Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse review

Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Cast : Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch, Jorma Taccone, Shea Whigham, Andy Samberg, Amandla Stenberg
Genre: Action/Adventure/Animation
Run Time : 140 min
Opens : 1 June 2023
Rating : PG

From Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Everything Everywhere All at Once to The Flash (on big and small screens), it seems everyone wants a multiverse. In 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced moviegoers to the vibrant, dynamic multiverse populated by Spider-People of all stripes. In this sequel, the Spider-verse expands, and the characters we know and love from the first film are put through their paces.

Miles Morales/Spider-Man (Shameik Moore) struggles to balance his crime-fighting career with his academic responsibilities, putting a strain on his relationship with his parents Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez). His friend Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), who comes from another dimension, stops by to say hi. She is now part of the Spider-Society, a team of heroes headed by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). Miguel regards Miles with disdain, considering him an anomaly among the Spider-People, since the spider that bit Miles and gave him his powers was from a different dimension. In the meantime, Miles faces off against Dr Jonathan Onn/Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who seems like a low-level villain at first, but whose presence eventually endangers the multiverse. Miles and Miguel face off: one Spider-Man wants to embrace his own destiny, while the other strives to preserve the status quo, lest everything falls apart.

Across the Spider-Verse is an improvement over its already-impressive forebear in every way. The directing trio of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, leading an army of over 1000 animators, have delivered a triumphant sequel. The visual dynamism and creative chaos in the animation of the first movie is ramped up here, with audiences already acclimated to the eye-catching, erratic, yet carefully crafted blend of styles. This also does what a good sequel should: it builds upon the first movie, progressing the arcs of the characters, while introducing enough new elements without feeling like a re-tread of the first movie. There are stretches of the movie without action, but the time we spend with the characters feels worth it.

We’ve seen a lot of criticism of big movies that seem to coast by on nostalgia and recognition of the intellectual property; The Super Mario Bros. Movie being a recent example. Yes, there’s a lot here that will inspire excited pointing at the screen, but beyond that, there’s a grandeur and ambition to what this movie is trying to tackle. A big part of the iconography of Spider-Man and a reason why the character is so popular and resonant is that each iteration weathers roughly the same beats. This movie calls them “canon events”, invoking the language of storytelling. This is a movie that takes a step back and examines the structure of the hero’s journey. It’s also a coming-of-age story, and the feeling of being a young person trapped in a narrative that someone else has written for you is one that is very relatable. And yet, for all its ambition, Across the Spider-Verse never loses sight of Miles’ and Gwen’s respective journeys, and how their stories are intertwined.

As with the first movie, there’s a lot going on here. There are probably going to be four-year-olds going to see “the cartoon Spider-Man movie” who will get very lost, given the density of the plot and the sheer number of characters, not to mention the heaviness of the themes. You don’t have to be familiar with the comics, but a passing knowledge of them does help immensely. This is a movie that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate, because there’s just so much going on. It also ends on a cliffhanger because this was originally named “Across the Spider-Verse: Part One”. The follow-up due next year is now named Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse.

The animation and voice acting of the returning characters continue to be excellent. Shameik Moore’s Miles has had his origin story and is now figuring out his place in the grand scheme of things. Being told he doesn’t even belong in said scheme is like a slap in the face, and the way Miles navigates this as a character who’s good-hearted but impulsive makes him very easy to root for.

Gwen is given a lot to do here, with her relationship with her father George (Shea Whigham) serving as one of the movie’s emotional linchpins. We spend a lot of time in her world and in her head, and the movie benefits from focusing on her. In the centre of the chaos, there Miles and Gwen are, taking the audience along with them. Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) also returns, now accompanied by an adorable baby daughter named Mayday.

Miguel O’Hara popped up in the post-credits scene of Into the Spider-Verse, and is the main new Spider-Person here. Oscar Isaac brings great intensity to bear as the one Spider-Man who doesn’t crack any jokes, and while he is an antagonist to Miles, he’s not a villain, and his motivations are efficiently communicated.

There are a bunch of fun Spider-People, including the badass, pregnant, motorcycle-riding Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), and Pavitr Prabhakar/Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), who hails from Mumbattan. But the show is truly stolen by Daniel Kaluuya as Hobart “Hobie” Brown/Spider-Punk, a guitar-playing anarchist who looks like a magazine cut-out and gets some of the movie’s funniest lines. Miles is simultaneously threatened by him (it’s implied that Hobie and Gwen have a thing going on) and in awe of him.

The movie’s use of Spot brings to mind Polka Dot Man in The Suicide Squad: both are silly second-or-lower-string comic book villains who are fleshed out and made more sympathetic and more powerful. The choreography of the fights involving Spot is exciting and inventive.

