Ice Ice Baby

Frozen II

by George Wolf

Four year-old Ruby, bouncing in her seat and making friends while sporting a sparkly tiara, is here for it.

“The fun part is watching Elsa!”

From Ruby’s lips to Mickey’s ears, because the perfectly acceptable Frozen II seems overly calculated to be just that: perfectly acceptable to anyone and everyone who’s even vaguely aware of the original from 2013.

Directors/co-writers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck are back for round two, along with songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and the starring voices from the first adventure.

This new one is set in motion by a siren song that attracts Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), calling her north to a magical forest that is holding captives – and secrets. With sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and goofy snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) close behind, Elsa sets off into the unknown to right wrongs and learn the origin of her magical powers.

“Into the Unknown,” get used to it. A soaring ballad delivered with customary power by Menzel, it’s served up not only as part 2’s “Let It Go,” but as just one of the many broadly-drawn themes the film leans on.

Don’t give up, take one step at a time and do the right thing. Nothing wrong with any of those messages, but largely thanks to Disney and Pixar, animated films of the last twenty odd years have shown us how many more layers of resonance are possible – for children and adults.

And while families – especially the younger members – will find a fine holiday time to be had, don’t expect the heights of Up, Inside Out, Zootopia, or even the original Frozen.

The songs are just a bit more bland this time, the laughs a little less frequent (although Gad does deliver some winners) and the animation not quite as rich or defined.

From start to finish, FII‘s journey seems interested only in the path of least resistance toward more of that Elsa/Anna feeling. And by that measure, it certainly succeeds.

“See you at the next Frozen! Are you gonna be here?”

Count on it, Ruby. Save me a seat.

Killer Queen

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

by Hope Madden

I’m not going to lie to you, I hated Maleficent. Not because it was a mediocre CGI mess, although it certainly was that. I hated that film because Disney turned one of its absolutely most magnificent villains—one of cinema’s most magnificent villains—into a heartbroken, misunderstood victim.

Screw that.

But five years after Maleficent’s (Angelina Jolie) maternal love saves Aurora (Elle Fanning) and several kingdoms in the process, humans are back to whispering evil stories about the guardian of the Moors. Meanwhile, Aurora and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) have decided to marry.

That first family dinner doesn’t go super well.

Stuffed to the antlers with sidetracks and subplots, characters and ideas, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil shows you everything and articulates nothing.

Flashes of social commentary stand out. In the name of greed, evil leadership whips up fear amongst the population to justify racism, jingoism, colonialism and even genocide.

Despite Maleficent’s fangs, the fact that the film clearly leans toward giving the colonizers one more chance as opposed to siding with indigenous rebellion renders the film biteless.

But who could resist Chiwetel Ejiofor? He calls for peace and languishes in some kind of Disney side character purgatory as wizened and wearied Conall, one of the winged Fey who look to Maleficent to lead their kind.

Dear Hollywood: please give Chiwetel Ejiofor better parts in better movies.

Ejiofor is hardly the only talent wasted in this slog. Littered amid the carnage of so, so many side plots are Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, again bothersome at best as three pixies. Sam Riley and Ed Skrein are allowed to smirk and grunt, respectively. Only Jenn Murray stands out, weirdly sadistic playing the queen’s very small enforcer.

Even Fanning once again comes up lame, asked only to beam and blush, though Dickinson has it worse. Be quietly noble, his direction seems to insist. Noble, but never rude.

The film should be Jolie’s show, but she does little more than pose. Robbed of her imposing wickedness by the end of the first movie, she now just seems bored and is more often than not upstaged by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith.

Ingrith is written with no more depth than any of the other few dozen speaking characters to grace the screen in this overpopulated mess, but it’s always fun to see Pfeiffer chew scenery up and spit it out.

Director Joachim Ronning shows moments of visual inspiration, splashing color across the screen one moment, forbiddingly grim grey tones the next, but the little magical creatures rarely suggest the CGI budget was spent very wisely.

What was the point again?

Oh, right. Maleficent made $758 million.

