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family film

The Lion King (2019)

DIRECTOR: Jon Favreau

CAST: voices of Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, J.D. McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph

REVIEW:

Considering Disney’s recent noxious trend of remaking its own animated classics with less-than-classic scene-by-scene regurgitations, it was virtually inevitable that The Lion King would be included. The Lion King is generally considered the “king” of the Magic Kingdom’s fleet of animated movies, arguably only rivaled by Beauty and the Beast, and now, following Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, the lion roars again, this time in CGI rather than hand-drawn animation form. Of all these remakes, The Lion King is probably the best, partly simply because it’s a remake of the one that had the best story in the first place, partly because it is visually splendorous. However, a surfeit of eye candy can’t entirely overcome a slightly hollow feeling, like a competent but uninspired cover of a classic song.

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Dumbo (2019)

DIRECTOR: Tim Burton

CAST: Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins

REVIEW:

Dumbo began life as a children’s story published in 1939, written by the husband-and-wife duo of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. In 1941, Walt Disney, looking for something that could be slapped together quickly and cheaply to shove out into theaters to help offset mounting costs of his expensive flop Fantasia, bought the rights and the Dumbo animated film debuted in theaters, running a slim 64-minutes. While remembered fondly, it was arguably the most simplistic and juvenile of the Disney animated features of the time, so while this remake (of sorts) is the latest in Disney’s line-up of live-action recreations of its animated classics (following Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast and soon to include Jon Favreau’s The Lion King and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin), the brevity of the source material required Tim Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger to do a lot of padding. The result, as one might expect from a padded-out reimagining of a simplistic and juvenile cartoon, is a middling affair that contains enough special effects and lively sequences to entertain children but whose generic and uninspired narrative has less to offer for their parents. Adults accompanying their children may be sufficiently engaged to not be suffering in silence for their children’s sake (which alone bumps Dumbo up above some other theatrical options for family movie night), but adults attending alone may be less enthralled.

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Peter Rabbit (2018)

DIRECTOR: Will Gluck

CAST: Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, David Wenham, Sia

REVIEW:

Devoted fans of Beatrix Potter’s gentle children’s stories will likely be appalled at how it’s been souped up with Home Alone-esque action, sometimes crude humor (though nothing that pushes the family friendly envelope very hard), and busy pop soundtrack, but Peter Rabbit keeps the action and comedy flying fast and furious enough that it will probably entertain small children while being at least passably enjoyable for the adults accompanying them.  It’s not the most high-brow family friendly entertainment to be found, but parents on the lookout for something to take their children to that’s not an endurance contest for themselves could do worse. Continue reading

The Shack (2017)

DIRECTOR: Stuart Hazeldine

CAST: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara, Graham Greene

REVIEW:

If you’ve a hankering for a full-length, two hour plus version of a Touched By An Angel episode (or you’re a fan of William P. Young’s 2007 Christian-themed novel of the same name), The Shack might warm your cockles. Considering Young’s book sold upwards of ten million copies, it might make back its costs and then some—-how expensive can a movie this TV-ish really be?—but for anyone else, it’s a “Lifetime Original Movie” handing down wannabe profundities in facilely feel good ways, and not worth watching unless you’re a Sunday School teacher hard up for something to occupy your pupils for a couple hours.

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As explained by Tim McGraw’s tritely folksy narration, Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips (Sam Worthington) overcame a rough childhood with an alcoholic and abusive father (Derek Hamilton) to forge a mostly happy family with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and three children (Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve). But when tragedy strikes on a camping trip, Mack falls into a downward spiral (which the movie ever heavy-handedly dubs “The Great Sadness”). One day, mysterious events conspire to land him at a seemingly deserted shack in the middle of the winter woodlands which suddenly unveils a lush tropical environment and three mysterious strangers, a woman called “Papa” (Octavia Spencer), which oh-so-subtly also happens to be Mrs. Phillips’ nickname for God, a Middle Eastern carpenter (Avraham Aviv Alush)—no points for guessing his name—-and an Asian woman called Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). In tritely heartwarming fashion of the kind you’d find in a Touched By An Angel episode, Mack will learn to open up and find closure with the gentle prodding of the trinity (oops, spoiler warning!).

