The Lion King (2019)

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Disney;
Family;
Box Office $543.2 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG’ for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.
Voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones.

Director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Lion King stands as both a zenith for Disney’s live-action remakes as well as something of a nadir.

As a re-creation of the 1994 animated classic in a live-action style, the film represents a pinnacle of visual effects to simulate photorealistic environments and animals.

On the flip side, the film doesn’t really strive to be anything more than a nearly shot-for-shot remake of the animated film, with mostly the same dialogue and songs as before. As such, it comes across as the most striking example that, from a creative standpoint, there isn’t much of a reason for Disney to produce these remakes other than because it can (and the box office results are certainly proving the merits of those decisions).

Like many of Disney’s live-action remakes, it’s a competent cover version of one of the studio’s popular musicals, so it will always have that watchability factor. The stunning visuals, cute animals and rousing songs will make it as enjoyable for kids today as the original was for its generation of youngsters. But anyone already familiar with the animated version (i.e., the parents of the kids seeing it with fresh eyes) will be hard pressed to see it as more than a curio.

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To my mind, the conversion to the live-action template actually dampens the impact of the story (famously inspired by Hamlet) of young lion Simba growing up in exile after the death of his father, only to return to challenge his uncle, Scar, for leadership of the Pridelands.

As a cartoon, the artistic reality makes it easier to accept the concept of the animals talking and singing. But with a photorealistic setting, the illusion that this is somehow taking place somewhere takes a bit of a hit.

A bolder creative direction might have been to step back from the idea of a strict remake and instead pay a bit of homage to the studio’s cinematic past by styling the film more like one of Disney’s “True-Life Adventures” nature documentaries from the 1950s. Instead of the animals talking and singing, a narrator would explain the story and who the various characters are as they go about their business. The classic songs could even be played as part of the soundtrack over the action, as a few already are (such as “Circle of Life”). Strictly speaking, there really isn’t anything stopping a version like this from being made with the film as it already exists, in the form of a fun, alternate audio track applied to the footage.

It would also be cool if these live-action remakes were connected in some larger cinematic universe, giving them at least some reason to exist beyond milking nostalgia with new versions of older films. Anyone who has seen Tim Burton’s Dumbo knows how easily that film could connect to The Jungle Book. And Jungle Book was of course the film that Favreau directed to pave the way for his gig to redo Lion King. And the fact that some of the films take place in different eras shouldn’t impede the characters meeting, especially since one of the movies has a time-bending Genie in it.

This new version of The Lion King has also generated some buzz over the semantics of referring to it as live-action, given that after the initial shot of the sunrise, the entire movie is digitally animated. To me, the terms “live-action” and “animated” have more to do with aesthetic than they do with photography. The film is meant to depict a real-world environment, and does so using visual effects. A film is typically classified in the “animated” genre because its characters and settings are meant to portray a stylized reality unto itself. There are certainly exceptions here and there, and the digital tools filmmakers now have at their disposal have certainly blurred the lines between what could be considered “animated” and “live-action,” so much so that the discussion over it could be considered something of a cinematic Ship of Theseus.

Consider any real-life scene that could be filmed practically, and imagine touching up that scene with photorealistic CGI. Elements in the background are replaced one by one until the only thing left that was really there is a person in the foreground (not unlike Jungle Book). Now remove the person — you get an “animated” scene of a live-action setting. That’s what Lion King has essentially done, just pushing past the step of shooting something real to begin with. It’s “live-action” when the world has been re-created with visual effects; it’s “animated” when the pictured environment is not meant as a portrayal of something real.

And we see from the extensive Lion King bonus materials how the process of creating this simulated live-action film differs from that of the usual CG animated film, involving animators plugging data into their computer. To better simulate the live-action environment, filmmakers created a virtual reality studio, using a real cinematographer (Caleb Deschanel) and real cameramen walking around the virtual set to craft the image, just as they would any live-action film.

And consider this: The very nature of film projection is an illusion — a procession of still images presented in a sequence meant to fool the eye into perceiving motion. This is the simple truth that made cartoons work in the first place. If anything, traditional cel animation would have as much claim as being “live-action” as anything, considering how they are basically a series of photographs of static drawings that actually existed in the physical realm, which is more than can be said about the artwork of most modern cartoons.

