the extra layer of depth the film offers in terms of its social commentary, mainly on modern American racism and sexism.  But it doesn't become "Disney's after school special" at any point; it treats the audience with respect and integrates its themes seamlessly into the narrative.  Almost seamlessly, anyway.  In fact, there are probably one too many lines that punch you square in the face with the subtext ("I'm not just some token bunny... It's only ok for bunnies to call each other 'cute..' "), but there are others that are pretty subtle and more thought-provoking.

This bunny and fox duo is all kinds of great.  Judy and Nick have great chemistry, and the side characters are fleshed out as well.  I like that the movie pulls the villain out from under the rug (as did Frozen), and that the motivations were justified and tied into the theme (huzzah!).   The characters have unique challenges they have to overcome that have a real-world parallel, and I like that the film doesn't simplify the problem and act like it has all the definitive answers.  The lesson here isn't that "racism is wrong," a six-year-old could tell you that.  The idea is that racism and stereotypes do exist, and it's how you deal with them that matters when they come your way.  It makes you reflect on social norms and often points at how generally fucked up they are.  But you know, fun for the whole family!

What also makes Zootopia stand out is how hilarious and gag-filled the world is while still being functional.  There are climate zones for the various animals, each more creative than the last.  There's even a detour into "Little Rodentia," a miniature-sized town for rodents.  Tracking down a missing person in this city was a genius move by screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, because it gives an excuse for Judy and Nick to explore every part of Zootopia for the benefit of the audience while feeling totally organic.  It's all brought to life using gorgeous, glossy CG animation that astounds and delights with its attention to detail, and the animal fur seems like you could reach out and touch it.  And yet... I really wish it had been done with hand-drawn animation.  I think it would have lended the movie a charm that it almost has, but there's a sterility to CG animation that just comes with the territory.  It worked perfectly for Frozen (I wouldn't trade that ice for anything), but it wasn't really needed here.

Look at what could have been! Concept art by the film's character design supervisor, Cory Loftis.

Zootopia was directed by Bryon Howard and Rich Moore, who are responsible for many of the movies in this new Disney animation revival.  Their penchant for slapstick humor is here in spurts, but the majority of the film's strength is in its dialogue and its action.  There's a level of maturity in the writing, voice acting, and referential jokes that I really appreciated.  Michael Giacchino provides the score, which is an ambitious with its mix of tribal music with jazz; it creates the perfect sound for a city populated by animals.  I don't know if it's as AMAZING as The Incredibles or Up, but it's still pretty great.

What's not pretty great is the Shakira song "Try Everything," which would be tolerable if it only played once.  But it plays twice; a bland, shallow pop song that maybe I wouldn't think twice about if this been a Dreamworks movie.  But this is Disney, and given their track record for producing some of the best made-for-the-big-screen songs, this is extremely disappointing.  Shakira also feels like a celebrity plug in a film that desperately didn't need it.  And also... Shakira?

Other than that minor gripe, I absolutely loved Zootopia.  The characters are so likeable (and even a little tragic), the story is layered and well-paced, and world is realized to its fullest extent.  There are plot twists that dance on the edge of contrived, but are damn-near genius compared to most other films geared towards kids and families.  But that's the beauty of Disney animation; it's one of the only forms of entertainment that can truly be enjoyed by anybody of any age.  Zootopia purposefully dates itself in terms of its technology and pop-culture references, but its story, characters, and themes are nothing but timeless.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

I left the theater after seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice with only one thought in my head: I can't believe I never realized that Batman and Superman's moms are both named Martha!  That's not a good sign.  The film is a joyless, CG-heavy, action film that takes two of America's greatest comic book characters and makes them... dumb.  Very dumb.  Characters in this film are not people, they are cardboard stick figures that move from place to place and spout cliche dialogue.  You thought The Dark Knight Rises had plot holes?  Well, it does... but Batman V Superman puts it to shame.  It might actually be easier to count the things that DO make sense as opposed to the things that don't.  This is the kind of event movie that should be the purest form of awesome.  I love Batman.  I love Superman. But I don't love Batman V Superman.  It felt more like Diet Watchmen.  Does it have its moments?  Sure.  But for every good aspect of this movie, there are more than a few groan-worthy ones.

Perhaps some of my greatness will rub off on you...

Eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel, the public is afraid of Superman (Henry Cavill) and the potential power he holds over the entire world.  Sure, he uses his powers to help people now, but what's to stop him from taking over the world if he wants?  This is a particular worry for Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), who bore witness to the horrible destruction and death toll of Superman's fight with General Zod (Michael Shannon) firsthand, which nearly left Metropolis a giant crater.  Meanwhile, the wealthy and powerful inheritor to LexCorp, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), seeks a way to kill Superman via the green Kryptonite found inside the remains of Zod's ship, and manipulates the already enraged Batman into doing it for him.  Meanwhile meanwhile, Luthor figures out how to create a beastly alien being out of the now deceased Zod's DNA (known in the comics as "Doomsday").  Meanwhile meanwhile meanwhile, Wonder Woman (Gal Gaddot), under the guise of Diana Prince, has been operating as a secret superhero for decades, and helps to open up Batman's eyes to other meta-humans who use their powers for good.


