Tag Archives: disney

Review: ‘The Little Mermaid,’ Altogether Charming, Thoughtful and Romantic

Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy and Javier Bardem star in director Rob Marshall’s live-action version of Disney’s animated classic.  

Stage veteran Rob Marshall has built a successful big-screen career by directing musicals with multiple stars and elaborate production sequences: Chicago (2002), Nine (2009), Into the Woods (2014), and Mary Poppins Returns (2018). He has made occasional forays into non-musicals, with much less success: the dismal Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and the forgettable Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). 

Sticking to his strengths, Marshall helms the live-action remake of Disney’s animated version with his usual vim and vigor. Scripted by David Magee (Mary Poppins Returns), the film is altogether charming, thoughtful and romantic. 

Disney’s Academy Award-winning film set a pattern for the animated musicals to follow. The live-action version follows a different pattern, though, as established by the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), which revolves around making the films themselves longer so as to include, not only all the most memorable moments and songs, but also new songs, which has often led to lumbering films without much distinction. 

Occasionally, though, they get it right, as with Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (2014) and Craig Gillespie’s Cruella (2021), creating something fresh and new. Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid is a lesser film than those two, but it’s a step above what might otherwise be expected. 

Perhaps it’s my lowered expectations. I enjoyed the 1989 version, but was never that enamored with it. The new version keeps the problematic issues that the original raised, for reasons I cannot fathom. (Why does Ariel need to remain mute after she is transformed into a human? Why must she abandon her family and friends in pursuit of a romantic crush?) 

The first question is ignored; apparently, the evil Ursula rendered Ariel mute to prevent  her from using the power of her magical singing voice to command the Prince to kiss her and thus foil Ursula’s evil plan. (It’s complicated, especially if you haven’t seen the original.) 

The second question is softened with the film’s approach, placing Ariel’s father, King Triton (Javier Bardem) into the role of an overprotective father, mightily concerned that his youngest daughter might run away (?!) with a member of the human race, which he holds responsible for the death of his beloved wife years before. 

The varied evils portrayed by Melissa McCarthy, taking great joy in playing the diabolical Ursula, and the range of vulnerabilities exposed by Javier Bardem as the ultimate father figure, make up for the dramatic limitations of the lead roles. Halle Berry is a fine singer as Ariel, which bolsters her performance. 

Truthfully, few romantic sparks fly between Halle Berry as Ariel and Joan Hauer-King as Prince Eric — they seem more like good pals rather than anything more — but that’s part of what makes this version work: it’s soft and gentle and entirely suitable for family viewing. Awkwafina provides comic relief as diving bird Scuttle; Daveed Diggs is serviceable as Sebastian the crab. Solid support comes from Art Malik at the helpful royal butler Grimsby, who deserves his own spin-off series. 

Approaching the film with lowered expectations definitely helps. The Little Mermaid swims quite comfortably in calm seas without calling too much attention to itself. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, May 26, via Walt Disney Studios. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,’ Much Ado About Nothing

Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathryn Newton and Michael Douglas star in a three-quel without equal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

O Ant-Man, Ant-Man, wherefore art thou Ant-Man? Oh no, not the Quantum Realm again!!

The latest Marvel movie extravaganza cleverly disguises itself as a continuation of the Ant-Man saga, rather than an introduction to the so-called Phase V of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe. It features a slew of talented actors doing their very best to treat the extremely silly movie as though it were Serious And Actually Meant Something. 

The first few minutes are perfectly fine, as Scott Lang, the tiniest Avenger of them all, jauntily walks the streets of San Francisco, timed to the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” as though it were the opening sequence for an updated, comic West Coast version of Saturday Night Fever (1977), only starring Paul Rudd rather than John Travolta. Instead, though, we hear “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which prompts comparisons to the sitcom, debuting in 1975, that served as a breakout role for … John Travolta. 

It’s not long before Ant-Man and his nuclear family — Hope van Dyne, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), her parents, Hank and Janet (Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively) and Ant-Man’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton) — get sucked into the Quantum Realm, aka Several Large Indoor Studio Lots in Atlanta that are filled with colorful lights and shapes, representing millions of hours of dedicated artistry by thousands of workers throughout the world.  