Carpet Ride Seeks Magic

Aladdin

by George Wolf

Stepping in for Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin was always going to be a thankless task, but while everyone was busy debating the casting of Will Smith, the director’s chair went largely unnoticed.

Could Guy Ritchie, who’s evolved from rough and tumble British crime capers (Snatch) to both big budget hits (Sherlock Holmes) and disasters (King Arthur), capture the magic of Disney’s best live action remakes?

Well, how many wishes does he have left?

The tale of “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) using the Genie (Smith) to get him next to Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) ends up feeling too stiff and self-conscious to ever let some real wonder out of the bottle.

The story arc has been altered slightly, leading to an earlier meeting between Aladdin and the Princess, and a relationship where the stakes don’t feel as high or the changes of heart as well-earned.

Reaction shots and choppy dialog (from Ritchie and co-writer John August) carrying an overly staged, exaggerated odor, while the Genie is plagued less by casting than by the less-than-cutting edge CGI.

Re-imagining the Genie character would have been a risky (but ambitious) move, and though Smith won’t make anyone forget Williams, he is hardly the big problem here. His charm is abundant and a valuable asset for the film, especially when the Genie takes human form.

His singing voice, though, is not strong. And strangely, neither is
Massoud’s, compounding the weaknesses in Ritchie’s bland vision for the musical numbers.

The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are still stellar, but the repeated addition of a new girl power anthem for Jasmine (“Speechless) ranks as forgettable bait for an Original Song Oscar nod.

And while I’m ranting, maybe we could have an extra thirty second buffer to decompress before the ubiquitous cry of “DJ Khaled!” signals an oncoming pop mix for the closing credits?

Even the best directors have struggled with musicals (Attenborough’s misguided A Chorus Line and Eastwood’s limp Jersey Boys jump to mind), and though Aladdin didn’t originate on the stage, the music sequences demand a pizzazz that Ritchie is helpless to present.

He seems much more comfortable with film’s darker edges, and an intensely slimy turn from Marwan Kenzari as Jafar helps the villain’s quest for absolute power find some needed gravitas.

Look, the film still offers some perfectly fine moments of overly manufactured family entertainment that will make many parents nostalgic for the original. But after the live-action heights hit by The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, this Aladdin is a carpet ride missing much of its magic.

Polar Pop

Penguins

by George Wolf

Temperatures have finally started warming up.

So why would we take a trip to the coldest, windiest place on Earth, where there ain’t no sunshine for half the year?

Because Antarctica is where the Penguins are, and they’re the focus of Disneynature’s latest Earth Day doc for the family!

You might know the drill by now. Expect incredible nature footage, an approach geared more toward accessibility than science, with some easygoing humor and gentle reminders about the harshness of predators and prey.

Ed Helms narrates this adventure, starring an Adelie penguin we’ll call Steve, who’s finally ready for his first mating season as a single-and-ready-to-mingle adult male.

On his long trek to the hookup point Steve passes through a tribe of his Emperor cousins, which reminds us that 1) this is like March of the Penguins, except different, and 2) Steve is a bit of a laggie.

But he catches up to the rest of the migrators, and after impressing a young coldie known as Adelene, Steve finds a mate and a new family. Together, Steve and Adelene must keep their chicks safe until they’re able to fend for themselves in the open sea.

The writing for this installment is less forced, with many of Helms’s asides for Steve (“She smells great! I gotta start working out…”) drawing chuckles without the added weight of manipulation that has hampered previous Earth Day episodes.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson (both Disneynature vets) hit all the right benchmarks in their 76 minutes: a penguin adventure that will delight the kids told through often breathtaking footage plus, for the adults, nostalgic odes to parenting and classic hits (Whitesnake! REO!).

And, per usual, stay through the credits for some nifty peeks behind the icy curtain.





Elephant Ears

Dumbo

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There was something so terrifyingly perfect in the idea of Tim Burton reimagining Disney’s 1941 circus tearjerker Dumbo. If anyone could rediscover, perhaps even amplify the grotesque tragedy lurking at the heart of this outsider sideshow, it should be Burton.

He seems at home with the material.

Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is basically Dumbo: an innocent misfit, safe only with the one who birthed him, tragically loses that protector and must face a cold, ugly and abusive world that accepts him only because of what it can gain from the very oddities it mocks.

Dumbo is maybe the most emotionally battering film Walt Disney ever unleashed on unsuspecting families. But Burton seems thrown off course by a hero seeking release over acceptance, and instead of that macabre sense of wonder that infuses Burton’s best efforts, he seems content to bite the white-gloved hand that is feeding him.

Dumbo, the wing-eared baby elephant himself, does come to impressive CGI life – all grey wrinkles, long lashes and big, beautifully expressive eyes.

The film’s other squatty little character – Danny DeVito – is also a joy to watch. As circus owner Max Medici, DeVito charms every moment onscreen, and seeing him face to face again with Michael Keaton (as the shady, badly-wigged amusement park magnate V.A. Vandevere) is a nostalgic hoot.

The balance of the cast—Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green—fluctuates from passable to painful while staying consistently detached, and any true emotional connection just cannot take root, despite the inherent head start.

Because let’s be honest, many parents will be carrying an emotional connection into the theater with them, perfectly ready to surrender to the ugly cry moment they know is coming.

And it does…but it doesn’t, the scene strangely cut off at the knees to serve a bloated narrative that adds nothing but running time. True movie magic, heartbreaking or otherwise, is nowhere to be found.

The only interesting thing Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, several Transformers installments) do, via the Vandevere character and his theme park, is deride the film’s parent company. It’s nearly impossible to view “Dreamland” as anything but a Disneyland stand-in, and equally difficult to decipher the purpose.

Are they calling out rampant consumerism, unsavory Disney memories such as Song of the South or none of the above? Whatever the answer, it only adds to the confusion found in the center ring of this misguided update.

 

 

 





Ask the Dishes

Beauty and the Beast

by George Wolf

Word is, the early plan for Disney’s live-action remake of their 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast did not involve a musical production.

Um, that’s crazy.

That soundtrack from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is in the team picture of Disney’s all-time best, and director Bill Condon politely reminded studio bosses that without it…what’s the point? Sanity prevailed, and Condon brings the familiar tale to life again with a lush, layered, often gorgeous vision, celebrating the brilliant songs that helped make the original the first animated film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Condon’s directing his first musical since the excellent Dreamgirls, and he hasn’t lost the instinct for staging a show-stopper or two. His camera pans and zooms during “Gaston,” revealing a village full of buoyant choreography, while the title song gets an intimate, classic treatment that builds upon a possible decades long investment in these characters.

“Be Our Guest,” the early request from various castle housewares to the captive Belle (Emma Watson), emerges as a joyous Catch-22. We can’t wait for Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and the gang to start singing…but it is a hard act to follow.

Watson delivers a spunky Belle who’s more industrious than the animated version, yet at times bland next to the gregarious Gaston (a scene-stealing Luke Evans) and the often distracting face of the Beast (Dan Stevens). Even as wondrous visuals fill frame after frame (see the 3-D IMAX version if you can), CGI facial features can’t quite keep up, and choosing this tract over makeup artistry feels like an ambitious misstep.

The supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald and Josh Gad, is delightful at every turn, and shows more welcome diversity from Disney. The brouhaha over the sexuality of LeFou (Gad) proves as inane as expected, though it does add some sly gravity to Gaston’s campaign against the Beast. As he rallies the villagers by exclaiming there is “a threat to our very existence!” Gaston leans in to LeFou and asks, “Do you want to be next?” Well played.

Add to this a diverse array of townspeople, two high-profile mixed-race couples, and LeFou’s partners during the dance finale, and Disney’s path to progress grows more concrete.

Devotees of the original Beauty and the Beast will have their nostalgia rewarded, but Condon’s vision has the flair and substance to earn its own keep. Though not quite as magical, there is something here that wasn’t there before.

Call it maturity, call it pizzazz….or just ask the dishes.

Verdict-3-5-Stars