Frozen 2 review

For F*** Magazine

FROZEN 2

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast : Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Animation, Musical
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG

In 2013, Disney’s Frozen, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, became a worldwide phenomenon. The film was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing animated film (until this year’s remake of The Lion King, if one defines that as ‘animated’). “Let It Go” became all but inescapable, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It seems like making a sequel would be a no-brainer, but the filmmakers took some time before committing to making Frozen 2, beginning work in earnest in early 2015.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) is settling into her role as the queen of Arendelle, but a mysterious voice that only she can hear beckons her to journey beyond the castle. Elsa initially resists, but when she realises that this voice reminds her of a lullaby her mother Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) used to sing, she is compelled to venture forth. Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven join Elsa on her journey. They travel to the enchanted forest of Northuldra, which has for years been shut off from the outside world by a thick veil of mist. Revelations come to light as Elsa reckons with the secret origin of her cryokinetic powers, and the sisters learn truths both beautiful and hard to face about their family history.

One can see why directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were initially hesitant to make a sequel to Frozen, because it has become difficult to separate the phenomenon from the movie itself. Frozen’s immense popularity brought about backlash and cries that it was overrated, and it’s easy to forget how good the movie was. Frozen 2 does not merely do everything the same is about something.

It is a spoiler to say what exactly some of Frozen 2’s themes are, but it does address the ideas of growth, change and maturity. After everything the characters have been through in the previous film, there is a sense that they’ve arrived, but the events of Frozen 2 push them further along in their character arcs. The sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna remains the beating heart of the film and there are genuinely emotional moments between them, especially when Anna feels that Elsa is still not trusting her fully.

The animation is superb, and the movie features multiple set-pieces in which the animators get to flex their prowess. Water and hair, elements that are notoriously difficult to realise with computer-generated imagery, are rendered beautifully in the film. The forces of nature feature heavily in the narrative, with wind, water, earth and flame all imbued with a dynamism and a consciousness. Also, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous – Elsa is given several show-stopping outfits that look like the world’s classiest figure skating dresses.

There is also a very cute salamander named Bruni, who is like a smaller, happier distant cousin of Tangled’s Pascal. He is very Pokémon-esque and we want one.

While it is commendable that Frozen 2 tackles heavy themes, the movie sometimes strains under the weight of this and is not fully able to support the exploration of those ideas, which requires nuance and time. There is a conversation about the movie’s themes of how history is framed to be had between parents and kids, and not every parent will be up to the task of explaining what Frozen 2 is really about in a kid-friendly way.

While Frozen 2 tries new things and is not a straight re-tread of the first film, there are times when it seems like it’s obligated to deliver what audiences love about the first. We’ll talk more about the songs next, but there are a few that feel like analogues of songs from the first movie and can as such come off as derivative.

Frozen 2 puts great emphasis on the characters from the first film and gives Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf more to do. However, this is sometimes at the expense of the newer characters, such as the likes of Northuldrans Yelana (Martha Plimpton), Ryder (Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) and Arendellian Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) feel somewhat perfunctory.

If you weren’t a fan of Olaf in the first one, Josh Gad is ever so slightly more annoying here, but there are several moments involving the character that work.

Music is arguably an even bigger part of Frozen 2 than the first one. Songwriting team Kristen and Robert Anderson-Lopez return from the first film, alongside composer Christophe Beck. The songs are a mixed bag: some are good and others feel somewhat derivative. The big number “Into the Unknown”, which is pitched as this movie’s “Let It Go”, can’t help but feel like inherently less than “Let It Go”. Thematically, it is the ‘refusal of the call’ stage of the archetypical Hero’s Journey in song form. It does feature a good use of countermelody, with Norwegian singer Aurora giving voice to the mysterious entity that calls out to Elsa.

The filmmakers seem to have realised how woefully underused Broadway star Jonathan Groff’s singing voice was in the first film, and as such have given Kristoff more songs. He gets what is arguably the film’s best number, “Lost in the Woods”, a playful riff on 80s-90s boyband ballads that is reminiscent of Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” and “You’re the Inspiration”.

The haunting lullaby “All is Found”, performed by Evan Rachel Wood, is analogous to “Frozen Heart” from the first film. It conveys a sense of foreboding but is also an emotional anchor to the piece.

The end credits feature pop versions of the film’s big songs: Panic! At the Disco sings “Into the Unknown”, Kacey Musgraves sings “All is Found” and Weezer sings “Lost in the Woods”. Brendon Urie’s famous four-octave rage gets showcased nicely in “Lost in the Woods”.

There’s an authenticity to Frozen 2, which is respectful of the Nordic culture that is its inspiration. The filmmakers were unable to take the customary research trips for the first film, but made it a point to visit Iceland, Finland and Norway during pre-production on Frozen 2. One of the most interesting elements of Frozen 2 is itself an elemental, an entity called the Nokk that takes the form of a horse and with which Elsa has a dramatic encounter. The contrast between the fairytale-like Norway and the ancient, mythic Iceland is meant to represent the difference between Anna and Elsa.

Part of what’s interesting about Frozen 2 is the battle between being its own thing and being the sequel to Frozen, and the filmmakers have mostly struck a good balance here. Stick around for a post-credits scene.

Frozen 2 has a lot to live up to and delivers both breath-taking animation and a substantial story. While the strain of the weighty themes can sometimes be felt and some of the songs feel like also-rans versions of songs from the first film, Frozen 2 is mostly a lively and engaging experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Biggest Draw: Disney Animation Research Library’s Mary Walsh talks Disney: Magic of Animation exhibit

For F*** Magazine 

F*** talks to Mary Walsh, managing director at the Disney Animation Research Library, at the launch of the Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition in Singapore.

By Jedd Jong

Disney fans, or ‘Disnerds’ as they like to be known, are in for a treat: more than 500 pieces of artwork used in creating the studio’s short and feature animated films are going on display for the first time in Singapore. The Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition opens at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands Singapore and runs from 26 October 2019 to 29 March 2020.

The exhibition offers visitors a peek behind the curtain at the House of Mouse, highlighting the talented artists and technicians who work in various departments on the studio’s animated films and walking visitors through the process of creating these films. The pieces of art on display include original concept sketches, background paintings, sculptures and models which were created in the making of Disney’s animated films.

The highlights of the exhibition include sketches of Mickey Mouse from 1928’s Steamboat Willie, the first animated short film synced to sound, early designs of Snow White, sculptures of Belle and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and a model of Sugar Rush from Wreck-It Ralph made from biscuits and candy.

The exhibition also includes artwork from the upcoming Frozen 2, marking the first time that art from a yet-to-be-released Disney film has been exhibited.

The exhibit also includes interactive activities, including a station where visitors can get a taste of what it’s like to be a Foley artist, attempting to match sound effects created using props to a scene from Mulan. A zone of the exhibit is decorated to resemble the Nordic autumnal forest seen in Frozen 2, allowing fans to take photos against a backdrop that brings the film to life.

Disney keeps meticulous records of the artwork created in the process of making its films. The Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) is where the physical art pieces are kept, and the works displayed at this exhibition are drawn from the library’s vast collection, which stretches back to the very beginnings of Disney.

At the media preview of the Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition, F*** spoke to Mary Walsh, the managing director of the Disney ARL, about what it’s like for artists who work at Disney and what fans can look forward to when they visit this exhibition.

F*** MAGAZINE: Great to get to talk to you! Could you tell our readers what you do at Disney?

MARY WALSH: I’m the managing director of the Animation Research Library. The Animation Research Library is the repository for all the original animation artwork that was used to produce our animated short and feature-length films, both from the very beginning, so we’ve got artwork from the early 1920s, all the way up to the present day. We have over 65 million pieces of art in our physical collection. We’re not public facing, but we’re open to anybody in the Walt Disney Company who needs access to that artwork for either creative inspiration, theme parks, new product development, whatever it happens to be. Theme parks, Broadway shows, everything, so it’s really great. Because we aren’t open to the public, we have this huge collection of such beautiful and I would argue really important artwork from an animation point of view, what can we do to share that with the world? We established this exhibition program, and this exhibit is one of the fruits of that labour. We can take this artwork, curate it in a story that we want to share with the world, and then bring it into museums like ArtScience.

What is your personal Holy Grail piece? If you were Nicolas Cage, what would you steal?

That’s funny, Nicolas Cage, I get the reference! I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t have a single favourite piece of art because I’m surrounded by all this beautiful art! I have two kids: it’s like asking which of my two boys is my favourite. Some days I like one boy better than the other because of his behaviour. For me, there is so much beautiful art and it is really the development of the artistry and the craftsmanship from the very beginning to what we’re doing today, and the constant inspiration that the art in our collection provides for our artists. One thing that we really value is we have all this artwork and it’s a fabulous artistic creative legacy that we have, but we don’t look back on it and say “wow, that was great! We’re done.” We’re never done. [The artists] are using that to inspire themselves, to inspire themselves, to educate themselves, so they can create at least that level and hopefully go above it.

Rapunzel by Claire Keane

At this exhibit, there’s a Tangled piece by Claire Keane, who is the daughter of animator Glen Keane. It’s so beautiful that there is that familial legacy. Disney is all about legacy – what do you think represents that idea the best?

The biggest part for the legacy point of view for me is the fact that we can look back at the art that was created. Claire is the perfect example of that: her father is obviously a brilliant animator and draughtsman and a huge component of the artistic output the studio has, ever since he joined in the 1970s. He’s been hugely important in the development and continuing expansion of our creativity and our artistry. Claire’s doing that on her own – she’s following in the footsteps of her father, but all the other great artists who came before him and are coming after her as well too.

Ariel by Glen Keane

For me, that legacy really ties into the idea of mentorship, because all of the senior artists mentor younger artists coming in. Glen Keane worked with Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) – he knew them, he could go to them, they were his mentors. He continues to mentor people through his career at Disney. I think that’s really important – the artists joining the studio understand Disney animation because of its impact in the animation industry, culturally and from an artistic point of view. They come in with that expectation and I argue responsibility to create to that minimum level and exceed it. The way you do that in a collaborative artform is to support each other artistically – the mistakes that you made and how you corrected those mistakes. It’s all about sharing that information. I think that’s a true testament to that legacy because it started with Walt and we’re still doing it today.

There is a saying that is attributed to Walt Disney, “everyone has 10 000 bad drawings in them and you have to get them out of the way”.

I don’t know if he actually said that, but the concept I think is actually true. There’s another way that we describe in animation: “pencil mileage”. You have to draw and draw and draw or create on the computer – you can call it “pixel mileage” or whatever you want because it’s based on the tool. It’s an iterative process. When you create something, you’re never perfect the first time out, almost nobody is, but you have to look at a piece and say “how can I make it better? How is that piece going to support the story? How is that piece going to fit in this world? So it’s a very iterative process. You get 10 000 bad drawings before you get one [good one] – that concept I think is very true. It’s all about going out there and being willing to have a bad drawing in order to get to a great drawing.

I think that personally, it’s easy to feel discouraged when I see someone who’s really good at what they do and feel like I cannot measure up to that, so it’s important to know that nobody starts out there. How do you feel this exhibition inspires future artists?

That’s one of the things that I love about this exhibition program. What I hope is that there are artists coming through, maybe young artists, who are like “I never thought about a career in animation.” It’s a viable artform and you can have a really great profession if you’re committed to your craft, if you’re disciplined about it and you’re passionate about it. Hopefully this can show a path to a burgeoning artist who wants to go in that direction and that there are people who came before you and that you can do this too.

I attended the Singapore press conference for Moana in 2016. Producer Osnat Shurer and the voice of Moana Auli’i Cravalho came, as well as Disney artists Roger Lee and Griselda Sastrawinata. There was a sense of hometown pride, “one of our own made it”. What are some stories about the experiences that people from around the world bring to Disney?

I’m glad you brought that up because I think it’s that diversity of thought and experience. We tell global stories. The filmmakers’ intent is to be able to touch the emotional human core no matter where you are in the world, and one way to do that is to surround yourself with a diversity of styles, of thought and of experiences. That is something that we hold very dear and that we’re committed to doing.

A five-year-old will take something different away after visiting this exhibit than a 12-year-old will, than a 16-year-old will, than a 30-year-old will. How will this exhibit speak to those different age groups differently?

That’s a great question because if you step back a little bit, the intent of all the films we make is that it’s for everybody. We don’t target just little kids or just adults. Walt was the one who set the stage, he said “I make films for entire families, not just children or just adults.” With that in mind, when a young person comes in and maybe it’s a child and they’re going to be enraptured and go “oh my god, I get to stand next to Mickey and Minnie and go on this boat and take a photo,” or “I get to see these sketches, what may be very loose drawings, and go ‘maybe I can do that’” and as you get older you can understand and appreciate the artistic integrity of some of the drawings and the sketches and the storytelling.

I also think it ties back to the emotions you have when you see the film for the first time and what age you were. In my case, I’ve watched films now with my children that I watched as a kid. I now look at the film very differently, through their eyes. That is any good art, whether it’s moving images, or a beautiful painting, or a piece of music: if it stands the test of time, it’s going to resonate with you as a human being regardless of how old you are, but your life experiences are really going to inform how you’re viewing or enjoying that piece of art at that moment.

I was in the Little Mermaid gallery and was overhearing the other journalists who were surprised to see the early concept design of Ursula, when she looked more like a lionfish. What are some concept pieces that surprised you?

It was really funny, when I first got exposed to some of the early concept pieces for the character of Snow White, she was blonde, she had braids, she had red hair, so they explored all kinds of different styles. When you think about it, they were developing that film in the mid-late 1930s, so those artists were also reflecting on the societal norms and the fashions of the day and what the concept of feminine beauty was at the time. They were contemporary artists in their timeframe looking out on the world, reflecting on that and bringing it into their designs.

In an early concept, it’s all about creating all kinds of different designs and then really focusing down and narrowing down to what that final design is going to be. Without that iterative process, they wouldn’t have gotten to the final design of Snow White was without all those other concepts. If you don’t give the time for experimentation, sometimes you won’t get the best work. I think the timeframe for that iterative process is really important.

As someone who has spent your career educating people about Disney animation, what are your feelings about the recent live-action remakes? They do bring it to a new audience, but there’s also the school of thought that it’s derivative. Where do you stand on that?

For me, it’s really about the storytellers. If that storyteller and filmmaker thinks they can deliver a different take on it, why not allow them that ability to do it? If it introduces that story to a whole new generation who may not have seen the animated film who may then go back and appreciate it, it can be a gateway, and the gateway goes both ways. From my point of view, if the storyteller is committed to the story they want to tell and the visual realisation of that story is different from the original one, why not give it a go and see what that’s like?

Visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/museum/disney-magic-of-animation.html for tickets and more details.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Musical review: Aladdin (Singapore 2019)

For inSing

ALADDIN

21 July – 1 September
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Photo credit: James Green

Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their beloved animated films have drawn many detractors. If you’ve been dissatisfied with those, look no further than Disney Theatrical’s stage versions, which are often lively, worthwhile adaptations of the animated movies – this certainly is the case with Aladdin.

Based on the 1992 animated film, the tale of a ‘street rat’ who falls in love with a princess and meets an all-powerful genie is ideal material for a stage musical – not least because the film features such memorable songs as “A Whole New World”, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”.

Photo credit: James Green

The musical features the songs written for the film by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including songs that were eventually cut from the film like “Proud of Your Boy”. New songss are written by Menken with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who also penned the book.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, Aladdin is a relentlessly dazzling spectacle that sweeps audiences up in concentrated Disney magic from the opening strains of “Arabian Nights”. Scene transitions in which set pieces swoop on and off stage are breath-taking just by themselves, let alone the actual set pieces. There’s a vibrancy to the scenic design by Bob Crowley, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s lighting, truly transporting audiences to the mythical Agrabah.

Photo: Deen van Meer

One of the elements that was missing from the recent Guy Ritchie-directed Aladdin film was an overwhelming muchness – Aladdin should be so visually exuberant that audiences almost drown in the energetic splendour of its spectacle. The musical has this effect and then some. The Cave of Wonders with its reflective vaulted ceilings is the ideal setting for “Friend Like Me” to unfold against. If you’re wondering “just how magical is the magic carpet anyway?” you’re not prepared to be utterly mystified, not just during “A Whole New World” but when the magic carpet later makes its appearance in broad daylight.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Then of course, there are the costumes designed by Gregg Barnes. Sparkly, opulent, bursting with detail and often completely covered in Swarovski crystals, it can’t be easy to move around in these, let alone dance and run up and down stairs backstage in between scenes. As with many other things, the costumes in this stage musical feel a cut above those seen in the live-action movie.

All the bells and whistles in the land are nothing without a strong cast, even in a show that is so reliant on bells and whistles. Thankfully, this production of Aladdin has that covered.

Photo credit: James Green

Graeme Isaako is a likeable lead who is up for the strenuous physicality of the role (as evidenced by the perspiration on his chest). Aladdin is the thief with a heart of gold, so he should have a playfulness to him with an underlying sincerity and a bit of dopiness, all of which Isaako delivers. Vocally, he is not as strong as the other two leads, meaning his renditions of soaring ballads like “Proud of Your Boy” are not quite as powerful as those performed by other Aladdins. However, Isaako more than makes up for it with a heroic presence that never crosses into outright arrogance.

Photo credit: James Green

Shubshri Kandiah is perfection as Jasmine. She ably captures the Disney Princess’ signature confidence and headstrong desire to break free from the shackles of tradition which dictate that she must be married off to a prince. Kandiah’s facial expressions seem to be patterned off the original animated Jasmine, such that it feels like the cartoon character has literally come to life onstage. In the 1992 film, Jasmine did not get an ‘I Want’ song the way most Disney Princesses do, which is rectified here with “These Palace Walls”. It’s a number that begins with perturbed defiance, then breaking into gliding wistfulness and concluding with a powerful declaration that Jasmine will find what awaits her. It’s worth shelling out for the more expensive tickets for Kandiah’s performance alone.

Photo credit: James Green

In the animated film, the star of the show was Robin Williams’ Genie. That singular iteration of the character leaves big shoes for anyone following to fill. James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony Award for originating the Genie role on Broadway, and Gareth Jacobs is more than up to the task of following those two towering takes on a beloved character.

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Jacobs is having endless amounts of fun in the role, leaving everything onstage and pouring all his energy and wit into the performance. This is a sassy, fabulous Genie who has an attitude that is distinct from Williams’ version while still reminding audiences just enough of the fast-talking impressionist. Isaako and Jacobs work hard at selling the friendship between Aladdin and Genie, so it is emotional when they do fall out.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Patrick R. Brown is an imposing Jafar – the actor has experience playing Disney villains onstage, having portrayed Scar in The Lion King. This reviewer’s friend said Jafar should be a human version of Scar, which is what we get here. Jafar gets a new song called “Diamond in the Rough”, but it just feels like he is lacking a truly impact villain song – Jafar deserves a “Be Prepared”, a “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or a “Hellfire”, and the stage musical doesn’t really give him that.

Doron Chester is deliberately grating but also amusing as Iago, who is portrayed as a human henchman to Jafar instead of as a parrot. Chester aims for a Gilbert Gottfried quality in his voice, without going full-on screech.

Darren Yap brings a mix of dignity and amiable silliness to the Sultan, a character who’s rendered as less of a goofball than in the cartoon.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The show’s weak link is Aladdin’s three friends Babkak, Omar and Kassim, played by Troy Sussman, Rob Mallett and Adam Di Martino respectively. These characters were in the original concept for the animated film, before being replaced by Abu the monkey, and are reinstated in this version. It is with these characters, one of whom makes many food puns, that the show feels the most pantomime-like. “High Adventure” goes on for much too long, and we long to be back with Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie rather than with these side characters. Also, Aladdin’s life seems less tragic if he has three best friends who follow him around, instead of one monkey.

Photo credit: James Green

In its writing, Aladdin does sometimes feel like a pantomime or a theme park attraction, but its presentation is so lavish and elaborate that it never strays far from being Grade A entertainment. Aladdin is a night at the theatre that will leave you in awe of the performances and the stagecraft and will give you many sleepless nights trying to think just how they made that darn carpet fly. As the Sultan said in the animated film, “Splendid! Absolutely Marvelous!”

Jedd Jong

Aladdin is produced by Disney Theatrical Productions and presented by BASE Entertainment Asia, with co-presenters TEG Dainty, Singtel, Mediacrop VizPro and official serviced apartment partner Oakwood Premier.

Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919 to purchase tickets and find out more.

A Royal Audience With Prince Ali: Aladdin Musical Press Call

For inSing

A ROYAL AUDIENCE WITH PRINCE ALI

inSing journeys to Agrabah for an inside look at Disney’s Aladdin musical

By Jedd Jong

Photo by Jedd Jong

Agrabah might be a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, but Disney Theatrical Productions has brought this mystical locale to our doorstep. Aladdin is now playing at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands Singapore for a limited season of only 50 performances, the English-language production making its first and only stop in Asia.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Aladdin is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose credits include The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls and the recent The Prom. The show features songs like “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including songs originally written but eventually cut from the animated film. New songs including “These Palace Walls” and “Diamond in the Rough” were composed by Menken with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the show’s book.

After tryouts in Seattle and Toronto, the theatrical adaptation of Disney’s 1992 movie opened on Broadway in March 2014. A production ran in London from 2016 to 2019, with German and Japanese-language productions still running.

Associate director Scott Taylor with actors Troy Sussman (Babkak), Adam Di Martino (Omar) and Rob Mallet (Kassim). Photo by Jedd Jong

“We have taken away [nothing] from the Broadway production,” proclaimed Associate Director Scott Taylor, who’s been attached to every production of the musical since its inception. “We’ve not made it smaller; we’ve not diminished the magic and the size and the production values in any way. It’s a big, big thing to do,” he stated.

The truly lavish production has the numbers to back it up: a cast of 34 wear 337 costumes made of 1225 different fabrics and featuring almost 500 000 Swarovski crystals. 40 tonnes of flying scenery and 60 tonnes of automation were transported in over 30, 40-foot-long sea containers. The show’s set-pieces, designed by Bob Crowley, include the glittering Cave of Wonders, the vibrant marketplace, the lush palace of Agrabah and of course the hypnotic magic carpet ride.

Gareth Jacobs (Genie), Shubshri Kandiah (Jasmine) and Graeme Isaako (Aladdin). Photo by Jedd Jong

This cast of this production hails mainly from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. After performing “A Million Miles Away” and segments of “Arabian Nights” and “Friend Like Me” during the press call, actors Graeme Isaako (Aladdin), Shubshri Kandiah (Jasmine) and Gareth Jacobs (the Genie) spoke to inSing and other media at a group interview.

Photo by Jedd Jong

New Zealand performer Isaako said that he is like Aladdin in that he is energetic, talkative and has a bit of a mischievous streak. He recounted clinching the role after being an understudy for Ainsley Melham, who moved on from playing Aladdin in the Australian production to Aladdin on Broadway. “I was speechless. I honestly didn’t talk for about a minute,” Isaako recalled. “There was a pillow and I screamed into the pillow. I didn’t know that was in me…but I’m so grateful.”