The family is trapped there for centuries, aka Nearly The Movie’s Entire Running Time, where they perform magnificently under pressure and extreme stress, and also crack jokes, when time permits. They encounter Kang (Jonathan Majors), aka The Next Big Bad Villain Who Is Even More Evil And Powerful Than The Last Guy Who Destroyed The Universe. We don’t know why he’s so evil, except that Marvel needed a new villainous character to build their movies around. Also Jonathan Majors is a fierce presence, able to leap tall mountains in a single bound and also Do Anything He Wants To Do Before He’s A Marvel Supervillain. 

Really, the movie is divorced from reality, logic, and common sense, but I’m sure that everyone involved tried very, very hard to make a movie that everyone would want to see in movie theaters. Occasionally, the combined star power manages to pierce the animated atmosphere by wisecracking or evincing genuine humanity. And the story revolves around the importance of a strong family unit, which isn’t a bad thing at all in fighting off evil villains from another realm, if your entire family is superpowered. 

Moments of joy are few and far between for jaded adults, though younger ones may well find unbounded delight in the light show, as did one young person at the critics screening I attended last night. He continually beamed, often broke out in laughter and displayed not one iota of cynicism throughout the endless running time, which made it pass a little more quickly for me. 

Indeed, this movie may be perfect family entertainment. The IMAX presentation looks smashing and sounds spectacular. Never mind the ceaseless death and destruction. Let the kids go and enjoy. Just keep repeating to yourself: “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.” 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, February 17, via Walt Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Shang Chi and the Ten Rings’

Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung star in an action-adventure, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. 

The best Marvel movie yet, Shang Chi and the Ten Rings is a grand Chinese adventure, coming from an unexpected source: director Destin Daniel Cretton. 

Initially known for his directorial debut, Short Term 12, which showcased a breakout role by Brie Larson, Cretton’s subsequent films were fine but unremarkable (The Glass Castle, Just Mercy). Cretton bursts out here with a strong family drama, which plays well to his past strengths, tethered to more conventional Marvel tropes, which have been dialed way down for much of the movie. 

Oh, it’s a Marvel movie, no doubt about it. Now that we’re two feature films into the so-called ‘Phase IV’ of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe — which cannot help but remind me of Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974), in which ants rise up against humans, portending an unexpectedly apocalypse — and, after the somewhat lackluster Black Widow, which felt like a good-faith effort to offer a slightly different perspective on the usual, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings actually feels fresh and new, despite the occasional, patented tip-offs to remind viewers that we are still in the good old Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

The good parts are very good indeed, and more than make up for the occasional missteps, which, truth be told, feel more like responses to corporate prodding than miscalculations on the part of Cretton. After a prologue that establishes the looming threat posed by Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his best buddy Katy (Awkwafina) are introduced as millennial slackers in San Francisco. They are happy to work as parking valets, since it pays for their partying at night. They are likewise happy to eschew any thought of greater responsibilities and, apparently, harbor no greater ambitions for their lives. 

One day, their idyllic lifestyle comes to a jarring end when Shang-Chi’s awesome, heretofore hidden mystical powers emerge on a city bus in response to an attack by people with wildly destructive mystical powers. Awakening his natural instincts, Shang-Chi becomes a hero, but loses a valuable pendant, leading him and Katy on a fantastic journey that involves time, space, family, and control of the universe. 

The film works especially well, I think, for those who are grounded to some extent in Asian action and adventure films. It’s tempting, for example, to compare it to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially since an early action scene is set amidst a sea of swaying bamboo trees. (Of course, Ang Lee drew from Taiwanese action pictures himself.) Later action, featuring interpersonal battle between participants on city streets and buildings, is quite reminiscent of classic Hong Kong action films of the late 1980s and 90s. More recent, expansive Mainland Chinese adventures appear to set the pattern for certain stretches of the action involving soldiers aplenty. 

These and other touchstones, however, serve only to enhance a strong family drama, which begins when Shang-Chi searches out his sister, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). What drew them apart? What happened to their mother? What is the deal with their father, Wenwu?

Family is the overarching theme of the movie, which gives the action sequences the kick in the gut that’s needed to make them truly meaningful. And much of the dramatic impact comes from the brooding performance by Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the father figure who doesn’t quite figure. 

He’s a stern daddy who wants to teach his children to do the right thing, when all they want to do is play. He expects them to come to heel as adults, do as he says, and then keep on doing it. This is a father who thinks he knows best. 

I think we can probably all relate to that, to some extent, or at least relate to the ideas and experiences of those whose fathers pressured them to conform to some imagined ideal. The tightening pressure fuels the film to a satisfying conclusion. 

The film opens exclusively in theaters on September 3, via Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Road to Nowhere

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt star in an action adventure, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. 

Cheerily haphazard in nature, Jungle Cruise quickly reveals its instinct for precisely-timed, jam-packed action sequences that are entirely plucked from the minds and imaginations of people who are dreaming on a lazy afternoon. 

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has consistently demonstrated his craft at constructing visually appealing scenarios in a series of popcorn thrillers, often starring Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter). His most satisfying films have displayed a canny sense of how a strong directorial voice can overcome narrative nonsense (Orphan) and a premise that appears quite limiting (The Shallows) .

In Jungle Cruise, his filmmaking skills coalesce to make a roundly entertaining motion picture that walks a fine line between risible and ridiculous. Frequently, it becomes well-nigh impossible to discern any intentions behind a scene before the succeeding scene leaps off in a different, absurd direction, equally risible and/or ridiculous.  

Dwayne Johnson stars as riverboat captain Frank Wolff, an amiable sort of scrappy trouble on the Amazon in 1916 Brazil. Emily Blunt stars opposite him as Lily Houghton, recently arrived  from the UK with her brother Jack Whitehall, who is the discreetly gay MacGregor Houghton. 

Lily is in possession of an arrowhead that is extremely rare and valuable, said to be the key to finding Something Awesome that will cure every disease on Earth. In hot pursuit is Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim, a broadly Germanic warrior who also wants Something Awesome, though for personal profit, not the good of mankind. 

The screenplay, credited to veteran writers Michael Green and the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is filled to bursting with incidents, eventually overflowing, as though it were meant to keep people occupied while waiting in a long line for a theme park attraction. It begins to feel like a two-hour animated adventure that has overstayed its welcome, repeating similar action beats ad infinitum. 

The entire cast gets the joke, perhaps instructed to play their roles as broadly as possible, with a wink and a nod to Jungle Cruise enthusiasts — this is a movie version of a theme park attraction, after all. Johnson, especially, is in his self-mocking element, from the pun-filled salute to Jungle Cruise captains worldwide, who feel compelled to riff endless on the same tired jokes, to jokes about his size and stature.

Emily Blunt gets into the spirit of things easily; she’s the most talented actor and shows her ease at gliding through dialogue and displaying a sassy, spunky attitude; this is a woman in 1916 who is in control of her own agency. Jack Whitehall wisely recognizes that his role is a supporting player, the butt of many jokes, and the comic relief in an action-comedy. 

Jesse Plemons adroitly essays an evil villain, sometimes clueless and sometimes brilliant, but always showing up in the wrong place at the right time. Paul Giamatti contributes an amusing turn as a (broadly) Italian character; perhaps he is an ancestor of the Mario Brothers? Without tapping into the fuller range of their talents, Edgar Ramirez, Veronica Falcon and Sulem Calderon gamely make the most of their roles. 

As the action-adventure river winds onward, Jungle Cruise floats with it, sometimes  submerged by the elements surrounding it and occasionally conquering all. It’s a good ride but a bit long. 

The film opens in theaters in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 30, via Disney. It will also be available that day on Disney+ with Premier Access (an additional charge for subscribers). For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Black Widow,’ Dysfunctional Family Member Extraordinaire

More than ten years ago, Scarlett Johansson appeared as Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2. Hired as a personal assistant to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), she is eventually revealed as Natasha Romanoff, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

Johansson returned to embody the character in seven more Marvel films, always fully capable of fighting her way out  of any perilous situation, but always in a supporting role, with little light shed on her personal history. Now she returns once again to play the character in yet another Marvel action extravaganza, this time under the direction of a woman. 

Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland broke out big with Somersault (2004), her directorial debut, which she also wrote, featuring a stunning performance by Abbie Cornish. Since then, she has been limited in her opportunities to make feature films: Lore (2012), starring Saskia Rosendahl, was an intensely empathetic period drama, while Berlin Syndrome (2017), starring Teresa Palmer, was an intensely unsettling film. Each film was designed around and depended upon a woman in the lead role, and Shortland showed her clear talent at framing scenes, building claustrophobic tension, and working with talented actresses to deliver sobering performances.

Stepping onto the Marvel franchise with Black Widow feels like she has been asked to jump onto a merry-go-round that is already spinning out of control. As with any Marvel film, it’s difficult to distinguish any differences in the trademark, extended, fantastical, illogical, ridiculous action sequences, which have been designed to impress casual bystanders, rather than satisfy narrative needs. 

On that score, Black Widow certainly holds up its end, launching one amazing, elaborate, completely unbelievable action sequence after another. My usual personal reaction is to wait patiently until the sequence is concluded, and then see who, if anyone, is left alive, other than the characters who are needed for a followup installment. In that sense, the Marvel Cinematic Universe resembles the Marvel Comic Book Universe, in that any character may be resurrected at any time, if the creator deems it necessary, and so the fleeting possibility never holds much dramatic weight. 

Where the film completely succeeds, though, is in the casting and chemistry displayed by and between the lead characters, starting with Scarlett Johansson herself as Black Widow. She exudes an exhausted weariness with the world and her role in it so far, yet this is different from resignation; she has not yet stopped fighting, or come close to giving up. 

She is well matched with Rachel Weisz and David Harbour as older figures in her life, and with Florence Pugh as a younger version of herself, so to speak. As dramatic actors, they are all highly capable of hitting the high notes, and making their low points quite empathetic and relatable. Their personal battle scenes, carried on through their witty line deliveries and winning body language, wrings the full comic potential out of every piece of dialogue, credited to screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), based on a story by Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson. 

The action sequences will undoubtedly impress those who choose to experience the film in a movie theater, where it will undoubtedly play best. The more intimate dramatic scenes, which in my opinion are much more effective, will undoubtedly play just as well at home.  

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 9, via Disney. It will also be available to Disney+ streaming service subscribers for an additional, one-time cost. For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ Warm Hearts, Cool Adventures

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina lead the voice cast in Disney’s magnificent, heart-warming animated adventure. 

Refreshing in its approach to story, drawn from Southeast Asian folklore, and, perhaps even more importantly, in its depiction of the traditional “Disney princess” (compare with the company’s own descriptions and marketing of such), Raya and the Last Dragon is an encouraging step into a world first broached in Moana (2016), depicting a culture that is not drawn from broad European archetypes. 

Instead, it’s an original work, based on a story credited to a slew of writers; the screenplay is credited to Malaysian-born writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, who both have past experience in writing for television and films, while American Don Hall and Mexican-American Carlos Lopez Estrada served as directors. That so many people were involved in writing and directing the project is no surprise, since sprawling animated adventures take far more time than live-action narratives, yet the involvement of people from a number of diverse backgrounds is notable, and suggests why the film is markedly different from past Disney animated films. 

On one hand, Raya and the Last Dragon loosely follows a typical modern Disney pattern: young female lead sets off on an adventure in which she meets a motley collection of supporting characters who teach her about life and empower her to achieve goals that empower others. On the other hand, the film’s narrative undercurrents stress the need for humility and self-sacrifice for the greater good, rather than self-fulfillment, or striving after personal or family goals. 

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has spent years in search of a legendary figure, Sisu, who disappeared at the same time as Raya’s father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Poor Benja transformed into stone, along with throngs of other people, when the malignant forces known as the Druun came to power. If Raya can find Sisu and convince her world “last dragon” to help her, perhaps she can reunite her long-divided land and bring her father (and every other transformed soul) back to life. 

Naturally, Raya is bold, courageous, and headstrong, just like past Disney princesses, though the title she holds is self-effacing. She also displays a delightful capacity for fun and games, but she ain’t got time for that now; she is living during wartime, as it were, since the divided nations that sprang up in the wake of the devastating ‘stone war’ remain continually hostile, suspicious of each other’s motives. 

In time, Raya teams up with Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), who proves to a most unexpected dragon, and collects a mixed team of collaborators (including a gruff giant warrior voiced by Benedict Wong), who all assist in her ultimate battle against her longtime rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan). 

It’s a good story with good characters and good selection of twists and turns, some of which fit broadly into Western narrative tradition, but even more that do not, which flow together to help make the entire film a memorable, sweeping tale that resolves in a very satisfying manner. And, again, the path to the resolution is not entirely expected, which is always a welcome sign as Disney Animation charts a path for the future. 

The film opens theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on February 5, and will also be available to watch on the same date, as a premium Video On Demand title, at DisneyPlus.com.