The Lion King is a timeless classic. Released during a golden period for Disney Studios, it remains a touchstone for many viewers as a demonstration of what animation can do. Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic digital animation remake may also come to occupy a significant place in animation history, specifically in terms of its animation. As a visual feast, The Lion King 2019 is dazzlingly realised. Descriptions of the film as ‘live action’ are nonsensical – everything is animated here as surely as it was in the original. The difference is that it looks real – from the lustrous fur including lions’ manes that you want to run your hands through, to the textured skin of elephants and warthogs to rippling water and intricate blades of grass, the African landscape looks as rich and tactile as that in a documentary. Indeed, at times a voiceover would not seem out of place, recalling both BBC nature documentaries and Disney’s ‘Real-Life’ adventures of previous decades. Yet the illusion of reality is easily broken by the talking and singing of the photo-realistic animals, and this break is hard to get away from.
The lifelike visuals are simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and its most crippling weakness. There is an inescapable disjunct as the visuals look real, but quite clearly are not. Similarly, the animals are anthropomorphised, but not by much. They speak and sing, but their faces remain largely blank and their movements are appropriate for animals. It is therefore hard to relax into the film, as one constantly marvels at the visuals and is then jerked out of the marvel by the obvious artifice. In addition, one may have to keep reminding themselves that of course lion social dynamics do not work that way, this being a fictional drama, but that concern never arose in the original, fantastical animation.
A further problem is that this film does nothing new narratively. Previous Disney remakes elaborated on the previous versions, expanding characters, updating representation and, in some cases, reducing or omitting the songs altogether. Unlike Favreau’s previous Disney remake, The Jungle Book, which works as an entirely new adaptation of the source material, The Lion King 2019 makes almost no changes to the original story. The Lion King is an original story (borrowing some elements from Hamlet), and as an original story for an animated family adventure, it is hard to improve on. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson expands some scenes and provides some additional detail to a few characters, including Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This development of female characters does continue Disney’s greater diversity and improvements in representation, but because the rest of the film follows the original so closely, these expansions create a further disjunctive element. The end result is ambivalent, as the visuals are utterly stunning and incredible, but the film lacks soul and emotional engagement.
Midsommar is a film that defies easy categorisation. It can be seen as a horror film, a dark comedy, a relationship drama, and a tale of grief. As all responses are ultimately subjective, this reviewer sees Midsommar as a horror film, because it was horrifying (in a good way!). The opening act details the family tragedy of Dani (Florence Pugh) in a manner that is horrifying. Dani’s subsequent trauma inflects much of the film, with ingenious cuts demonstrating the inability to leave such experiences behind, and therefore lending the entire film as sense of horror and dread. Early scenes indicate to any seasoned viewer of horror that Dani, along with boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) should run away, yet at the same time the allure and appeal of the midsummer festival that they visit is apparent. Gorgeous vistas of Sweden (actually Hungary) are captured in wide shots, these devices being the key tool of writer-director Ari Aster, along with deep focus and long takes. Within these broad, encompassing shots, much drama and indeed humour takes place, such as moments of embarrassment and the appearance of a bear. But the predominant mood is one of strangeness, dread and ever-escalating menace, extending even to the visual fabric of the film that morphs and pulses like a bad trip, as much of the film is. The overall effect is to create a horrifying atmosphere. Graphic gore is mixed with shocked reactions, a pervasive soundscape enveloping the viewer much as the characters are themselves immersed in this strange world. Come the end of the film, the viewer is likely to be left exhausted by the gamut of emotions inflicted by Midsommar, and with the wisdom that if anyone ever suggests going to a Swedish midsummer festival, far away from modern civilisation, don’t.
What am I? Why am I alive? What does it mean to be alive? What is our purpose? Pixar’s fourth (and arguably unnecessary) entry in the Toy Story saga explores these existential questions with characters old and new. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Ham (John Ratzenberger), Slink (Blake Clark), Jesse (Joan Cusack) and Bullsye are joined by Forky (Tony Hale), a toy that new kid Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) made at kindergarten. Consisting of a spork, pipe-cleaners, lolly sticks and stick-on eyes, Forky is simultaneously endearing and creepy, and rapidly becomes hilarious with his insistence that he is trash, until the realisation dawns that he might have another purpose. Parallel to Forky’s awakening is Woody’s need to be essential to Bonnie, as he adjusts to life after Andy.
In the course of answering these questions, Toy Story 4 delivers laughs, excitement and imaginative delights galore, ranging from the menacing ventriloquist dummies and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the returning Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Set pieces in an antiques store and a carnival provide plenty of thrills and spills, and while the film sometimes stretches its own conceit of humans not noticing supposedly inanimate objects moving on their own, there are still creative explanations, the skunk being a particular highlight. It may not quite reach the extraordinary acceptance of mortality displayed in Toy Story 3 or the miraculous joy of the luggage sequence in Toy Story 2, but if this is the final outing for the toys, director Josh Cooley and writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom manage a genuinely surprising, fitting and ultimately moving conclusion.