THE LION KING: 3 STARS
A fitting tag line for the new, photo-realistic “The Lion King” would be something along the lines of “You will believe a meerkat can sing! And lions too!” The good folks at Disney and director Jon Favreau have created computer-generated animals that chatter and sing like high-tech Mr. Eds, but does it improve on the original or is it a deepfake copycat of the 1994 classic?
Beat for beat, the story is familiar. We see young Simba, the lion prince voiced by J.D. McCrary as a cub and then by Donald Glover as a full-grown king of the jungle, presented to his tribe by proud parents Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). One day the Pride Lands, everything the sun touches, will be his (“It belongs to no one,” intones Mufasa, “but it will be yours to protect.”) unless his evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who feels he is the rightful heir, has his way. After an attempt or two to jump the succession queue, Scar succeeds, manufacturing the ultimate betrayal of his brother and nephew. Simba, riddled with guilt, wrongly thinking he caused the death of his father, goes into exile. “The king is dead,” Scar hisses, “and if it weren’t for you he’d still be alive. A boy who killed a king. Run away Simba and never return.”
The young cub finds his way into the arms of brave warthog Pumbaa and wise-cracking meerkat Timon (voiced by Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner). They teach him the philosophy of “Hakuna Matata” — essentially, “Turn the ‘WHAT!’ into ‘So what.’” — and how to survive without eating them or any of their friends. When Simba’s childhood girlfriend Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) brings stories of how Scar and his hyena henchmen are destroying the Pride Lands with overhunting and cruelty, Simba returns to reclaim his rightful birthright.
The photo-realistic look of “The Lion King” resembles one of those Disney nature documentaries. The visuals, made up of bits and bytes, are remarkable in their life-like appearance but ultimately feels like a triumph of technology over emotional storytelling. The Shakespearean narrative arc of the story still reverberates with echoes of “Hamlet” but with the realism comes less nuance in expression. Simba and Nala look like lions who have learned to speak but the character work, a raised eyebrow or a scrunched face, the things that make characters really come alive, is missing. They sing and dance but their faces are weirdly without the joy that should come along with their actions. Favreau takes pains not to anthropomorphize the animals any more than necessary but in staying faithful to the innate inspirations for the characters, he misses something crucial: the human element that connects with the audience.
The intense scenes, particularly the death of the patriarch, may be too intense for younger viewers. The animated version was one thing but the hyper-realistic version of events is horrific the first time we see it and even more-so in flashback.
The voice work mostly works. It’s a pleasure to hear James Earl Jones’s dulcet tones and the inclusion of African actors like John Kani, who plays the mystical mandrill Rafiki, is a very comfortable fit in the film’s soundscape. Rogen and Eichner provide some much-needed comic relief and enliven any scene they’re in.
The songs will be familiar to “Lion King” fans, although they appear in altered form. “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can't Wait to Be King” brim with fun but two of the original film’s best-known songs — Scar’s “Be Prepared” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — have been reworked. Scar’s song is underplayed while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is, for no good reason, set during daylight hours.
“The Lion King” is a stunning technical achievement, but feels like a risk-free exercise in nostalgia that will entertain your eye but likely won’t engage your heart.
THE FAREWELL: 3 ½ STARS
“Based on an actual lie,” reads the opening title credit of “The Farewell,” a new dramedy with “Crazy Rich Asians” breakout star Awkwafina. It’s a funny reminder that the story is actually taken from director Lulu Wang’s life experience of visiting her terminally ill grandmother under false pretenses.
Bad news keeps coming Billi’s (Awkwafina) way. She can’t pay her pricey New York City rent, a Guggenheim Fellowship she hoped to land was denied and worse, she learns her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) in Northeast China has terminal cancer. The family, led by Billi’s stern mother Jian (Diana Lin), have decided to shield the older woman from the news so she can enjoy her whatever time she has left. “Chinese people have a saying,” she says. “It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” Instead the family plans a ruse, an elaborate wedding for Billi’s cousin in Changchun, to serve as an excuse for the family to gather and pay their last respects. Billi hates keeping the truth from her grandmother, but with few reasons to stay in New York she shows up at the “wedding” unannounced to say her goodbyes and confront traditions that seem foreign to her.
“The Farewell” is a lo-fi family drama that brims with heart and humour. Wang maintains focus, never veering from the central premise of a family taking on the burden of pain, sparing their much-loved Nai Nai any feelings of distress. There isn’t much actual drama, no screaming matches, very little interpersonal conflict; just nicely observed naturalistic behaviour.
Holding the film’s centre are Billie and Nai Nai. As a young woman grappling with a tradition she doesn’t completely agree with or understand Awkwafina does nice, understated work. It’s a far cry from her more flamboyant supporting performances in “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” and “Ocean's Eight” that heartbreakingly illustrates the push-and-pull she feels between the two belief systems that have shaped her life.
“The Farewell’s” beating heart is Nai Nai. Her love for her family is unconditional and, as the family’s matriarch, she is the hub that these very different people orbit around. Zhou brings a sprightly charisma to the role that steals every scene in which she appears. Her light touch brings with it a great deal of humour but the smaller, more intimate moments between Nai Nai and her family are packed with emotion.
“The Farewell” is a slow burn, a movie that builds to a poignant climax that not only feels earned but deserved.
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE: 2 ½ STARS
Remember the Charles Atlas 97-pound-weakling ads that used to run in the back of comic books? After a mild-mannered guy gets sand kicked in his face, he transforms from “chump into a champ.” “The Art of Self-Defense,” a new dark comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg, blows this premise up to absurd proportions for the big screen.
Eisenberg is accountant Casey Davies, a loner whose only friend is his dachshund. One night, on a dog food run to the store, Casey is randomly attacked by a group of motorcycle thugs. While he whimpers, they beat the living tar out of him, leaving him hospitalized for weeks. Upon recovery he considers buying a gun for self-defense but instead takes up karate at a local dojo run by a charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola). “This is your belt,” he says. “It is yours, and it’s sacred. There’ll be a fifteen-dollar charge to replace a lost belt.”
What Casey doesn’t know is that the dojo is not simply a place to learn to punch and kick, but a dark and dangerous gateway to trouble where students, like Henry (David Zellner) and Anna (Imogen Poots), are brainwashed and manipulated by a walking, talking exemplar of toxic masculinity. “From now on, you listen to metal. It’s the toughest music there is.”
“The Art of Self-Defense” is a satire that plays with the idea of manhood and what it means to be a “man.” In the twisted sensei’s opinion, the direct path to empowerment is through violence. Any dissenters are written off as “weak” and dealt with. It is that single-mindedness and decisiveness that draws Casey into the dojo’s macho world.
Writer-director Riley Stearns creates interesting characters. Sensei is a chauvinistic caricature, a cruel teacher who believes that, “guns are for the weak.” Casey is an outsider whose character arc swings from one extreme to the other. Nivola and Eisenberg are interesting foils for one another, although Stearns’s insistence on having his characters speak in an affected monotone wears thin, even if they are occasionally saying interesting things.
“The Art of Self-Defense” will be compared to “Fight Club” for its look at the reasons why men behave the way they do. The two films share themes of loneliness, societal breakdown and emasculation but they take very different roads to self-actualization. Both share a broad sense of humour — “The Art of Defense’s” climax is as unfunny as it is unexpected — but where David Fincher’s film was a phantasmagoric fantasy, the newer film is mired in a drab, everyday realism that feels at odds with its jarring, absurdist message.
PROPAGANDA: THE ART OF SELLING LIES: 4 STARS
Into the era of fake news comes “Propaganda: The Art Of Selling Lies,” the new documentary from director Larry Weinstein. A timely look at what activist Astra Taylor calls “political brainwashing,” the film details the reasons why we are so often sucker-punched by the use and abuse of the media.
Weinstein begins “Propaganda” with a fast cut montage of images — everything from Warhol’s Mao to scenes from “The Birth of a Nation” to images of Trump scrolling on a smart phone — intercut with expert voices like psychotherapist Adam Phillips who calls propaganda “a calculated attack on the complexity of other people’s minds.” The startling pictures display the power of images to create feelings and plant the seeds of ideology. In short, as another commentator says, getting you to submit without realizing you are submitting.
From here Weinstein introduces a colourful cast of characters. New Yorker political cartoonist Barry Blitt chimes in on satirising Trump: “Every picture of him is a revelation. The sides of his face are interesting and the back of his head is fantastic. The colours, the textures. There is so much to draw there. It is too bad he is who he is.” 104-year-old Norman Lloyd discusses his friend Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” a stirring condemnation of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism, antisemitism and the Nazis: “He was creating propaganda because he felt intensely for the need for it.” Artists Shepard Fairey and Jim Fitzpatrick, who created the Obama Hope poster and the iconic Viva Che image respectively, speak to the power of visual art in creating a political movement and Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Canon of the Cathedral of Florence speaks to “seducing through all the senses.”
Most terrifying of all is Jean Seaton, an expert in all things Orwellian, who reveals how social media is exploited to influence the unsuspecting masses. “Although propaganda has always sought to hide itself,” she says, “its capacity to do so on social media is enhanced.”
It’s one thing to learn about Felix Dadaev, Stalin's body double. It’s quite another to see how propaganda is part of everyday modern life. The inclusion of Seaton and others, including cultural historian Edward Jones-Imhotep, help bring the documentary into the present. “If we grow up only surrounded by propaganda. How do we know what is true?” Suddenly our Twitter feeds feel more sinister.
“Propaganda” is a fascinating look at human nature that covers the past but feels current; not like a history lesson.