On the Lion King’s home video extras, the process for creating the film shares considerable real estate with some nostalgia for the original, mostly owing to how the filmmakers wanted to be faithful to the story and characters.

Favreau in his informative solo commentary also waxes over the Lion King stage show, which convinced him that the basic musical storytelling elements translated well across whatever visual medium they were presented. Favreau also details the most notable changes between the new and old versions, mostly having to do with toning down the anthropomorphizing of some of the animals and punching up the verisimilitude of musical numbers where the animation could depict some colorful, wacky dance sequences. Favreau also provides a minute-long introduction to the film.

The centerpiece of the extras is the three-part “The Journey to The Lion King” documentary that runs about 54 minutes in total. “The Music” (14 minutes) deals with updates to the original music, which involved bringing Hans Zimmer to reprise the score, and the new cast’s reaction to singing the well-known songs; plus, Beyoncé added a song, and Elton John, who wrote the original songs, recorded a new song for the end credits. “The Magic” (21 minutes) focuses on the filmmaking techniques employed in the film, blending live-action photographic techniques with virtual reality and CGI. “The Timeless Tale” (19 minutes) lets the filmmakers reflect on the legacy of the original film.

Three “More to Be Scene” segments take an iconic musical sequence from the film and show the different layers needed to create the scene, from storyboards to rough animation to voice recording, compared with the final product. The songs include “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata.”

Finally, the Blu-ray and digital presentations include music videos for the new Elton John song, “Never Too Late,” and the new Beyoncé song, “Spirit.”

There’s also a sing-along viewing mode for the film, plus seven song sequences playable on their own with text lyrics. That should keep the little ones happy without watching the whole film again.

The three-minute “Protect the Pride” is a PSA featuring Favreau pleading for the conservation of lions and their habitats.

There are also a couple of digital-exclusive extras. The three-minute “Perfecting the Pride” details the filmmakers taking a research trip to Africa, while the three-and-a-half-minute “Pride Lands Pedia” is a fun video hosted by Dembe the dung beetle, who profiles some of the animals and environments seen in the film.

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 9/25/18;
Disney/Lucasfilm;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $213.75 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi action/violence.
Stars Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jon Favreau.

The idea of exploring what Han Solo was up to before he encountered Luke Skywalker in that dusty cantina at the edge of the galaxy is certainly not a new concept in the realm of “Star Wars” fiction. No fewer than six novels have been devoted to the subject. A young Han was even considered for a cameo in Revenge of the Sith before that ill-conceived idea was scrapped. Still, the idea of a live-action prequel film devoted to the character was not something most fans would have considered to be in the realm of possibility prior to Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm.

In retrospect it’s easy for some fans to say they always thought such a movie was a bad idea, that exploring the backstory of the popular rogue would take some of the shine off his mystery and charm. But really, the prospect of a Han Solo origin movie, in the right creative hands, wasn’t without a certain appeal. It’s just, ask the average “Star Wars” fan what they would want to see covered in a spinoff film, and Young Han probably wouldn’t have been at the top of their list.

But it was at the top of the list of Lawrence Kasdan, the Hollywood veteran who in his own youth wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and was pretty familiar with the character of Han (he also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, a playground for Harrison Ford’s other most famous character). So if anyone was the right choice to write a young Han movie, it would be him (joined by his son, Jon).

That he didn’t sign on to direct it, too, may very well have been at the nexus of what the public would come to perceive as a very troubled production.

Now, two names you won’t hear mentioned throughout any of the bonus materials on a packed Solo Blu-ray are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo originally hired to direct the Kasdans’ script. They ended up leaving the project under curious circumstances very late in the production, reportedly due to their comedic sensibilities not meshing with the studios’ intended tone of the film. (They ended up with an executive producer credit on the final film.)

Arcane union rules blocked Lawrence Kasdan from taking the directing reins, leaving the studio to turn to another Lucasfilm veteran, Ron Howard (who directed 1988’s Willow), who supposedly re-shot much of the film.

The only reference made on the Blu-ray that even hints at what happened before Howard came on board is the mention of a “hiatus,” brought up during a 22-minute roundtable discussion between Howard and the cast that segues into an anecdote about “Star Wars” creator George Lucas visiting the set of the Millennium Falcon just as the new director had come on board. Lucas apparently offered some key advice on how to portray Han on screen.

As for Lord and Miller’s influences that carried over into the finished project, fans should check out some production notes posted by Jon Kasdan on his Twitter feed.

The finished movie is hardly the mess it could have been — Howard is too skilled a director to let that happen. But it’s not exactly a masterpiece, either. It’s really just a serviceable “Star Wars” movie — a slick, fun adventure that doesn’t probe much beneath the surface of Han’s backstory beyond showcasing a rundown of some of the key events we had heard about in the original trilogy.

Think of it as the “Star Wars” equivalent of the Young Indy flashback at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, stretched to feature length. Of course, that Last Crusade sequence would go on to inspire “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” TV series. So, maybe the prequelitis in the air from the similar efforts to present younger versions of two iconic Harrison Ford characters has contributed a bit to Solo feeling more like a solid episode of a “Star Wars” anthology TV series, or even a TV movie with top-notch production values. It fits in with the saga, but it’s more like something you can watch to fill in the blanks. It does cast a few scenes from the original trilogy in a new light, so it has that going for it.

Some of the initial concern about the project stemmed from the idea of trying to find an actor to embody the young Solo without drawing too many comparisons to Ford. While Alden Ehrenreich may not have been many fans’ first choice, he’s quite capable in a role that, if given the chance, he may have very well made his own. The problem, alas, is that lackluster box office might limit his chances of playing Han in further prequel adventures. And if this does turn out to be his only chance in the cockpit, then his performance is liable to be viewed in the same vein as George Lazenby’s was in his one-and-only chance trying to replace Sean Connery as James Bond.

This Lazenby effect is the biggest stumbling block to the notion that Ehrenreich’s Han is the same character Ford played, an awkwardness that may well be alleviated if audiences ever gets the chance to get used to him from several appearances that in turn retroactively improve the perception of him in his first.

This is much less of a problem for Donald Glover as Lando, who handles the chores of personifying a young Billy Dee Williams rather effortlessly. Really, though, the whole cast came to play, and the character dynamics are really the biggest strength of the film, particularly between Han and Chewbacca once they finally meet (in a fun sequence that lets the two future partners fight each other).

The story involves Han trying to escape his Dickensian upbringing as an orphan in a street gang, vowing to return to find his lost love, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). After joining the Imperial military to learn how to fly, he ends up deserting his post to take up with a crew of thieves looking to steal high-grade spaceship fuel for one of the galaxy’s roughest criminal syndicates. When it turns out Qi’ra is a top advisor to the syndicate boss, Han is given a crash course on the intricacies on life in the underworld.

Viewed within the larger context of the saga, this is really the first film to focus on the criminal underpinnings of the “Star Wars” galaxy hinted at in the other films. Thematically, then, the film is of a kind with the franchise’s other prequels, each tied to the role the original trilogy’s three main heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — represented to the story of how the Rebellion defeated the Empire. The Jedi backstory, which Luke came to embody, was explored in Episodes I, II and III. The military and political aspects of the Rebellion symbolized by Leia were fleshed out in Rogue One. And with Solo we get the flavor of the underworld and the shadier dealings of the scoundrels who might not necessarily care who’s in charge.

In addition, composer John Powell’s score imbues the film with a sense of whimsy, meshing fresh material with recognizable cues from the previous films, anchored by a new Han Solo theme composed by the maestro himself, John Williams.

The film takes a few steps to place itself within the larger shared “Star Wars” universe, with references and connections to other movies and TV shows that hardcore fans will notice and are clearly meant to set up larger storylines to pay off in other films that may or may not be direct sequels. Regrettably, the film’s underwhelming box office results caused Disney to pump the brakes on the rapidity of production of future “Star Wars” spinoff films, which would be a real shame if it meant they never made the only potential spinoff the fans actually seem to want, which would be an Obi-Wan movie with Ewan McGregor back in the role).

In addition to the roundtable discussion, the Blu-ray also includes about 70 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes detailing various subjects such as the writing process, the visual effects, executing key action sequences, and re-creating and re-imagining elements familiar to audiences from the original trilogy.

There are also 15 minutes of deleted scenes, including some interesting looks at Han at the Imperial Academy and an extended version of the fight between Han and Chewie.