Besides obviously being overstuffed, that doesn't sound all that bad.  There are reasons for a Batman/Superman fight that make sense; we're dealing with consequences from the previous movie, and hey!  Justice League coming soon! Isn't that neat?  But it doesn't feel that way.  Every character is so ultra-serious, and most of their interactions are wooden as hell.  Action scenes are uneven, with the poorest using CG cartoon versions of the characters to dodge obstacles or get thrown around.  The color palette is muted, which wasn't a bad look given the tone, but it's not exactly a pretty film.   Music by the great Hans Zimmer (and by the good Junkie XL) is above average, especially the reprises of the Man of Steel theme.  Wonder Woman also has a kick-ass theme (complete with electric guitar riffs), but if Batman has a theme here, I didn't spot it.  I wouldn't have minded the use of one his classic themes, but different universe blah blah blah whatever.

Na na na na na na na Batman!

The biggest issue here is the script.  There's so much crammed into the film that was unnecessary. The story of how BATMAN meets FREAKIN' SUPERMAN should be enough to make a compelling movie on its own.  But instead we have to establish Wonder Woman, spend time with a Doomsday origin, make it work as a Man of Steel sequel, and set up future movies.  Many dream sequences are self-indulgent, and often result in Bruce Wayne doing the cliche "wake up while jerking up and yelling" thing.  That's never happened to anyone ever in real life, and I'm really sick of seeing that.  In addition, very little time is spent establishing where we are and why things are happening.  Establishing space just isn't a priority.  Some of this could be overlooked if the characters had more meat to them, more defining character traits.   No one sounds like a real person; no one makes a joke (expect for Jeremy Irons' Alfred) and no one talks about anything not plot-related.  It becomes extremely tedious and boring.

Make my monster grow.

I'm going to be talking about the ending of the movie a bit here, so skip this paragraph if you don't want to know.  The climax is very underwhelming.  Doomsday looks like a cartoon character and any semblance of martial arts in what should be a great fight between Bats and Sups is drowned out by poor editing.  We haven't spent the last two hours getting to know these two, we've spent it watching them scowl.  The reasons for the fight aren't exciting, they're contrived.  It's like... a Three's Company-level misunderstanding.  And the reason for the fight to stop?  Horribly executed.  It makes these two icons look like total idiots.  And don't even get me started on the ending, which blows its load way too early in the series on something that should be meaningful but couldn't feel more hollow.  The Super Friends show handled this better.

This is why Superman works alone.

Amy Adams is beyond wasted in this film.  She's a wonderful actress whose Lois Lane had the potential to add heart and humor to the story, but none of that is to be found.  Damsel, damsel, damsel.  There are THREE distinct situations where she only exists to be saved.  You might think, "Well she's Lois Lane! The epitome of the damsel in distress!"  Babe, it's not 1938.  Lois has been tough, smart, and plucky ever since Margot Kidder played her in 1978.  But here, she feels superfluous.   Affleck gives it his all as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but wow does this script let him down.  There seem to be so many missing pieces to his darker turn as the caped crusader, despite his having the most relatable motivations in the whole movie.  Also, if you know anything about Batman, you probably know what his one rule is.  This version of Bats doesn't seem too concerned about that rule, which left my mouth gaping on multiple occasions in shock.  Is that writer/director Zack Snyder telling the fans, "This is MY version of the character! If you don't like it, SUCK IT!"   Not surprisingly, that was my exact reaction to Superman in Man of Steel; neither "heroes" feel like the characters.   But my even my positive opinion of Harvey Cavill in the main role has taken a sharp downward turn.  No life behind his eyes the majority of the time and no passion in his voice.  Can we just watch Superman IV: The Quest for Peace? At least there, Christopher Reeve seemed to care about "THE PEOPLE!!!"

Why so se-he-he-rious?

So in all this darkness, there are bright spots.  One thing I was sure to hate was Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, and um... I kinda didn't.  He doesn't feel like Lex Luthor, and may have been conceived as an attempt to recapture the magic of Heath Ledger's Joker, but at least he injected a little life into the dullness of it all.  His scenes with Holly Hunter's character (one pretty clever setup and payoff involving Granny's Peach Tea especially) are very well done, adding much needed tension that builds to something morbidly spectacular.  It's the best scene in the movie and one of the few times I was truly invested.  And taken out of context, there are plenty of gorgeously shot moments.  Batman's backstory has been done to death, and frankly I'm getting tired of watching it, but recreated in the style of The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel here, it was very good.  There are a few action scenes featuring Batman that are really well-executed too; not surprisingly, they feature nice wide shots and continuous, unedited fight choreography.  And I know I harp on CGI, but there are moments when it's used to good effect.  But it's overused when it didn't have to be, and that's the real problem.   And while we're on a semi-positive note, I will say that the costume designs for Bats, Sups, and WW all look fantastic.  Might be my favorite on-screen looking versions of the characters.

In your satin tights! Fighting for your rights!

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is as clunky as its title, but with Man of Steel as its predecessor, it's hard to be shocked or disappointed.  If this had been the follow-up to Christopher Nolan's trilogy, this would be all kinds of catastrophic.  But as it stands, it's just a dull mess.  This isn't Fant4stic bad (I feel safe calling this some kind of movie), and it's packed with interesting ideas.  However, none of them come into fruition or draw from the endless political ideas and emotional stories that were right there for the taking in the comics and TV shows.  Monotone, obviously incomplete, and devoid of all the things I love about Batman and Superman, this Justice League series is going down a dark (and stupid) path that I'm afraid I just can't follow.