That this is a Christian Movie® of the most treacly and heavy-handed sort is clear almost from the get-go, when Tim McGraw takes pains to tell us that Mack’s personal relationship with God isn’t as strong as the wifey’s (as McGraw drawls in one of the movie’s many wannabe profound lines, it’s “wide”, while hers is “deep”). It’s also not much of a spoiler that Mack spends a few days with God in a shack in the woods, because Sam Worthington helpfully tells us this in the opening moments. Once we get past the opening scenes of child abuse—Mack’s father is a hypocritical church elder who abuses his family behind closed doors—and the offscreen kidnapping/murder of a small child that seems a little jarringly gruesome (even if only implied and not shown) for this kind of movie, nothing much else happens besides a bunch of banal conversations at The Shack (speaking of weirdly inappropriate things for such an otherwise Sunday School-esque movie, the opening also implies young Mack poisoned his father, then never addresses this again, leaving this dangling plot point odd to say the least). While depicting God has always been a challenge for filmmakers, couldn’t they have found something better to put in His—-their?—mouth (mouths?) than a bunch of New Agey banalities the movie expects us—-and Mack—-to regard as eye-opening spiritual profundities? There was no reason for a movie this simplistic in which so little happens to run over two hours, but indeed it does. If you’re the right audience for this sort of thing, you might be enthralled. If not, you’ll be doing plenty of eye-rolling before the movie finally drags itself across the finish line. Lord have mercy, indeed.

It doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in a movie’s quality level when its principal cast includes Sam Worthington (who was once the would-be Next Big Thing between Terminator: Salvation and Avatar, but has since fallen into direct-to-DVD dreck and stuff like this) and Tim McGraw (!). Worthington is what he’s been in virtually every other movie in which he has appeared: adequate. As the blandly earnest Mack, he’s neither particularly good nor bad, he’s just there saying lines and occupying space. McGraw doesn’t stretch any acting muscles by drawling the trite narration and also popping up in a small undemanding role as Mack’s buddy. Octavia Spencer, the one person in the cast whom you might think is a little above this sort of thing, exudes warmth and kindness as well as anyone, but gets nothing to besides delivering a lot of feel good banal spiritual/life lessons. No Oscar nomination incoming for this role, even if it is God.

If this kind of movie appeals to you, you probably know who you are. For anyone else, The Shack is an exercise in tedium, and even some Christians have hit it with backlash, both for its perceived questionable theocracy and for the facile and simplistic ways it hands it down (“religious movie” shouldn’t have to be synonymous with either “preachy” or “amateurish”, but too often it is). For most viewers though, The Shack is too trite and meaningless to engender any controversy. Spending two hours in this shack isn’t a magical experience, it’s a chore.

* 1/2

The Lion King (1994)

DIRECTOR: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff

CAST:

(voices)  James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair

REVIEW:

It’s no surprise that The Lion King is widely-regarded as the “king” of Disney animated films. While the staples of Disney classics are in place- lighthearted and elaborately animated song-and-dance numbers and comic relief sidekicks- there is a surprisingly somber, at times even tragic underpinning and an epic feel that sets it apart from the likes of Aladdin or 101 Dalmations. In fact, the story was (very loosely) inspired by the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, and while rewatching it in 2011 with my previous viewing many years in the past, while there are plenty of typical “kids’ movie” segments, there are other aspects, including the Hamlet references (which are more noticeable to adult eyes) that speak more to older viewers. Continue reading

Paradise (1991)

DIRECTOR: Mary Agnes Donoghue

CAST: Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, Elijah Wood, Thora Birch, Sheila McCarthy, Eve Gordon, Louise Latham

REVIEW:

Paradise is one of those quiet little low-key films that slips through among the summer blockbuster action-adventure flicks and romantic comedies without hardly attracting anyone’s attention.  A thoughtful, deliberately-paced drama, it fell largely under the radar despite featuring popular—at least at the time—stars Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.  But for those who happen across it, Paradise is not a “great film”, but a nice little story about four people, two adults and two kids, who grow emotionally through their relationships with each other. Continue reading

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