Every Little Thing She Does

Encanto

by Hope Madden

No one wants to believe themselves ordinary. Not even calm, supportive Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz). But ordinariness happens to be her defining quality because she is the first Madrigal in three generations who has no magical gifts.

Her mother can heal with food. Her sister has super strength. Her cousin can shape shift. But when the day came for Mirabel to receive her magical gift, nothing happened. When the magic of the Madrigal family — magic that has kept the entire town of Encanto in peaceful enchantment for decades — starts to crack, is it all because of Mirabel?

One of many reasons that Disney’s 60th feature Encanto charms is that this unsure adolescent does not find out she’s secretly a princess. She has no makeover. It isn’t romance that helps her see her own specialness. Thank God.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is another reason. Infectious, upbeat and surprisingly insightful, the songs in Encanto speak to individual insecurities in a way that hardly suggests the magical nature of the film. Lyrics illustrate sincere worries about letting people down, living up to expectations and other universal and yet intimate worries.

If you worry the film sounds a bit drab and reasonable, fear not because the vibrant color, lush landscapes, intricate interiors and clever, high-energy animation keep the magic popping. Set in Colombia, Encanto reflects the magical realism favored in the literature of the land and that, too, makes for a unique cartoon experience.

John Leguizamo and Maria Cecilia Botero join Beatriz in a voice cast that brims with pathos, love and energy, just like the family they depict. Much about the complex interactions within the family feels like honest if uncharted territory for a Disney outing — flawed heroes, loving villains, and the notion that selfishness and selflessness as equally problematic.

The flip side of that coin is that the world of Encanto doesn’t feel very big and the stakes don’t feel very high. If that were the only drawback to co-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith’s approach it would hardly be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, they undermine the complexity they find in familial love with a too-tidy ending that robs Encanto and its inhabitants of some hard-won lessons.

Pants and Skippy

Jungle Cruise

by George Wolf

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wears trousers in 1916 London, so she’s “pants.”

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the skipper Lily hires to guide her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the Amazon jungle, she he’s “skippy.”

As Lily and Frank’s verbal sparring grows more and more flirtatious during the swashbuckling adventures of Jungle Cruise, the sheer charisma of the two leads succeeds in steering the film away from dull waters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra fills Disney’s latest with plenty of wink-wink spirit from the original theme park ride, right down to the cornball jokes Frank insists on telling to his tour boat clients.

But Lily is no tourist. She’s a botanist in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree said to contain magical healing powers. The closer Frank gets them to the prize, the more dangers come out of the jungle. Not only does Kaiser Wilhelm’s son Joachim (Jesse Plemons) also want the magic flowers, but a 400-year-old undead conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) is seeking to break the curse that ties him to the jungle.

Yes, there’s much going on, but Collet-Serra keeps the CGI action sequences (some of which will remind you plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean) front and center on a journey that never loses the family adventure vibe.

Not that the five credited writers have forgotten about us grown-ups who took this actual Disney ride as kids. An extended bout of Blunt v Johnson innuendo becomes a frisky delight, while the subtle nods to marriage equality and the savagery of colonialism are fleeting but effective.

The film’s third act delivers a major surprise, which results in extended exposition and the first signs of treading water. But even at its most formulaic, there’s enough humor, heart and genuine movie star appeal here to make Jungle Cruise an excursion full of rollicking good fun.

All Sword, No Play

Mulan

by Hope Madden

The first tale of Mulan—a story that’s has been told and retold for centuries—dates to an epic poem written more than 1500 years ago in China. Back in 1998, Disney made its first attempt to capitalize on the girl power message of the daughter who hides her identity to take her father’s place in battle.

As part of the company’s live action re-imaginings of those old animated films, Mulan comes back today.

Yifei Liu plays the young warrior in a version that takes its material seriously. Don’t expect a wisecracking little dragon this go-round. With the PG-13 rating and the multiple and violent battle sequences, this one wasn’t made with the youngest fans in mind.

Director Niki Caro is not Asian, which makes her an unusual and potentially inappropriate choice to helm a story so entrenched in Chinese folklore. She hasn’t made as impressive a film as Mulan since her 2002 coming of age tale, Whale Rider, and it is no doubt on that film’s account that the New Zealander got the call from Disney.

She certainly does justice to the message of empowerment, as expected. What you might not expect given her previous films is her virtuosity in filming beautiful, elegant and eye-popping action.

The fight choreography is wonderous, as are the gorgeous vistas. Caro’s Mulan is a spectacle and it’s too bad it won’t be shared across big screens.

There’s a simplicity to the storyline that allows Caro and her cast to create wonder with the visuals, and Liu’s earnest portrayal suits that aim. The screenplay remains true to the folktale’s message in spots where ’98 animated version betrayed its more conventional view of female power.

There are no songs and dances here, but there is magic nonetheless.

Sweeter Than Hunny

Christopher Robin

by George Wolf

Pooh! Who doesn’t love him?

Winnie T. Pooh and the gang from the Hundred Acre Wood have endured for decades, and now the second Pooh film is less than twelve months brings all the furry friends to live-action life.

Last year’s Goodbye, Christopher Robin was a bittersweet and uneven origin story, focusing on the inspirations for A.A. Milne’s Pooh tales.

Christopher Robin drops both the goodbye and the bitter in becoming a grown-up fantasyland with an easily digestible, greeting card-ready sentimentality.

Mr. Robin (Ewan McGregor, charming as always) has put the Hundred Acre Wood long behind him, with a wife (Hayley Atwell), a young daughter (Bronte Carmichael – great name!) and a working-class job as an efficiency expert at a London luggage company.

He’s lost sight of the joy in life, and when a crisis at work means Christopher will miss another weekend family getaway, fate intervenes with a much-needed Pooh crew reunion.

The CGI effects that bring the animals to life are wonderful, the voice work  (including Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Sophie Okonedo, Dr. Who‘s Peter Capaldi and voice acting veteran Jim Cummings) is spot on, the humor warm and the message fuzzy.

What’s missing is depth. There’s no real attempt to find any, and that’s a bit surprising with the filmmaking talent involved.

The director is Marc Forster, and the writing team includes Tom McCarthy and Alex Ross Perry. Between them, those three have some serious depth on their resumes, including Spotlight, Up, Listen Up Phillip, Queen of Earth, Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner and more.

The result is similar to David Lowery’s live-action take on Pete’s Dragon two years ago, where a filmmaker skilled at nuance within serious themes took on a children’s classic and struggled with when to stop simplifying.

Christopher Robin is sweeter than the “hunny” jars Pooh dives into, but nearly as empty as he leaves them. In trying to showcase the need for simple wonders, the film settles awkwardly between a child’s fable and wistful remembrances from grandparents.

There’s plenty to like, but little to love.

 





Lost at Sea

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

by Hope Madden

Summer is the season for amusement parks, and in that spirit Disney rolls out the closest thing cinema has to a theme park ride – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Pros: New directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon Tiki) keep the pace tighter, the tale more seafaring and the visuals more interesting than in the last few (almost unendurable) installments.

Cons: Disney has brought the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise back.

The series began as a pretty enormous gamble, taking a popular Disneyland ride and turning it into a movie.

Brilliantly, this put the not-yet-self-indulgent talent of Gore Verbinski behind a camera, but let’s be honest, it was Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow that made the film.

All swoozy and splishy, drunk and dodgy, hilariously rock and roll, Sparrow made all of us wish for the pirate’s life. It was fun. It was ingenious, even a bit subversive. It was nearly 15 years ago.

In the meantime, Cap’s adventures have taken on the stench of bloat.

By 2017, Depp is a has-been with a terrible drinking habit. Sure he’s still cute, but there’s something a tad pathetic about him and the consistently bad choices he makes.

As Jack Sparrow, I mean.

Obviously.

Geoffrey Rush returns as Barbosa – intriguing as always. He’s joined by Javier Bardem, arguably one of the three or four best actors working today, wasted here in an underwritten, toothless role. He plays about 2/3 of dead sea captain Salazar, blandly bent on revenge.

What – zombie pirates? Next you’ll tell me Jack’s about to be executed in a town square, or find himself stranded with crazies on a desert island. Or that there will be a pirate cameo from a classic rock star.

Oh, Paul McCartney…

The accursed Salazar wants Sparrow. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) – son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) – wants Sparrow too, to help him find Poseidon’s Trident, which can break all the curses of the sea and save ol’ Dad.

Also there’s a young female love interest (Kaya Scodelario) – a woman of science mistaken by society as a witch. It’s a storyline that could have been interesting, I suppose, but Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay uses it to nod toward feminism while glimpsing a corset-pushed bosom.

Dead Men Tell No Tales (they do, by the way – tons of them) might seem to some an affectionate wrap up of a once-beloved and now tolerated family film series. Don’t believe it – Rønning and Sandberg are already tapped to direct Episode 6.

Can Poseidon’s Trident put an end to this franchise?

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Pandamonium

Born in China

by George Wolf

Baby Pandas here!  Yawning, sleeping, rolling down a hill!

Disney could put that on the marquee and probably score a box office winner, but they chose a more subtle approach for their latest Earth Day release: Born in China.

China? So…Pandas, then?

Oh yes, plus plenty of other baby animal cuteness to sell a very family-oriented lesson in the circle of life. And while this emphasis on the youngest of the litter extends to the film’s approach to its audience, director Chaun Lu and a team of wonderful cinematographers capture truly stunning images that take us inside habitats still unknown to most humans.

But more than perhaps any other release from DisneyNature, Born in China undercuts the brilliance of its pictures with overly simplistic, often manipulative storytelling.

Alongside the pandas, we follow a snow leopard struggling to feed her cubs, a young monkey feeling jealous of his new baby sister, and a giant herd of migrating antelope. The film’s 75-minute running time feels even more hurried through Lu’s impatience with the very world he is unveiling. Cheesy reaction shots are often spliced in for comic effect, while some dramatic sequences seem manufactured through very selective editing, such as when a baby monkey is under attack from a swooping bird of prey.

John Krasinski’s narration too often carries more annoyance than charm, due mainly to writing that is shallow and forced. The animals aren’t just given names for our benefit, they’re given imagined thoughts and motivations, blurring the actual drama of this rarely seen world. There are natural wonders here, but Born in China reduces its stars to glorified cartoon characters waiting to be marketed alongside Dory and Buzz Lightyear.

It is worth staying through the credits, as some behind-the-scenes footage gives glimpses of what it took to grab such unforgettable footage. By the time you get there, though, you’re wondering how much more powerful the pictures could have been without words getting in the way.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Polynesian Princess

Moana

by Hope Madden

Disney’s no Pixar, but in 2016 that doesn’t seem to matter. In an ocean of excellent animation this year, Disney’s Zootopia stands out as quite possibly the best – certainly the most relevant. While their holiday release, Moana, returns to some tried-and-true-and-tired tropes, it frees itself often enough from Disneyisms to become yet another strong ‘toon from the studio.

The animation behemoth never strays for too long from its merch-encrusted path. Yes, Moana (Auli’i Cravahlo) is a Disney princess. She’s the daughter of a Polynesian chief, but as demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out, “You’re wearing a dress, you have an animal sidekick – you’re a princess.”

Yes, she’s a princess who yearns for more than the responsibilities life affords her. (Mercifully, that dream never does involve a beau.) There are songs of self-actualization and the thrill of adventure. There’s a lot that’s familiar.

Set generations ago in the Polynesian islands, the film tells of the ancient demigod Maui – a shapeshifter who used his magical fishhook to steal the heart of the earth goddess, dooming the islands to eventual peril. Moana is called by the sea to find Maui, retrieve his hook and return the heart to save her people.

Moana draws comparisons to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pixar’s Brave – hell, there’s even a bit of Mad Max on the high seas (nice!). But the film ultimately carves out its own presence, partly due to a refreshing cultural change.

From music to art to tattooing, the film offers more than a patronizing nod to Polynesian historical context. Also refreshing: sturdier looking characters, a lack of (creepy, pre-adolescent) love story, quiet mockery of standard Disney motifs, one fantastically jewel-encrusted crab.

Jemaine! The always welcome Jemaine Clement voices one of the many dastardly creatures Moana and Maui encounter on their trek, and he’s almost Tim Curry glorious. (He also has the best song in the film.)

He’s just one baddie in a film littered with fascinating menaces – from the coconut pirates (no, they don’t steal coconuts – they are coconuts) to various undersea dangers to the lava demon the heroic duo must defeat to save the world.

Johnson steals most of the film. With broad humor to match Maui’s enormous, ornately tattooed body, his chemistry with the teen voyager is nearly as entertaining as his struggles to shape shift.

The film has its troubles, including a slog of a first act, but Moana contains more than enough freshness to offset its weaknesses and guarantee holiday family fun.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Grandmaster Flash

Queen of Katwe

by Hope Madden

Director Mira Nair has a long history of films told with respect to the cultural heritage of the story itself. Having begun her career as a documentarian, she also builds in an eye for authenticity that can be sorely lacking in underdog sports films – which, on its surface, does describe Queen of Katwe. In fact, those genre trappings tend to be the film’s only major flaws.

The film follows Ugandan teen Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). A child of devastating poverty, Phiona finds escape – and eventually incredible success – in chess.

Nair periodically stumbles over her formula. Particularly effected are the talented David Oyelowo. As Phiona’s chess coach, Oyelowo’s lot is to be the comprehensively honorable, selfless mentor with little to do besides look heavenward as he worries over his students with the unflagging encouragement of his by-the-playbook supportive wife (Esther Tebendeke).

But fear not, because Lupita Nyong’o sets the screen ablaze with a performance that reminds us just why she won that Oscar. As Phiona’s mother, she depicts a survivor’s stubborn strength that belies deep, heartbreaking emotion. She’s magnificent.

Making her screen debut, Nalwanga also impresses, surrounded by a talented ensemble of young actors. The large, often loud group around her makes great use of dialog, argument and physicality, but Nalwanga expresses an enormous range of emotion with the slightest change in expression. Hers is a quietly memorable performance that easily carries the film.

There were so many ways this movie could have gone wrong. You can almost see it being told from the point of view of the white, American journalist Tim Crothers researching the tale and learning valuable lessons from the tenacity and noble sacrifice of its heroin. Thank God, this is not that movie.

Crothers’s book (based on his Sports Illustrated article) was adapted for the screen by William Wheeler. Wheeler penned Nair’s weakest feature, 2012’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, using exactly that “white reporter learning from a subject of color” framework that is so, so tired. So tired.

While he – and by extension, Nair – can’t quite break free from “inspiring sports film” clichés, those weaknesses are easily eclipsed by a set of magnetic actors and a true story that cannot help but move you.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Sit. Stay. Breathe Fire.

Pete’s Dragon

by George Wolf

Just a few months after a triumphant re-imagining of The Jungle Book, Disney heads back to the vault to give Pete’s Dragon a similar live action/animation reboot…with less magical results.

Much has changed from the 1977 cartoon, starting with the surprisingly tragic depiction of how a very young Pete becomes an orphan. Losing his parents in isolated woodlands deep in the Pacific Northwest, Pete is promptly befriended  by the very dragon whose legend has been passed down for decades in local song and story.

Pete will call his dragon “Elliot.”

Well, we’re told it’s a dragon, but here he or she is more like a big, green dog with wings. Look at it chasing its tail and fetching a stick!

Six years later, park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) encounters an injured Pete (Oakes Fegley) in the forest and takes him home, where stories of a dragon best friend intrigue Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford), who may have his own history with Elliot. These stories also catch the attention of local meanypants Gavin (Karl Urban), who quickly assembles a hunting parting with an aim to “put himself on the map” by bagging a giant green trophy.

Director/co-writer David Lowery makes a monster-sized pivot from the poetic desperation of his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and while Pete’s Dragon is rife with gentle sweetness, it’s lacking in both depth and wonder.

After the bracing prologue, characters and situations are broadly drawn, as if to never challenge any viewer older than Pete himself. It’s a curious approach for a PG-rated film, and the less than subtle, too often sappy treatment undercuts later attempts to resonate on a more metaphorical level.

Does Pete’s desire to stay with Elliot represent that wish to escape adult responsibilities and hold tight to childhood wonders? Maybe, but that Neverland remains out of sight.

We do get perfectly acceptable, albeit generically feel good lessons on the importance of family, and that’s fine. But despite those wings, Pete’s Dragon never quite soars.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 





Animal Planet

The Jungle Book

by George Wolf

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s new live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Impossibly realistic animals and deeply nuanced landscaping completely immerse you in the jungle environment where the young Mowgli (a wonderfully natural Neel Sethi), after being rescued as an infant by pragmatic panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), lives happily among the wolf pack of Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o).

But after threats on the man-cub’s life by the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Bagheera decides it is time to lead the boy back to the “man village” for good.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

And this group of voices ain’t too shabby, either.

Kingsley is perfectly elegant, Elba commanding and scary, while Scarlett Johansson gives Kaa the snake a hypnotic makeover oozing with seduction. Then, in the heart of the batting order, along comes Bill Murray to fill Baloo the bear full of sarcastic gold and Christopher Walken to re-imagine King Louie as an immense orangutanian Godfather.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

Verdict-4-0-Stars