Summary: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is everything a sequel should be. The movie has its cameos and references, but those aren’t its greatest joys. The way it builds upon the first film, advancing character arcs and expanding on themes and world-building, while never losing sight of its emotional centre, is. Both Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy remain the focal points of the story, even as new and exciting Spider-People (Spider-Punk being the most fun) get tossed into the mix. Be warned that this is kind of the Empire Strikes Back of a planned trilogy, so it ends on a cliffhanger, but is wholly satisfying all the same.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong

The Little Mermaid (2023) review

Director: Rob Marshall
Cast : Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik
Genre: Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 135 min
Opens : 25 May
Rating : PG

The Disney Renaissance was a key moment in the company’s history. After almost two decades of being lost in the wilderness, Walt Disney Studios was once again the cultural and financial force it had been in its heyday. The Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and it was only a matter of time before the company would return to fathoms below with a live-action remake.

The mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. Ariel has a fascination with the surface world and human civilisation, but is forbidden from going to the surface, in part because her mother was killed by humans. Ariel rescues a human prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning, falling for him. Eric becomes preoccupied with finding the woman who saved his life, recalling only her voice. Ariel makes a deal with her exiled aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who transforms Ariel into a human in exchange for her voice. Ariel and Eric must share true love’s kiss before the sunset on the third day if she wants to remain a human. Triton’s major-domo Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) the crab and Ariel’s friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) the tropical fish and Scuttle (Awkwafina) the gannet must help her complete her objective, but Ursula has her own plans in place.

The movie tries to capture what audiences loved about the 1989 film and sometimes, it succeeds. The compelling story about a young person’s pursuit of their own identity and the unforgettable songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are still here (sans “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons”), even if the movie is destined to be an echo of the animated film. Director Rob Marshall employs elaborate visual effects work and location shooting on Sardinia, Italy to give the movie a sweeping sense of scale, and cinematographer Dion Beebe lends some scenes a painterly feel. There are some fun design flourishes, including the choice to set Ursula’s lair within the skeleton of a Mosasaurus. The screenplay by David Magee mostly hews close to the story beats of the animated film, but crucially, Eric’s character is fleshed out. His adoptive mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) is a new character, and the film succeeds in giving Eric much more of a personality and draws parallels between his dreams for his future and Ariel’s, adding a bit more dimension to the romance.

Unfortunately, the movie has the same problems as most of Disney’s live-action remakes. In my review of Beauty and the Beast (2017), I described it as a movie looking down at the floor, trying to hit its marks, and this is often true of The Little Mermaid as well. The live-action remakes, especially of beloved animated films, have the Catch-22 of retaining enough of what audiences loved about the originals while also changing enough such that it doesn’t just feel like the animated movie again. They are made primarily to capitalise on nostalgia, and whatever creativity and craftsmanship is present in these films exists within those bounds. The Little Mermaid often struggles to match the liveliness and soulfulness of the 1989 films, which is especially evident in visual effects-heavy sequences like “Under the Sea”, in which it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re just watching a lot of CGI, even if it is often very well-realised CGI. Then there’s the matter of how jarring a photorealistic Flounder and Sebastian look, but it wasn’t too much of a problem for me after a while, and I think they work better in motion than in stills.

Halle Bailey’s casting was met with a lot of controversy. I understand the desire for an actor in a live-action remake to physically resemble the animated version as far as possible (after all, some of the other actors in this movie seem cast on that basis), but honestly, if my suspension of disbelief accommodates the existence of mermaids, then it accommodates an Ariel who looks like Halle Bailey too. Bailey is primarily a singer and seems to have been cast mostly for her voice, which is incredible. Her rendition of “Part of Your World,” a truly iconic song that is difficult to do justice to, is one of the film’s best moments. She puts in a valiant effort and is often genuinely endearing, but sometimes, her inexperience at screen acting shows through, especially when she’s in visual effects-heavy scenes and is acting off nothing.

As mentioned above, Eric benefits the most from the remake. Jonah Hauer-King is a charming and heroic presence, with dimples matching that of his animated counterpart. The movie gives him a song entitled “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which is a musical theatre ballad through and through. A moment during that song deliberately recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, to make Eric more of a Byronic hero.

Melissa McCarthy has proven herself as a fantastic physical comedian and a magnetic screen presence given the right material. Alas, her performance here feels very bland. There isn’t much of a take on her version of Ursula, in which she tries very hard to match the iconic animated iteration without really bringing anything to the table. McCarthy also feels overpowered by the CGI tentacles, such that Ursula often comes off as more of a special effect than a performance, which is a shame given how fantastic a villain the character is. Nevertheless, Her singing on “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is excellent.  

Javier Bardem lends great dignity and gravitas to the role of Triton, and might be the film’s secret weapon. Bardem’s Triton feels powerful, but we also understand why he is so overprotective of Ariel.

Daveed Diggs sounds like he’s having a good deal of fun as Sebastian, but again, there’s the challenge of living up to Samuel E. Wright’s performance, especially because so many of us have heard that version of “Under the Sea” countless times. Jacob Tremblay’s endearing vocal performance doesn’t match the hyper-realistic tropical fish that Flounder has become. Many audiences might find Awkwafina’s turn as Scuttle inspiring, but I think her casting is especially inspired. Awkwafina and Diggs get to rap in a new song called “The Scuttlebutt”, which is pure Lin-Manuel Miranda (Miranda wrote the lyrics for the new songs in this film, and is such a Little Mermaid fan that he named his son Sebastian).

Summary: The Little Mermaid has its moments – star Halle Bailey is an inexperienced actor but an incredible singer, and there’s more backstory and personality for Jonah Hauer-King’s Eric – but it suffers from the issues that have plagued many live-action remakes of Disney animated films. Despite its occasional grandeur and sweep, the movie struggles to match the liveliness and soulfulness of its 1989 forebear. Still, the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is undeniably compelling, and it’s a good story.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review

Director: James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Will Poulter, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Debicki, Nico Santos
Genre: Sci-fi/action/adventure
Run Time : 150 min
Opens : 4 May
Rating : PG13

It seems like a long time ago that anything associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) could have an underdog quality – nine years ago, to be exact. That was when the first Guardians of the Galaxy (GotG) movie was about to be released and some predicted it might be a failure. Two very successful movies and a holiday special later, writer-director James Gunn and company close out the trilogy with one last ride.

Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is on a downswing after the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) and the appearance of a version of Gamora from before she had met him, having lost the romantic relationship the pair had shared. Quill is the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, comprising Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), Rocket, Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo (Maria Bakalova). Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a powerful being created by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) the Sovereign following the events of the previous GotG film, attacks the Guardians’ home base of Knowhere. He has been sent by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who created the Sovereign, in pursuit of Rocket. Rocket has refused to reveal his past, including his painful connection to the High Evolutionary, which finally surfaces. The Guardians must protect Rocket from the High Evolutionary, whose ruthlessness and power threaten the galaxy.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies have generally demonstrated a good balance of rebelliousness, silliness, imagination, and heart. That’s mostly intact in Vol. 3. Gunn smartly focuses the story on Rocket, and him being the dramatic linchpin works. There are performances from Rocket and other computer-generated animals that are lovingly crafted and genuinely moving. If you’re particularly sensitive to animal cruelty, this will be a tough watch. Parts of the movie are dark, and parts of it are kind of gross, but it’s all in keeping with Gunn’s sensibilities. The sci-fi world-building continues to be wild and woolly, with the Orgoscope, a flesh-covered high-tech laboratory facility and Counter-Earth, a facsimile of earth populated by sentient humanoid animal creatures, being the two main settings. While computer-generated visual effects are obviously very present, there is more of the sense of the action taking place on elaborate sets as the compared to the ‘infinity green screen’ feeling of some other MCU movies.

While the throughline of Rocket’s backstory and the connection between Rocket and the film’s main villain serves as a strong narrative backbone, there is a lot in this movie that kind of feels piled onto the plate. There’s a lot going on in the movie, such that additional characters feel like they’re competing for screentime.

Adam Warlock, whose appearance was teased in the mid-credits scene of GotG Vol. 2, winds up being little more than a plot device in this movie, despite the best efforts of actor Will Poulter. The GotG movies have generally been good at giving everyone a chance to shine, but with the team now including Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) and Kraglin, there’s the sense that some characters have been given stuff to do just for the sake of it. Also, so much of the dialogue consists of the characters yelling at each other, which is funny in controlled doses, but seems excessive here, especially since this is the third movie and everyone being so aggro feels like a regression.

While there might be just a bit too much of everyone calling everyone else a “dumbass”, the characters remain largely likeable and the canny casting of the first movie continues to pay off. The interplay between Mantis and Drax is especially endearing, carrying over from their unlikely team-up in the holiday special made for Disney+.

The best performance might be Linda Cardellini’s warm, tender voice acting turn as Lylla the otter, one of Rocket’s compatriots.

Chukwudi Iwuji portrays a villain who thinks of himself as a rational intellectual but is prone to throwing tantrums. The High Evolutionary is not among the topmost tier of MCU villains, but the cruelty he practices in the guise of progress adds a chilling edge to what is mostly a standard mad scientist supervillain character.

Summary: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an emotional send-off to the MCU’s team of space-faring misfits – or to this incarnation of the team, at least. The movie’s emotional throughline is Rocket Raccoon’s heart-rending backstory, and you might find yourself tearing up over CGI animals. Unfortunately, the movie is laden with lots of characters and while the performers are mostly likeable, everyone yelling and being at each other’s throats all the time gets old fast. It’s not the strongest note to end the trilogy on, but enough of it is satisfying, James Gunn’s stamp is undeniable, and its weird mix of heart and surprisingly dark elements winds up working more than it doesn’t.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong