Cruella – A Movie Review

I can’t lie–I loved Disney’s Cruella.

In fact, I was willing to pay the Disney Plus Premier fee so that my family could see it when it first came out, but nobody wanted to give it a shot. I thought it would be kind of strange if I watched it alone, so I agreed to wait until it arrived on Disney Plus for free.

That day finally arrived, and so my wife, daughters, and I all had a movie night last night on the couch.

I loved it. My daughters loved it. My wife fell asleep, but, to be fair, she’d had a long week.

Cruella delves into the history of the title character, all the way back to childhood. We learn how she became just so evil, though, honestly, I’ve never seen 101 Dalmatians, so I don’t know just how evil she actually got.

What I do know is that in Cruella, she’s not evil, nor is she good. Like all of us, she exists in a shade of grey. We simply dabble in that area–she tends to exist there while sliding from one end of the spectrum to the other.

The trailers initially caught my interest with Cruella. They looked stylish, interesting, and fun. Furthermore, I believe in Emma Stone. She rarely makes a bad movie. If she felt Cruella deserved her talents, I was more than happy to bear witness. Plus, let’s not forget Emma Thompson. Thompson has been Hollywood elite for decades. These are two Oscar winners, folks. Disney or not, they both wouldn’t have signed on to Cruella unless they thought it had promise.

Simply put–it’s a good movie. It’s entertaining, it looks great, the costumes are fantastic, there’s plenty of action, the soundtrack is amazing (listened to it just this morning), the special effects are extravagant, the acting is excellent, it’s safe for the whole family, and the comedy is actually pretty funny.

In fact, Cruella’s two friends/henchmen, Jasper and Horace, are hilarious. Best of all? They are perhaps two of the most capable henchmen in the history of cinema. Cruella pulls off some pretty impressive feats in this film, all due to the efforts of Jasper and Horace, played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. Oh, and let’s not forget Buddy and Wink, the adorable canine companions of Cruella, Jasper, and Horace. Though they aren’t Dalmatians, they are responsible for a large part of Cruella’s comedy.

Look, I’ve tried to offer some valuable insight into why I liked Cruella, but it really just comes down this–it’s cool. The filming is cool. The music is cool. The actors are cool. The costumes are cool. It just felt cool.

Don’t believe me? Go watch it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Jungle Cruise – A Movie Review

I struggle with paying the extra $30 for a movie on Disney Plus when I already pay for a Disney Plus subscription. Quite honestly, I feel a little fleeced when it happens. Of course, I can rationalize it by saying, “Well, you know, we’d spend more at the actual theater if it wasn’t available on Disney Plus, so we’re ultimately coming out ahead.” Anyway, we paid the thirty bucks.

And you know what? As my youngest daughter said halfway through Jungle Cruise: “This is totally worth the money!”

Yes, I’m a dad, so my kids get to hear me groan about extra expenditures.

But she was right. Believe it or not, Jungle Cruise absolutely lived up to the purchase price.

I’ve read a few headlines saying Jungle Cruise is nothing more than an advertisement for the theme ride, and I have to disagree. Yes, the movie is obviously inspired by the attraction and so there are going to be similarities, but I honestly believe this film could have stood on its own with a different name and been just fine.

True, it’s borrowing moves from some pretty successful playbooks. It’s a little bit Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle, a little bit Pirates Of the Caribbean, and a little bit Raiders Of the Lost Ark, but those are not bad movies to emulate, right?

Most of the film, as you would expect, occurs either on or in water, and so you have to appreciate the technical execution of filming this thing. It also looks fabulous in terms of water crafts, costumes, architecture, flora, animals, and general scenery. The film is set in 1916, so making these items look authentic would not have been easy feats to accomplish. Furthermore, for the most part, the film’s CGI was above average, especially in regards to a certain big cat. CGI can really suffer on the small screen, and Jungle Cruise had a few CGI stumbles, but overall it appeared fairly seamless.

The plot is pretty familiar in terms of generalities. Person A has an object leading to a treasure. Person A needs Person B to guide her to said treasure. Person B is not entirely trustworthy or who he seems. Person A has doubts. Adventure ensues. Person A and B then … Well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?

Yet, even though the plot is tried and true, the chemistry between the leads is absolutely what makes this movie work. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, on their own, are about as charismatic as it gets. Put them together, along with Blunt’s onscreen brother played by Jack Whitehall, and you have a terrific trinity perhaps rivaling Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. (Okay, maybe I took that one too far.) They really do sizzle together, though.

With tons of great humor, lots of terrible dad jokes, ample action, fantastic adventure, and some thrilling but not-too-frightening jump scares, Jungle Cruise managed to entertain both of my kids, my wife, and me. It’s pretty rare that all four of us are equally satisfied.

That being said, if you’re looking to spend theater prices without actually going to the theater, you can’t do much better in terms of a family film than Jungle Cruise. Enjoy!

(P.S. Once everyone has seen it and I don’t have to worry about spoilers, I plan to write a thorough analysis explaining the purpose behind Johnson’s dad jokes. As a former teacher, I totally related. Stay tuned!)

Luca – A Movie Review

Quite honestly, when I sat down with my daughters to watch this movie, I had virtually no idea what it was about. We wanted to do a movie night, we all generally like Disney Pixar films, Luca was pretty new, and so we decided to go for it.

The animation immediately caught my attention–it is beautiful. This, of course, is in large part due to the scenery. Most of this movie takes place in brightly lit underwater locales, on a lush island, or in a quaint little town I assumed to be somewhere in Italy. Every scale, every pebble on the beach, every thread of clothing, every wave–it’s all exquisite.

I also loved the timelessness of the film. Other than the Vespa and a train, there is no real indication of a specific time period. I believe the Vespa arrived in 1949, if Google is to be trusted, and so that gives Luca a very wide range, which, to me, was very much part of its charm.

However, I have to admit that the story took a while to really catch my interest. Once the primary theme became evident, though, I found myself captivated. I won’t spoil the specific plot, but the movie ends up examining childhood friendships that take place in those early teen years. Those are the years when one is still a bit of a child, but also a bit of an adult, and friendships can be very complex as a result. I adored the complicated friendship between the three main characters, the loyalty they had to one another, and the difficulties each experienced as they had to ultimately walk their own path.

Of course, I’ve just made Luca sound far heavier than it actually is. Disney Pixar is notorious for inducing tears, but, in the case of Luca, if one does cry, it will be due to joy. To me, this is a feel-good movie celebrating everything that is good about friendship.

By the way, there’s some great voices in this film. Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan were inspired casting as Luca’s parents. The kids–Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Emma Berman–delivered the emotional and comedic beats quite well. Oh, and I challenge you to pinpoint Sacha Baron Cohen as you watch Luca. I couldn’t believe it when I saw his name in the credits!

I definitely recommend Luca as a fun, wholesome, funny movie for the whole family to enjoy.

Soul – A Movie Review

I loved Soul, but my kids can’t necessarily say the same.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, the premise is that Joe, a middle school band teacher, is finally about to catch his big break after years of near misses. He’s landed a coveted jazz gig, one that could literally change his life, but then experiences an accident that will probably end up killing him hours before his performance. He travels to a point leading to “the great beyond,” but manages to escape that plane of existence by finding the place souls reside before being born. From that moment forth, he attempts to hitch a ride back to Earth in order to repossess his own body.

Does that sound complicated? It is. Yet, for as complex and even existential as Soul is, it unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner.

At its heart, Soul is about managing what drives us in life while still maintaining a willingness to enjoy every day. It’s an important lesson, one that I think many adults will respond to. Furthermore, as a parent, I strongly reacted to how we guide our children through childhood. We so often want our children to find “their thing,” to excel in a specific area, that we forget to allow them to simply explore all of life’s facets. Soul reminds us that living well should be enough.

The animation is, as you would expect from Pixar, exquisite. In fact, my wife commented that, until the characters enter the frame, the Earthly environments are photorealistic. I also have to commend the surrealistic scenarios depicting those moments beyond reality as we know it. They were challenging, astonishing, fun, and beautiful.

In fact, Pixar showed incredible bravery in even making Soul. This is a high-concept, philosophical, even potentially controversial film–and it’s a children’s movie! But, even having said all that, it’s fun. It’s funny. Even while diving deeply into the meaning of life, it’s still graceful and lighthearted.

Of course, when a movie features a jazz musician, the jazz must be perfect. Jon Batiste fills that role flawlessly. And as for those reality-bending moments outside of life as we know it? Who else could be better at that kind of music than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame?

Finally, Jamie Foxx delivers a likability to Joe even when Joe is not always likable. Joe has allowed his passion to overtake virtually every other aspect of his life, and Foxx understands how to convey this without making Joe seem villainous. Tina Fey plays a soul named 22 who becomes ensnared in Joe’s plot to return to Earth, and, like Joe, 22 is not always her best self. Yet, Tina Fey straddles that line between making 22 both annoying and lovable that, frankly, shouldn’t have worked. In the end, both Foxx and Fey’s voices are the reason the movie hits the emotional pitch that it does.

However, though my wife and I loved it, I should note that my kids weren’t crazy about it. My eight-year-old had a little trouble following the plot and said everything kind of looked the same, whereas my twelve-year-old described it as just “okay” and kind of “weird.”

Pixar has sometimes been accused of making very adult children’s movies, and I wonder if Soul will end up winning over more adults than children. Regardless, Soul is a daring, gorgeous movie that isn’t afraid to tackle truly existential issues.

Mulan (2020) – A Movie Review

As a family, and after a very long week, we were very excited to watch Mulan the night it premiered on Disney Plus. 

I can honestly say it was a hit with the whole family!

My eight-year-old and twelve-year-old daughters liked the action, the humor, the live horses, and the fact that an out-and-out action movie starred a female lead. 

My wife appreciated the “girl-power” aspect of the film and that fact that, while epic in scope of warriors warring, it never crossed the line into overt violence. (I challenge you to find a drop of blood among all the swordplay in this film.) She also liked the theme imparting the importance of family.

I found the cinematography breathtaking. There are some incredible shots of landscapes in this film. They also utilize unique angles and perspectives enough so that I actually found myself commenting on it. That doesn’t happen to me very often. 

I delighted in their nod to traditional Chinese action cinema. There’s a lot of wire work in this film with people running up walls, along walls, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, which is fairly common in Chinese film. My eight-year-old asked me at one point if people can really run sideways on a wall. I briefly explained what was going on with that. Total dad move, I know.

Speaking of action, there’s quite a bit of it in Mulan. I found it very interesting how they suggested a great deal of violence without actually showing anything all that violent. If you pay attention, you’ll notice quick cut after quick cut in the action scenes. They don’t linger too long on any one shot during the battles, and that is done with intention. By Disney’s standards, this is a pretty violent film, but I still had no problems letting my eight-year-old watch it because it never actually showed anything. In fact, though it’s rated PG-13, I would have been comfortable with it having a PG rating. 

Granted, some of the action is a little hokey. There are moments that absolutely remind an adult that this is a Disney film and therefore a film primarily aimed at children. But, overall, even this grizzled old man found it quite exciting to watch. 

Furthermore, it was fantastic to see some of our favorite actors in this film. Jason Scott Lee, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li all play significant roles in Mulan. The crazy part was that I somehow didn’t recognize any of them until the credits rolled! Jet Li is virtually unrecognizable. And Jason Scott Lee’s performance proves that he has been extremely underutilized in Hollywood. 

Yifei Liu plays Mulan, and though the actress has been the subject of controversy, there’s no denying the fact that she oozes charisma. She is simply interesting to watch. Her acting didn’t blow me away, but I still found myself captivated by her performance.

However, to me, the real star of the movie is Li Gong. My understanding is that she plays a completely new character named Xianniang, a witch, and I found her character to be the most complex, the most sympathetic, and the most interesting. I was shocked when I visited her IMDB page and saw her body of work. Li Gong has been around for a long time! Though her scenes probably take up no more than fifteen minutes of the film, they were a fantastic fifteen minutes. 

Of course, it’s only fair that I mention that Mushu, the dragon from the cartoon, is nowhere to be seen. However, they do replace him in a way with something quite mesmerizing and important to the story. Mulan is somewhat rooted in reality, at least enough so that a character like Mushu wouldn’t fit. Also, there is no singing in this version of Mulan. You’ll hear some familiar orchestra music, but there are no ballads or bangers. 

I’d also like to briefly talk about the price point. As Disney Plus subscribers, we had to pay $30 for the premier access. For me, this was not an issue. Let me explain why. First of all, we haven’t been to a movie theater in six months due to the pandemic and we’re desperate for something approximating the big-budget, blockbuster experience. Secondly, I would have spent far more than $30 at the actual theater–after tickets, drinks, and popcorn it probably would have been closer to $70. Does it bother me that I had to pay when I already have a Disney Plus subscription? No, because I still would have paid that $70 at the theater while still having my Disney Plus subscription. Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that we would have bought the Blu-Ray in three months, so tack on another $25. Because we bought Mulan on Disney Plus, we now own it for as long as we have our Disney Plus subscription. In my mind, I’m actually coming out ahead. Feel free to disagree with me, but that’s my point of view on the topic. 

If you’re looking for a family movie night, I absolutely recommend Mulan. I’m not sure I would let a child younger than seven or eight watch it, but if you’ve got kids around that age or older, it’s perfect. Enjoy!

Black Panther II: Wakanda Forever – An Open Movie Treatment

I felt shocked when I heard the news on Friday night regarding Mr. Chadwick Boseman’s death. Though I mourned the loss of what seemed to be a genuinely good man and an obviously exceptional actor, I empathized especially with all the children who saw themselves in Black Panther. To them, they lost a hero. I understood the tremendous loss to those adults who envisioned an ideal when they heard the words “Wakanda Forever.” To them, they lost a movement.

My brain started turning and turning on Friday night. Though I have no affiliation with Disney or Marvel, I wanted to find a way to honor Mr. Chadwick Boseman, to honor the children who love Black Panther, and to honor those adults who believe in Wakanda Forever.

This treatment is the result of that inspiration. I gladly give it to Marvel and Disney Studios as a small token of appreciation to Mr. Chadwick Bosmeman and to all who made the first Black Panther a cultural phenomenon. This story must continue. It’s not T’Challa Forever. It’s not even Black Panther Forever. It’s Wakanda Forever.

Black Panther II: Wakanda Forever – An open treatment by Scott William Foley

  • Fade in to text – “In Loving Memory Of Chadwick Boseman”
  • Fade out
  • Fade in to massive funeral in Wakanda full of global dignitaries
  • Near the casket stands Ramonda, Shuri, Nakia, Okoye, W’Kabi, and M’Baku
  • Further out stands Everett Ross and several Avengers
  • Near the back stands presidents, kings, and everything in between
  • Victor Von Doom, adorned in Latverian royal garb, stands next to Namor, who wears the armor and crown of Atlantis–both are kings
  • Namor sneers while saying he was to renew a peace treaty with King T’Challa next month
  • Doom growls that he has no peace treaties with any nation–including Atlantis
  • Namor mentions a global power vacuum with King T’Challa dead
  • From under his hood, Doom watches the extravagant proceedings
  • Days later, Wakanda unanimously names Shuri Queen of Wakanda and heir to the title of Black Panther
  • Shuri does not want the crown; she wants to return to her work in Oakland; she wants to find a cure to cancer so that no one else has to suffer like T’Challa privately did; she is not given a choice–she is named Queen
  • Weeks later, she meets with King Namor of Atlantis in her Wakanda throne room
  • He refuses to renew their peace treaty and warns Queen Shuri of Victor Von Doom and his enslaved nation Latveria
  • During their meeting, Victor Von Doom attacks both Wakanda and Atlantis with his army of technologicaly advanced war machines
  • Wakanda easily dispels the attack; Queen Shuri has electronic eyes and ears everywhere; she cannot be outsmarted
  • Namor races to Atlantis where a fierce battle ensues
  • It isn’t until Shuri’s forces arrive that Doom’s army is driven away
  • Namor is furious that Shuri did not warn him
  • Shuri had no intelligence regarding the attack on Atlantis; Doom used Wakanda as a decoy to procure Atlantian technology
  • General Okoye demands Namor sign a peace treaty with Wakanda; though with great fuss, he does so
  • Shuri studies Doom; she confirms he has enslaved his entire nation; he steals the most advanced technology he can find; he experiments on his own enslaved people; he wears cybernetic armor stolen from Tony Stark’s blueprints beneath his robes; he is supposedly kept alive only by that armor
  • As Black Panther, Shuri independently invades Victor Von Doom’s castle
  • Her suit’s technology is superior to every defense Doom has at his disposal
  • They end up battling face to face in Doom’s throne room
  • She mortally wounds him; as he lay dying, she rips off his face plate to see a ravaged, hideous face
  • She offers him the choice to free his nation and live, or die right then and there
  • He agrees to free the slaves; Shuri’s suit broadcasts the declaration in real time across the world
  • Shuri takes out a device and injects Victor Von Doom while saying, “I couldn’t save my brother, but now no one else has to suffer–including you.”
  • She injects Victor Von Doom; his wounds heal, his face heals, his body is completely renewed
  • Shuri says, “Wakanda Forver isn’t a catchphrase. It’s gospel. Now more than ever.”
  • Nakia and Ramonda arrive soon thereafter and serve as advisors to Latveria’s new government
  • Doom is imprisoned by the people of Latveria
  • Queen Shuri, the Black Panther, returns to Wakanda
  • She briefly appears on a deck overlooking thousands of cheering citizens, to whom she waves
  • She then heads to her lab
  • Credits roll
  • After credits stinger: A peaceful protest at night in front of The White House; protesters are on their knees with their hands up chanting, “Don’t shoot/Hands up”; the police are using loudspeakers to beg the protesters to disperse, that the President’s security cannot be jeopardized; a stealth craft appears overhead without warning; everyone panics–the police, the secret service, the protesters; Black Panther drops from the craft onto the pavement and faces the protesters; she slowly turns, faces the police, removes her mask, drops to her knees, lifts her hands, and joins in the chant; total silence with camera on Shuri’s face; fade to black; text appears as this quote from Chadwick Boseman: “The only difference between a hero and the villain is that the villain chooses to use that power in a way that is selfish and hurts other people.”

Disney’s Prop Culture Gave Me the Feels

propculture

Disney Plus recently released an original series called Prop Culture. In this show, the host visits iconic props from seminal, sometimes historic, Disney movies.

My family and I watched the first episode this evening, which focused on Mary Poppins. I’ll be honest with you–I’m not a fan of the original Mary Poppins. I somehow missed it in childhood and, though I’ve seen it since, it just doesn’t do much for me. (Interestingly enough, I thoroughly enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns.)

So, even with that being said, this first episode about moved me to tears on at least five different occasions. (It wasn’t just me, by the way. My wife admitted as much, too.) I won’t spoil it for you, but the host doesn’t just visit iconic props, he visits iconic people relating to those props. In the case of Mary Poppins, some of these people haven’t seen these props since 1964. To see their faces light up, to see the raw emotion on their faces at the sight of the prop … it was quite moving. For many of them, Mary Poppins was their crowning achievement (and what an achievement it was!). To see that brief return to greatness, that moment of glory–incredible stuff. Keep in mind, I have no emotional attachment to the film and I literally didn’t know anyone the host visited. It was simply a visceral experience to behold.

Of course, the whole thing celebrates Disney and idolizes Uncle Walt. I can’t deny it’s an advertisement for everything Disney. But, hey, I figure if you’ve got Disney Plus you’re already among the faithful. There’s no denying that Disney deserves every ounce of fandom they’ve garnered, and these props truly are a part of cinematic history.

If you love movies, movie history, movie props, or if you simply love seeing pure joy on people’s faces, Prop Culture is a must-watch.

Onward – A Movie Review

onward movie poster

We love both Disney and Pixar in this family, so we intended to see Onward in the theater. Unfortunately, the outbreak had other plans for everyone.

Amazingly, Disney rushed Onward to video-on-demand weeks after its theatrical release. Until this moment in time, such a thing was unprecedented. Perhaps even more surprising, Disney announced that Onward would then arrive on Disney+ soon after the video-on-demand debut. Though I would have otherwise paid for Onward with video-on-demand since the entire family could enjoy it, we decided we could instead wait until it came to Disney+ since we subscribe to that service.

Onward debuted on the streaming platform today, and we just finished watching it.

First of all, the animation is incredible. It’s a beautiful movie to watch, and the details are now so nuanced in these things that you can actually see dust particles in the air. Secondly, it’s a very fun movie. The idea of fairy tale creatures living in modern times is not necessarily new, but I haven’t seen it done before with quite such an irreverent attitude. Biker pixies? Yeah, so what? Garbage eating winged-unicorns? Big deal. Dragons as house pets? Not impressed. I found this blase tone of the movie in regards to these things really funny. Finally, it’s hard not to root for characters played by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. These are two of Hollywood’s most likable men, after all.

And while my kids enjoyed it well enough, and I enjoyed it well enough, it didn’t touch me the way typical Pixar movies do. Cars, Toy Story, Coco, Inside Out–these are Pixar films that sparked a real emotional connection with me. On paper, Onward should have, but it didn’t.

Is this because of the movie, or is this because we were all piled on the couch, hitting pause for snacks, and talking whenever we felt like it? I don’t know. I’d love to know what your experience was like with that aspect of home viewing.

However, it is certainly a fun family movie. I absolutely recommend it if you’re all looking to spend some time together watching a film. It’s funny, has great graphics, and moves very quickly. Just don’t expect that emotional touchstone. Maybe that’s not a bad thing during these hard times? Nothing wrong with a little fun escapism, right?

The Mandalorian – A Few Thoughts

This is probably my favorite show of all time, so there is no excuse for just now writing about it months after it debuted.

By the way, yes, I’m a Star Wars fanatic. And, no, I’m not capable of being objective when it comes to Star Wars.

However, even with that being said, this is still a phenomenal show for the following reasons.

First of all–it’s got heart. You can tell that the creators of this show wanted it to be great. It looks great. The acting is great. The costumes are great. The story is great. The action is great. They are trying very, very hard to make a great experience for the viewer, and it shows in every way.

Secondly–they nailed the characters. The Mandalorian himself is incredible. We virtually never see his face, yet we care about him. We care about his beliefs, his motives, and his well-being. Obviously, a young character appears that depends on The Mandalorian for safety, and this is partially why we care so much about The Mandalorian himself. A bond forms between this other character and The Mandalorian, almost like that of a father and child, which causes us to see The Mandalorian in a completely different light. This child, by the way, is the element that will capture the hearts of even those who don’t count themselves among the Star Wars faithful. I know this because I saw it happen on several different occasions with people who couldn’t care less about Star Wars or science fiction in general.

Thirdly–this feels like a Star Wars story. Sure, you can absolutely watch it without knowing anything. It stands on its own as a self-contained series. However, if you know Star Wars, it feels like it belongs to the original trilogy from the Seventies and Eighties–it’s got that kind of magic.

Finally–if you are among the enlightened and enjoy Star Wars in all its forms, you will revel in the tiny references, the brief cameos, and the clever in-jokes.

Whether you’re a Star Wars fan or not, this series appeals to everyone. As we’re all stuck at home due to the outbreak, I would put this at the top of your “must-watch” list.

themandalorian

The Ride Of a Lifetime by Robert Iger – A Book Review

rideofalifetime

No one is more surprised that I’ve become a Disney acolyte than, well, me. The serious devotion began after visiting Walt Disney World. Since then, I’ve paid close attention to Disney’s dealings–both past and present. The acquisition of Pixar, securing Marvel, getting hold of the Star Wars intellectual properties, taking Fox, introducing Disney+ … these are impressive feats!

And the man leading the way in all of these endeavors? Robert Iger.

The Ride Of a Lifetime is a brief, simple read, but it is filled with captivating information. Iger spends a little bit of time discussing his rise to prominence from rather humble beginnings, his careful navigation of the Disney hierarchy, as well as his core tenets regarding business.

However, for this reader, the primary joy of the book derived from learning about how Iger and Disney managed all of their most recent, and momentous, accomplishments. Iger is careful to talk about each acquisition respectfully and he is incredibly thoughtful in regards to Steve Jobs and George Lucas in particular, yet he also surprised me by some of his rather candid remarks pertaining to certain Disney executives as well as some of the competition.

If you are interested in Disney, business, or the entertainment industry, I highly recommend The Ride Of a Lifetime. It is well-written, informative, and–best of all–fun to read.