The parkour stunts are a key element to the portrayal of a character who’s always “One Jump Ahead” of those on his tail. “When I found out that I would be jumping over buildings and jumping off and landing on things, it was exciting for me,” Isaako said. “I saw it as a challenge, but it’s also ensuring that I’m safe at all times. It is pretty fun, but I’ve got to make sure that I’m not endangering other people.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

For Isaako, it’s knowing that audiences enjoy the show that keeps him going. “The best thing about it is no audience is the same,” he noted. “The audience smiling back at you is enough, it’s enough petrol for your tank, it’s enough to get you through,” Isaako enthused. “That’s why we do it, we do this because we love it and it changes people’s lives and makes them happy.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

After Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine was one of the Disney Princesses who made an impression by being headstrong and determined, far from your average damsel in distress. In Aladdin, she wants to marry for love rather than being given away to a foreign prince for political expediency. “I love stepping into her shoes every night and becoming this woman that is courageous and feisty and stands up for what she believes in,” Kandiah enthused. “I think she’s such a role model to women with her strength…and that she’s not afraid to voice her opinions, and I absolutely love that.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

Like many, Kandiah grew up a “massive Disney fan,” singing along to the songs each time she re-watched the movies. “It’s honestly such a dream come true to be in this production and playing this role,” she said, adding that a recent trip to Morocco made her realise how relevant the show’s themes, especially with regards to the roles of women in society, still are.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Kandiah’s favourite scene in the show is “Million Miles Away”, a sweet moment shared by Aladdin and Jasmine at his rooftop hideout. “I think there’s a moment there every night when we’re singing about hopes and dreams that I [realise] I’m living my dream every night,” Kandiah said wistfully.

Photo by Jedd Jong

The show is designed to be stolen by the Genie. In the animated film, the Genie was memorably voiced by Robin Williams, whose fast-talking, impressions-and-improv-driven take on the character has become a pop culture cornerstone. The initial conception for the Genie before Williams made the role his own was a character inspired by singers like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. The musical’s version of Genie is closer to this idea, with the original Broadway Genie James Monroe Iglehart winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of the character.

Photo by: Jedd Jong

“I met James so I got to talk about how he created the role, and I met Alan Menken as well, who created the music and a lot of my childhood nostalgia,” Jacobs said. Jacobs called the task “daunting” because Robin Williams was “the most amazing character that the world has ever seen” and “trying to do it justice without copying exactly what he did out there as well was quite difficult.” Jacobs described Iglehart’s take on the Genie, building off Williams’, as “like a giant Jenga tower that you put together.” Jacobs said that getting to put his own spin on the iconic role “is just so exciting to do every night.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

Jacobs has competition for audiences’ attention, because the Genie makes his debut against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Cave of Wonders during “Friend Like Me”. The inner walls of the gleaming cavern are coated with the same gold material that is used for the droid C-3PO in the Star Wars films. The Cave of Wonders features 120 gold pieces used to depict the treasure strewn across its floor.

Photo by Jedd Jong

“It’s such an amazing set and there’s so much to see, so knowing that there is that to compete with is sometimes quite difficult to do,” Jacobs admitted, but he added that the script and the song is so well-written “that it speaks for itself.” The number is musical theatre on steroids: “We’ve got pyrotechnics, we’ve got tap-dancing, we’ve got everything involved in that one scene,” Jacobs declared, offering a guarantee: “If someone walks away from that not happy, then please definitely come and talk to me because we’re going to have a very serious conversation about how I can make you happy…there’s no way I think anyone could get away from that [unhappy].”

Photo by Jedd Jong

Company manager Matt Henderson took us on a backstage tour, showing us the wings of the theatre, set pieces hanging up in the flies, the props maintenance workshop and the wardrobe department/dressing room.

Photo by Jedd Jong

“The costumes in the show are almost a character unto themselves, they’re so part of the storytelling,” Henderson enthused, adding that he’s “never worked on a show where the costumes are so beautiful and elaborate. They really help drive the narrative of the story.” The costumes are designed by Gregg Barnes, a two-time Tony Award Winner for The Drowsy Chaperone and Follies. Barnes also designed the costumes for Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots and Mean Girls.

Photo by Jedd Jong

“It’s a spectacle,” Henderson declared, pointing out that one number features 108 costume changes – a world record. “I think there’s 80 of them in like 15 seconds. That’s a full change, including some wigs.” During this number, it is “chaos” backstage – “Controlled chaos, but it’s absolute chaos,” he continued. Henderson talked up a costume change which takes place in two seconds, challenging viewers to spot the blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment. “I’ll give you a clue, it’s Aladdin,” Henderson said. “Don’t take your eyes off him, because he does go from being a street rat to a prince in two seconds, and it happens onstage.”

Photo by James Green

One of the show’s most closely guarded secrets is naturally the one that draws the most curiousity. Every performance, the magic carpet takes to the skies with Aladdin and Jasmine upon it, seemingly flying around the stage without the use of wires.

“I’ve got family and everyone’s like ‘I’ll buy you a drink if you tell me how the carpet works’ – and you don’t want to know!” Henderson cautioned. Cursed with the knowledge that has dissolved the wonderment, Henderson said “I do know how it works and I was so upset when I found out because I love the magic of it.”

The magic lamps in their protective case. Photo by Jedd Jong

Has Henderson snuck a ride on the magic carpet himself? He’s not allowed. “I’m also a little bit afraid of heights,” Henderson confessed, adding “I like to complain that I haven’t been on it, but if they let me go, I’d be like ‘no no no.’ Terrified. I don’t trust Graeme as a driver as well.”

Experience the music, the magic and take a journey to Agrabah with Aladdin, which runs from now until September 1. Tickets start at $68 (not including $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919 to buy tickets and find out more.

The Lion King (2019) review

THE LION KING

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast : Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Genre : Family/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : PG

            Disney’s string of live-action remakes continues with a movie that is technically a photo-realistic computer-animated remake but is for all intents and purposes a live-action one. The Lion King is sure to rule the box office, but is the sojourn back to Pride Rock worth it?

The story is by now almost universally known: King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have a baby, Simba (JD McCrary). Mufasa’s brother, the conniving Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), seethes at being further bumped down in line for the throne. He orchestrates a series of events that leads to Mufasa’s death. Simba, believing that he should be blamed for his father’s death, escapes into exile.

He is rescued by the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), whom he befriends. The now-adult Simba (Donald Glover) has led a largely carefree existence since running away. He is visited by his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé), now an adult lioness. She pleads with him to return to the Pridelands to dethrone Scar, who with his army of hyenas has turned the once-lush territory into a desolate wasteland. Simba must overcome the trauma of his past to become the one true king.

There hasn’t been a lot of nuance in the discussion of this film, which has, like several recent Disney live-action remakes, stirred up some strong feelings. There are those who welcome this with open arms because it gives them a chance to relive the original animated movie in a new way, and others who have described this as a soulless cash-grab. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but perhaps closer to the latter, because it’s true that live-action remakes need to justify their existence. Despite the obvious technical proficiency and the stellar voice cast behind this version of The Lion King, the film still struggles to prove that it isn’t a largely unnecessary venture.

What does pretty much the same movie as the 1994 version, only looking like a nature documentary with animals that somehow talk and sing, add to the original? Not very much. The direct comparison would be The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Jon Favreau. This reviewer enjoyed that film and liked how it changed the tone and mood of the original animated film from old-timey variety show to exciting adventure movie. The 2019 Lion King stays mostly faithful to the original film directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers and even though it is 30 minutes longer, not very much is added to the story or the characters.

It’s difficult to grade this movie on its own merits because, being such a close adaptation of the 1994 version, it actively invites comparisons. This is probably the easiest paycheck screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has earned, because of how closely it hews to the screenplay of the original by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

One of the major things that is sacrificed in striving for photo-realism is the original film’s use of colour. Behind-the-scenes footage of the 1994 movie shows animators discussing the shade of pink that a sunrise should be – that movie demonstrates an understanding of how colours can be used to set the scene and influence the viewers’ emotions. Here, not only is the palette limited, but the characters’ range of motion is largely bound to what the real-life animals are capable of. Favreau has roped in many talented collaborators, including Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, but because “realism” is the watchword, the film’s dynamism is severely limited.

Just how important is “realism” to the story of The Lion King anyway? Audiences must already buy that the animals talk and sing and behave in human-like ways, so how much does it help that their fur is immaculately rendered or that their ears twitch in a certain way? The Lion King was adapted into a stage musical, which has become the highest-grossing musical in history. Artistically, it is in many ways the opposite of this live-action film. Using puppetry, masks and costumes, the musical interprets the animated movie in an eye-catching, dynamic way and is anything but literal. Julie Taymor, who directed the stage version, executive-produced the new movie – it made this reviewer hope for something a little bit wilder and more experimental than what we got.

There still is a lot this movie gets right. The music was one of the animated film’s biggest assets, and that’s the case here too. The score by Hans Zimmer, which builds upon the original score he composed with Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, contains some of the composer’s most evocative work. Traditional African music and choir elements arranged by Lebo M add texture and dimensions to the movie’s sound, while all the songs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the original animated film remain intact.

John and Rice wrote a new song, “Never Too Late”, which John performs over the closing credits. Beyoncé and Rice wrote “Spirit” – while it is a good showcase of her vocal prowess, the song doesn’t quite have the power of the songs originally written for the animated movie and the songs added for the stage musical that are absent here. Still, the influence of the music used in the stage show is felt here, with the songs sounding a bit less pop-like than they did in the original film.

The voice cast is excellent across the board, but because the characters are so limited in their expressions and mannerisms, it is sometimes hard to believe that the voices belong to these characters, the awareness that they’re just dubbed over the CGI footage frequently present.

Glover captures the playfulness of the adult Simba with the self-searching sorrow lurking underneath, while Beyoncé sounds suitably regal as Nala. JD McCrary is lively as young Simba, with “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” being one of the more enjoyable sequences in the film.

Getting James Earl Jones back was the right move, as it seems unthinkable that anyone could match the sonorous authority and underlying warmth of his Mufasa.

While Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a slinky performance that carries a good amount of Shakespearean menace with it, he ultimately falls short of the dripping deliciousness that made Jeremy Irons’ performance as Scar so memorable.

Timon and Pumbaa get the most new material, as well as the film’s biggest laughs. Billy Eichner brings self-conscious neuroses to Timon, while Seth Rogen’s guttural laugh fits Pumbaa nicely. One of the film’s darkly funny bits involves Pumbaa and an unfortunate butterfly.

This reviewer was most looking forward to John Oliver as Zazu – this is casting that’s both incredibly obvious and sublime in its perfection. He’s great as Zazu, but there are no surprises, it’s just John Oliver.

In a way, that applies to most of this film: there are several good choices being made, but there are no surprises in the way they turn out. A story like The Lion King doesn’t need to be reinvented, but this movie’s faithfulness to the animated original means that like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before it, it’s overly concerned with hitting all its marks and not trying anything new. The photorealistic CGI is the result of plenty of hard work from armies of artists and technicians and will push filmmaking technology forward, but here, it’s not in service of telling the story in an engaging way. It may sound dismissive, but it comes down to this: there’s enough to like in The Lion King simply because it reminds us of something we already like.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Toy Story 4 review

For inSing

TOY STORY 4

Director: Josh Cooley
Cast : Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves, June Squibb
Genre : Comedy/Animation/Family
Run Time : 1 h 40 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : PG

            The denizens of Andy’s toy box are back, reuniting audiences with friends old and new in the fourth instalment of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story film series.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and the other toys were given by Andy to a young girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). A few years later, Bonnie is starting kindergarten, and at orientation, she makes a new toy from arts and crafts: Forky (Tony Hale), who is comprised of a disposable spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, a popsicle stick and plasticine.

Forky becomes Bonnie’s favourite toy, but Woody and the other toys have a hard time dealing with Forky because formerly being a spork, this new existence has been unexpectedly thrust upon him. When Bonnie takes Woody, Buzz, Forky and other toys along with her on a road trip with her parents, Forky attempts to escape. While chasing after him, Woody discovers an antique store where the long-lost Bo Peep (Annie Potts) now lives. The antique store is also home to the doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her unsettling army of ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Woody must escape Gabby Gabby’s clutches and bring Forky back to Bonnie, as his unexpected reunion with Bo Peep upends his existence.

The Toy Story trilogy comes extremely close to perfection, and the announcement of a fourth film was met with understandable scepticism. We should’ve known that Pixar would deliver – while it may not have the richness and complexity that Toy Story 3 did, Toy Story 4 is an excellent addition to the series. Josh Cooley, who started out at Pixar as a storyboard artist on The Incredibles, helms a film that is funny, thrilling and moving. It’s a road trip movie that hits all the right notes.

Thematically, Toy Story 4 is about purpose, and what happens when purpose goes unfulfilled. The purpose of a children’s toy is to be played with, and multiple characters in the film long to be loved by their owners but have instead been neglected. This has been a running theme in the series, but Toy Story 4 emphasises it by re-introducing Bo Peep. Through the Forky character, the film explores what exactly it means to be a toy.

The animation is, as expected, technically polished. The film places familiar characters in unfamiliar environments, with the main new locations being the bright, inviting travelling fairground and the shadowy, dusty antique store. Key to making the fantastical premises of toys that come alive work is in establishing the world as believable and tactile, which is accomplished here. Great attention is paid to the geometry of the set-pieces, in which potential dangers and obstacles are highlighted before the characters attempt to navigate them.

Many of the voice actors from the previous films return. Once again, it’s Woody who drives the story, with Tom Hanks’ performances helping to further flesh the character out. Woody’s insecurities were the catalyst of the conflict in the first Toy Story film, as he felt threatened by Buzz’s entrance onto the scene. In this film, Woody’s insecurities manifest in his fear of becoming a ‘lost toy’, and he projects some of these feelings onto Forky. It’s a satisfying arc that makes sense for the character.

Bo Peep has been turned into a resourceful action heroine, not entirely unlike Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy – they even both wield a staff. Bo Peep was absent from the third film, with Annie Potts returning to voice her. Her relationship with Woody and his reaction to how she has changed play a big part in the plot of this film, and the film attempts to give both parties closure.

Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby is ostensibly the film’s antagonist, even if she’s not exactly a villain. There are superficial similarities between her and Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the villain of Toy Story 3, but Gabby is a less interesting character. She still manages to be equally threatening and empathetic – the film’s horror movie-inspired sequences are entertaining but stop short of being legitimately traumatising.

Tony Hale charmingly captures the neuroses of Forky, who is caught in the throes of existential panic. The idea behind the character is a witty one, and the film manages to get more out of Forky than just the one joke that he’s a toy who’s freaking out because he was not meant to be a toy.

The duo of Key and Peele voice plush toys Ducky and Bunny and provide some of the biggest laughs in the film, with a standout sequence being their plan to acquire a set of keys from the elderly owner of the antique store. The movie uses them just enough, such that their presence doesn’t feel overly gimmicky.

Another standout character is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves). Reeves is enjoying a surge in popularity following the release of John Wick: Chapter 3, Always Be My Maybe and the announcement that he will be in the videogame Cyberpunk 2077. An Evel Knievel-type daredevil stuntman Duke seems to have come straight out of Robot Chicken. Reeves bring enthusiasm, gruffness and a hint of a Canadian accent to the part.

Director Cooley was 15 when the first Toy Story movie came out, and it’s remarkable that the series has maintained such consistently high quality across four instalments released over 24 years. Toy Story 4 offers up a beautifully realised adventure and engaging character dynamics, bringing more to the table than mere nostalgia. Yes, a fourth Toy Story film is not strictly necessary, but the film radiates such warmth and good heartedness that it’s useless to resist its embrace.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dumbo (2019) review

DUMBO

Director: Tim Burton
Cast : Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei
Genre : Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 52 mins
Opens : 28 March 2019
Rating : PG

           This year, we’ll be getting several live-action remakes of Disney animated features – or, to be pedantic, a photo-realistic CGI remake with The Lion King. The House of Mouse kicks off the 2019 slate of remakes with Dumbo.

It is 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, having lost his left arm in the battle. Holt and his late wife Annie were trick riders in the circus. Holt returns to the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to find they have run into hard times. An elephant acquired by Medici gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears. The baby, named Jumbo Jr. and nicknamed Dumbo, is forcefully separated from his mother. Holt’s young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo can fly.

The story of the amazing flying elephant attracts the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys out Medici’s circus. The circus performers, including Dumbo, relocate to Vandevere’s sprawling theme park Dreamland. Vandevere has Dumbo perform alongside trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Medici is initially swayed by Vandevere, he and the other circus performers eventually discover that Vandevere is exploiting them and is exploiting Dumbo in particular. Holt, Milly and Joe hatch a plan to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

Disney’s live-action remakes have sometimes been criticised for being too literal – 2017’s Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. A remake should put enough of a spin on the original such that it doesn’t lose its spirit, but still feels transformative enough to be worthwhile. Dumbo largely achieves this with its story focusing on new human characters, while keeping the titular baby elephant as its emotional centre. Thankfully, elements from the original such as the racist crows are jettisoned, and this film’s message of inclusivity feels more genuine than that espoused by fellow circus movie The Greatest Showman.

Tim Burton’s sensibilities might not seem like the best fit for a family-friendly Disney film, and his attempts at family-aimed movies do tend to be inadvertently horrifying. However, Dumbo benefits from the distinct visual stylisation that Burton brings to it, and is also very much a story about outsiders, which is familiar territory for the director. Dumbo’s big ears, the thing for which he is mocked, are also the source of his special abilities. It’s not quite Edward Scissorhands, but one can see the connection there. There are times when it feels like this isn’t exactly a passion project for Burton and that he’s very much a hired gun, but then again, it’s easy to overdose on Burton-ness and for him to lapse into self-parody, which he stays a safe distance from here.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the titular pachyderm – if audiences believe the wholly computer-generated creation as a living, breathing character, then it’s easy to empathise with him and to feel sad when bad things befall him. The visual effects are supervised by Richard Stammers, and while Dumbo might look a bit unnatural in stills and posters, the result is successful. The human characters do a lot of interacting with Dumbo, which is mostly seamless. This is a movie in which the title character is only added into the film in post-production, and there isn’t an actor performing motion capture on set like with the Planet of the Apes reboot series or Alita: Battle Angel.

In addition to the synthetic main character, the human cast is a big part of what makes Dumbo work. There was a period in Colin Farrell’s career when Hollywood was pushing him as an action hero, and he’s much better as characters like Holt – quiet, tortured characters who are still noble, they’re just not spouting one-liners. Farrell brings a pensive sadness to Holt, who is handicapped after fighting in the war and is struggling to raise his two children after the death of his wife.

Michael Keaton is having heaps of fun as the slimy P.T. Barnum analogue. His villainous character is never truly terrifying and isn’t half as terrifying as Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s also the irony of a slick huckster who swallows up a smaller business being the villain in a Disney movie, given that Disney regularly swallows up slightly smaller businesses.

DeVito brings humour and heart to the role of Medici, someone who cares for his employees but who is struggling to make ends meet. The film hints that the circus performers have lives and personalities beyond their gimmick – Roshan Seth’s snake charmer character Pramesh Singh cares deeply for the elephants, while DeObia Oparei’s strong man character Rongo is also Medici’s accountant and general right-hand man.

Eva Green has become something of a muse of Burton’s, this being her third film with him. She brings elegance and mystique to the role of Colette, whom Vandevere keeps firmly under his thumb.

Nico Parker gives an assured performance as Milly, who has her heart set on becoming a scientist. She’s a girl ahead of her time, aspiring to something more than being a circus performer. Milly’s brother Joe is a bit less defined as a character, but Finley Hobbins is still quite endearing.

While Dumbo sometimes feels just a bit too conventional, it is a moving, often enchanting take on the classic animated film. The film benefits from just enough of Burton’s signature weirdness and darkness while still being something for the whole family.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ralph Breaks the Internet movie review

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Director : Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Cast : John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Flula Borg
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Family
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 22 November 2018
Rating : PG

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-posterWreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) may come from different arcade games, but after the events of the first Wreck-It Ralph film, they’ve become inseparable. In this sequel, the good-hearted oaf and the hyperactive princess get a lot more than they bargained for as they venture into the wild wild web.

It has been six years since Ralph and Vanellope became friends, and while Ralph finds comfort in the predictability of his daily routine as the designated villain  in the Fix-It Felix game, Vanellope has grown restless, the tracks of Sugar Rush no longer providing any excitement. When the steering wheel component of the Sugar Rush console breaks, Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly-installed connection to the internet to seek a replacement.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Ralph-overlooking-internet

In the cyber realm, our heroes meet all manner of colourful characters, including the badass driver Shank (Gal Gadot) from Slaughter Race, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), head algorithm of video sharing site BuzzTube, search engine KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk) and all the Disney princesses. While the internet contains endless wonderment and awe, there is also a dark side that Ralph and Vanellope are exposed to. When a calamity that could possibly break the internet is accidentally unleashed, Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship (and the computing power of servers around the world) will be put to the ultimate test.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-travelling-1

2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is one of this reviewer’s favourite Disney animated films in recent memory. It’s an energetic, effervescent film that cannily plays with video game tropes while delivering a heartfelt story populated by loveable characters. The sequel turbo-charges this, taking place on a larger scale and crammed with pop culture references, wordplay jokes and visual gags. Amidst everything swirling about in the teeming metropolis that is the internet, Ralph Breaks the Internet holds together because of its focus on the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Oh-My-Disney

It’s easy to be cynical about a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet, given that much of the story and humour is fuelled by online culture. Co-director Rich Moore cut his teeth on such series as The Critic, The Simpsons and Futurama, bringing much of that self-aware reference-heavy comedy to bear. A Grand Theft Auto-like game is crucial to the plot, Vanellope hangs out with Disney princesses, and Ralph attempts makeup tutorial, hot pepper eating challenge and unboxing videos, among others, in the hopes of becoming a viral sensation. The jokes could’ve very easily been too obvious or cringe-worthy, but in the hands of directors Moore and Phil Johnston, this film never feels like it’s made by clueless adults pandering to kids they don’t understand.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-1

As is expected from Disney Animation, the visuals brim with detail and the character animation is just the right amount of cartoony, the degree to which their features and expressions are heightened varying from character to character. There is a high-octane car chase straight out of the Fast and Furious films, and the visual interpretations of sites like eBay, Instagram and Pinterest are well thought-out and amusing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-slumber-party

The film’s signature sequence is the meeting between Vanellope and every official Disney Princess, including Snow White (Pamela Ribon), Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodie Benson), Belle (Paige O’Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Merida (Kelly McDonald), Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). Ribon, a screenwriter who also worked on Moana, conceptualised the scene. The House of Mouse gamely and entertainingly takes the Mickey out of its own core sub-brand, commenting on common tropes seen in the Princess movies while providing the fantasy imagery of all one’s favourite characters just hanging out together. Vanellope also runs into Marvel and Star Wars characters, and there is a cameo that is wont to tug on the heartstrings given recent events.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-eBay

Both Reilly and Silverman continue to provide great humanity and heart to their characters. Ralph has never had a real friend before Vanellope, and is understandably distraught at the prospect that he might be replaced as her best friend. Meanwhile, Vanellope struggles with issues of identity and belonging, feeling like she is meant for something greater and perhaps a little less safe than Sugar Rush. While the misunderstandings that occur between Ralph and Vanellope feel a little like a re-tread of the conflicts in the first film, both characters continue to develop and continue to be endearing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Shank

Gal Gadot plays a character who is pretty much exactly Gisele from the Fast and Furious series, which is a neat little nod. Taraji P. Henson voices the Yesss with effortless cool, with real-life YouTube personality Flula Borg as Yesss’ right-hand man Maybe. Alan Tudyk, Disney’s current lucky charm, voices KnowsMore; he voiced King Candy in the first film.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-Yesss-and-Vanellope

While Ralph Breaks the Internet’s pop culture reference jokes might lose some of the younger kids, its eye-catching design and heart-warming character interactions will hold their interest. The film doesn’t reach the surprising emotional heights of the first film, nor is it as creative and fresh, but it’s still plenty of fun and utterly hilarious. Stick around for a scene after the main-on-end titles and another at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong