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.

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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

Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pride Rock of Ages: The Lion King musical press call

For inSing

PRIDE ROCK OF AGES: THE LION KING MUSICAL PRESS CALL

inSing is transported to the plains of Africa for a peek at The Lion King musical

By Jedd Jong

“Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!”

That’s the evocative cry by Lebo M. which opens the 1994 animated film The Lion King. It’s Zulu for “Here comes a lion, Father” –  and several lions have arrived back at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre in Singapore.

The Lion King stage musical premiered in 1997 and took the world by storm. It has gone on to become the world’s top-grossing musical, and when it first came to Singapore in 2011, enjoyed a record-breaking eight-month-long run.

The show features an eclectic blend of music, incorporating the expanded film score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, songs by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., director Julie Taymor and Robert Elhai.

Even more than its sound, it is the look of The Lion King that has captivated theatre-going audiences around the world. Taymor approached translating the animated film to the stage with a specific vision, incorporating puppetry inspired by traditional Balinese, Javanese and Japanese dance and theatre. Technical innovations were married with a variety of cultural inspirations, creating a unique theatrical presentation.

Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King tells the story of Simba, who suffers a tragic loss in his childhood and must return to rescue the kingdom he has fled, where his evil uncle Scar now rules.

The 2018 international tour presented by The Michael Cassel group in association with Disney Theatrical Productions enjoyed a run in Manila before transferring to Singapore. There’s an emphasis on ‘international’ – cast members from 19 countries including South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Australia, and the United Kingdom comprise the ensemble.

This iteration of the show began with casting and rehearsals in South Africa, with the participation of co-composer Lebo M and the show’s original director Taymor.

“It’s been quite an adventure, a lot of milestones, too many to remember,” Lebo said wistfully.

When Lebo M. was brought into the studio by Hans Zimmer to sing a demo, the animated film didn’t even have an official title yet. What could’ve been just another gig for the South African singer wound up changing his life. “It turns out that the demo I did, “Nants ingonyama”, what you hear around the world for the last 25 years is exactly what it was when we did the demo. Two takes.”

It’s clear that even after all this time, Lebo M. is deeply attached to the show. “It keeps you very busy, keeps you fresh, you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing for 22 years,” he remarked, adding that “when you have a project like this, it’s very hard to do something else.”

Michael Cassel and Lebo M.

Australian producer Michael Cassel also has a history with the show – he was responsible for setting up Disney Theatrical in Australia at age 21 in 2002. “It’s where I learned how to be a producer,” Cassel said of The Lion King. Cassel promises that the experience that audiences watching the show in Singapore will get is exactly the same as what they can expect from a Broadway or West End production of The Lion King. “It’s the same show. There are no changes, no compromises, no reductions to the show,” Cassel declared. He added that interest in the Singapore season has already “exceeded expectations”.

At the press call, the opening number “Circle of Life” was performed. It’s a truly overwhelming piece in which audiences first witness the various types of puppetry and movement used to bring animals from cheetahs to elephants to life. Right out the gate, the show’s magic embraces the audience.

“I love watching the reaction of the audience during “Circle of Life”. I’ve seen grown men cry,” dance captain Theresa Nguyen commented.

The show is a physically intensive one that requires its performers to be skilled in multiple disciplines. “We have some of the best dancers in this company, so I was very fortunate to start with highly technical, highly trained and very strong performers,” Nguyen said of the ensemble. “It’s a real challenge to put on a puppet on your head, or a cheetah on your back, or to carry heavy shields and dance and tell a story.”

For Jonathan Andrew Hume, who plays Simba, returning to Singapore with The Lion King holds a special significance. Hume joined the ensemble of the show in the West End in 2001, and worked his way up to audition for the role of Simba in 2010. In 2011, he starred as Simba when the show came to Singapore.

“To be able to come back to Singapore to do the show which is so special to me, it was my crowning of being Simba, I really feel like I’m coming home,” Hume said. Things have come full circle for him – a circle of life, if you will.

Speaking about the international cast and crew, Hume said “We rely on each other, we support each other and we respect each other – not just onstage, but offstage. That kind of relationship only breeds a beautiful performance that you see every single day on the show.”

Noxolo Dlamini and Jonathan Andrew Hume

Noxolo Dlamini stars opposite Hume as Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest. This writer asked about her reaction to Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which recently brought cultural elements from across the African continent to mass audiences.

“Watching Black Panther was absolutely incredible because I’m from South Africa and it was lovely to see me being represented in a Hollywood film, and The Lion King is just the same,” Dlamini observed. “It’s beautiful because we love to share our culture, and I think with any culture all around the world, it’s so beautiful to see people appreciate your culture.”

The many demands of the roles require the cast to be in peak physical condition. “I try to eat well. Singapore has such good food and I love good food, but I also need to remember that I have a job to do,” Dlamini quipped with a laugh. “It’s just remembering that I need to keep in shape and I need that corset to fit me over the next three months,” she said, adding “I do it for Nala.”

The father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba is at the emotional core of the show. Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, who plays Mufasa, drew on his personal background for his interpretation of the role. “I come from a very spiritual family and tradition myself, as a Zulu man. I believe in my ancestors as well. It helps to have that connection when Mufasa has to impart his life lessons and his traditions and his spirituality to Young Simba.”

Antony Lawrence and Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile

Even out of costume during our interview, Khanyile projects the ideal blend of regalness and warmth. Speaking about how Mufasa must be both a king and a father, Khanyile mused “it’s a balance that he has to find. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know he’s running out of time, but he has a sense that he has to get this message across to [Simba] now. He has to take the mask off at certain points and be a father and just not be the king at all, and there’s a different Mufasa that comes out in that instance.”

Khanyile takes the expectations audiences will have of him in his stride. “Everyone remembers the first time they saw The Lion King, and when Mufasa dies, how they felt,” he said. “Having that as something that I am entrusted with to give to an audience eight times a week is a huge responsibility.” Rather than being daunted by it, Khanyile is empowered by the expectations. “I know that I have to do the best and I know that I have to enjoy it, because if I’m enjoying it, then the audience gets to enjoy the character as well,” he explained.

English actor Antony Lawrence plays Scar, the villain of the piece – or, as this writer likes to refer to the character, ‘Clawdius’. Lawrence identified Scar as marking a turning point in the chronology of Disney villains, who had earlier mostly been cackling witches. “He has his scary moments, but then he’s incredibly funny and incredibly sarcastic and he’s witty and he’s charming,” Lawrence observed. “He’s not just evil, there are all these other layers to him.”

Scar derives pleasure from manipulating others so he can get a rise out of them. “He loves winding Zazu up, he loves winding Mufasa up,” Lawrence said. “If he makes his brother snap, all of a sudden the king’s not acting very king-like, and he made that happen.”

For a show with so many moving parts, there are bound to be the occasional snags, but Lawrence and his castmates roll with the punches. “If something happens, the important thing is to stay in character and use it in a way,” he reasoned. “My mask can sometimes be a bit temperamental and if it moves by itself, I just go with it.”

Zazu, the king’s majordomo, represents the colonial presence in Africa and is a caricature of a stuffy English butler. Australian actor André Jewson portrays the supercilious hornbill. He recalled being “blown away by the inventiveness and beauty of the production” when he first saw The Lion King during a family holiday to Sydney. Dressed in a bowler hat and tails, sporting white and blue facepaint and manipulating a Zazu puppet, Jewson sticks out from the rest of the cast, and that’s by design.

“He’s very erect, he’s like a butler or even a waiter – the arm [held out in front of him] is like a waiter in a posh restaurant with a white napkin over the arm,” Jewson said as he demonstrated the Zazu puppet for the press. Jewson summed up Zazu’s traits as “twitchiness, reminiscent of fight, of flight, bird characteristics melded with this posh Englishman.” Jewson said that acting with the puppet felt awkward for the first month of rehearsal, but after that point, it all became muscle memory.

The puppets were designed by Taymor and Michael Curry – Curry recently devised the Sven reindeer costume for Disney Theatrical’s latest Broadway musical, Frozen. A core concept of the presentation of the Lion King musical is the ‘double event’ – the actors operating the puppets are not hidden, so the expressions and movements of the actors, in addition to the way they manipulate the puppets, informs the character.

Tim Lucas Tan and Doc Zorthian

Tim Lucas Tan is the head of the puppet department. He was inspired to get into modelmaking by the Star Wars films, and is a part of the Singapore-based animatronics effects and specialty costume studio Core Crew FX. “A lot of the stuff that was used the make the puppets was cutting-edge technology that’s now the norm,” Tan said. The puppet department is on high alert during the show to ensure everything is shipshape. “This show runs at a particular speed and pace,” Tan noted. “Should anything happen, we need to get it fixed on the side and get it to work.”

Production supervisor Doc Zorthian was the original stage manager for The Lion King on Broadway in 1997 and has been a fixture of the show ever since. “Everything is so unique. Everything is designed so specifically, and yet it’s like a simple stroke,” Zorthian enthused. “You don’t really realise how powerful the details are, and when the details are missing, it loses such an impact.”

Over 20 years on, Zorthian still finds the magic in the routine. “We’ll rehearse it and rehearse it, but that first preview when there’s an audience in the auditorium for the first time, I still get chills,” he said. “There’s an energy in the room and your body just tingles. I’m still trying to figure out what it is, but it’s so electric and so exciting. People really react to it.”

Before The Lion King returns to the big screen in 2019, in the form of a photo-realistic CGI remake directed by Jon Favreau, audiences in Singapore can venture into the Pridelands at the MBS Theatre. The Lion King is now playing until 26 August 2018. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/lionking0918 for tickets.

Incredibles 2 movie review

For inSing

INCREDIBLES 2

Director : Brad Bird
Cast : Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr
Genre : Animation/Family/Action
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 14 June 2018
Rating : PG

A lot can happen in 14 years. While that’s how long audiences have had to wait for a sequel to Pixar’s The Incredibles, barely a minute has elapsed in-universe.

Incredibles 2 picks up right where the first film left off. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) seem like the ideal crime-fighting family. However, superheroes are still deemed illegal, with the authorities blaming the Incredibles and their ilk for the collateral damage incurred.

Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), heir to a telecommunications fortune and superhero fanboy. Together with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston runs DeavorTech and has a plan to win over the public and lawmakers, to make superheroes legal again. Bob feels a touch insecure when DeavorTech gravitates towards Helen, making her the face of this campaign while he’s left at home looking after the children.

To complicate things, Jack-Jack begins manifesting an array of powers. In the meantime, Elastigirl faces off against a dastardly villain called ‘the Screenslaver’, who hypnotises his victims via monitors. Together with long-time allies Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), The Parr family must adjust to the new status quo and save the world while they’re at it.

A follow-up to The Incredibles has been one of the most-requested films from Pixar fans. That movie was a game-changer, a stylish superhero film that also served as meta commentary on the superhero phenomenon. It’s been said that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie that could ever be made. It also touched on similar themes as the considerably more adult graphic novel Watchmen, primarily the relationship between superheroes and the public they protect, and following superheroes after they retire and attempt to adjust to everyday life.

As such, expectations for Incredibles 2 are sky-high. The film mostly meets those expectations. It’s unavoidable that the 14-year wait has dilated those expectations, but it’s important to consider how much the pop culture landscape has changed, and how big a boom the comic book movie genre has experienced in those intervening years. While Incredibles 2 isn’t as ground-breaking as its predecessor, it’s still enjoyable and, as expected from Pixar, finely made.

Many of the design elements first seen in The Incredibles are vividly expanded upon here. The appealing 50s-tinged retro-futurism is turbo-charged here – writer-director Brad Bird displays a similar mastery of nostalgia as he did with The Iron Giant. The Parrs move into a house that strongly resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and Michael Giacchino’s score homages both John Barry’s James Bond scores and Neal Hefti’s Batman ’66 theme. The influence of the classic Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons is also strongly felt. It’s nostalgia on multiple levels, since audiences are already nostalgic for the first Incredibles film. However, most nostalgia-driven media these days is centred around the 80s or 90s, not the 50s, giving Incredibles 2 a degree of novelty.

The action set pieces are marvels to behold. From the city-spanning spectacle of Elastgirl attempting to halt a runaway train to the physical comedy of Jack-Jack tussling with an unruly raccoon, Incredibles 2 packs in memorable, eye-catching moments. Several new superheroes, including the portal-generating Voyd (Sophia Bush), allow for even more dynamic visual invention. Every comic book movie seems to struggle with outdoing the last in terms of delivering spectacle, so its admirable that the action sequences in Incredibles 2 are as stylish and animated with as much panache as they are.

The characterisation remains consistent, and much of the fun and the heart in this film, as with the previous one, is in how convincing the Parrs are as a family unit. Superpowers may be thrown into the mix, but the interactions between parents and children are eminently relatable. Bob struggles with feeling inadequate as the spotlight is placed squarely on his wife, and the film fleshes this out instead of reducing it to a single joke. We see Bob try to be a good father to his three kids, struggling with understanding new math, helping Violet deal with relationship issues, and wrangling Jack-Jack, who can now disappear between dimensions (among other things).

Helen wants to be there for her family, but enjoys the thrill of solo superhero work, realising how much she’s missed that. Given how filmgoers are opening up to female-led superhero movies, it makes sense to train the spotlight on Elastigirl.

The Screenslaver has a cool gimmick and his character is commentary on our dependence on passive consumption of media. It’s meta, but not quite as meta as this reviewer was hoping. A supervillain with the power to control minds and brainwash heroes to do his bidding is hardly a fresh idea, but Incredibles 2 mostly makes it work.

The show is completely stolen by Jack-Jack. The film relishes in depicting the various mind-boggling abilities he exhibits, and how Bob and the other kids attempt to wrangle him. Lucius’ reaction to Jack-Jack’s powers is priceless, and the scene in which Bob goes to Edna for advice regarding the baby is hilarious. Despite a tendency to take the form of a demon, Jack-Jack is adorably good-natured yet not overly cutesy.

If you loved The Incredibles, there’s a lot in Incredibles 2 to enjoy. It might not reach the same heights as its predecessor, nor is it as poignant and emotional as many Pixar films, but it’s clear that plenty of love and effort went into constructing this stylish, entertaining movie.

Bao, the short film directed by Domee Shi that precedes the feature, is a gorgeously-animated, adorable and heart-rending meditation on empty nest syndrome which also plays on how integral food is to familial relations in Chinese families. Try not to watch it hungry.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong