“UglyDolls” is less a movie than an infomercial for the plush Hasbro toys designed to be “ugly” in a commercially cute, lovable way. Unfortunately, the script is not particularly cute or lovable, just a muddled story with lukewarm musical numbers that takes pieces from better films like “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.,” “The LEGO Movie,” “Smallfoot,” “Trolls,” and all those other stories about how we should appreciate our own kinds of beauty and the individuality of those around us. It’s not bad. It’s just not very good.
Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Peril and violence, very sad and scary death of a parent
Date Released to Theaters:
July 18, 2019
I had a lot of skepticism going in. The last two live action remakes of animated Disney classics were disappointments. Even the best so far (in my opinion, “Beauty and the Beast”), could not escape its, well, remake-ness and justify itself as an independent work worthy of the time and attention of the filmmakers and the audience.
Also, I am not the biggest fan of the original “Lion King.” I would not go as far as this very extreme critique, but it always bothered me that all the animals were supposed to sing happily about the circle of life when that means something very different to those at the lower end of the food chain to those at the top. The idea of Simba’s right to the throne made me uneasy (Nala is much more worthy, or maybe let the lions choose who is best). And I never got past the Hakuna Matata idea that a good way to deal with life’s problems is to run away from them. Plus, how can they call this live action when the animals are CGI?
All of which is to explain that I was very pleasantly surprised and it won me over. The opening scene is a shot for shot recreation of the original, but more spectacularly beautiful, thanks to Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel (the cinematographer of the most beautiful film of all time, The Black Stallion). The quality of the light, the texture of the terrain, the fur, the feathers all lend a grandeur to the story. And the music is sumptuously produced, evoking the holiness of the natural world.
We all know the story, which draws from Shakespeare (“Hamlet” and “Henry IV”), the myths collected by Joseph Campbell (the hero’s journey), and perhaps from the Bible as well (the prodigal son). Simba is the lion prince, born to rule as far as he can see. But his father, Mufasa (voiced again by James Earl Jones, as in the original) teaches him that the ruler serves those he rules. Simba will be responsible for their welfare, Mufasa tells him. “It will be yours to protect…A true king searches for what he can give.” Still, Simba chafes at the rules and dreams of a day when he is king and can do anything he wants.
Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to be king. He resents Mufasa and Simba. In a brutal scene that will be too intense for younger children and many older children and adults, he kills Mufasa and blames Simba. The cub is devastated, and runs away. He is befriended by a warthog (Seth Rogen as Pumbaa) and a meerkat (Billy Eichner as Timon), who sing to him about the pleasures of a worry-free life. (Eicher has a great singing voice! Who knew?)
The lions believe Simba died with his father. But when Nala (Beyonce) finds him, she tells him that Scar and his hyena henchmen have all but destroyed their community. Can he be the hero they need?
This version makes an attempt to address some of the issues that concerned me in the animated feature, though Mufasa’s explanation of the circle of life is not entirely reassuring. But director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Chef,” Happy in the Avengers movies) brings together the realism of the animals, who come across as authentic and expressive, with a capable balancing of humor and drama. John Oliver’s Zazu and Keegan-Michael Key’s Kamari are comic highlights. Was this necessary? No. But it earns its place.
Parents should know this film has some intense scenes of peril and violence, very sad death of a parent as the child watches, severe feelings of guilt and abandonment, murder and attempted murder, predators, some potty humor, and references to the “circle of life.”
Family discussion: Why is a group of lions called a “pride?” What from your family do you carry with you? What is the difference between Mufasa’s idea about responsibility and heritage and Timon’s idea that nothing matters?
If you like this, try; the animated “Lion King” and “Lion King 1 1/2” and “The Black Stallion” a beautiful film from the same cinematographer
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Some strong language
Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Date Released to Theaters:
July 3, 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.
Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.
Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.
Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.
The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.
I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.
The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.
Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.
Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?
“Yesterday” would have made a cute seven-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live” (or, as this movie would say, “Thursday Night Live”) but it does not work as a movie. I wish I could say they ran out of ideas in the last third, but it’s worse than that. They had ideas; they just ran out of good ones. There’s a curious disconnect in watching the film between the weakness of the storyline, including a major jump the shark swerve near the end, and the imperishable music of the Beatles. Every time we hear “In My Life” or a rocking “Help!” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” we say, “That sure is a great song” and forget for a moment that the movie is not very good. Richard Curtis admitted as much in an interview on Morning Joe: “When I type and run out of ideas I just put in ‘The Long and Winding Road.'”
Jack (Himesh Patel) has been trying to make it as a musician for ten years in his small home town on the English coast. His best friend Ellie (Lily James) believes in him and acts as his manager when she isn’t teaching high school math. But he is not making much progress. He is ready to give up when a mysterious worldwide blackout shuts down all power for twelve seconds and he is hit by a bus as he is bicycling home. During that twelve seconds, somehow the world is rebooted in a slightly different form. The Beatles never existed. Some other random cultural touchstones are missing as well, including Coke. Jack, just out of the hospital and still missing two front teeth, thanks his friends for the gift of a new guitar by playing “Yesterday.” Which they have never heard before and think he wrote. And of course they love it, though one of them says it’s not up to the level of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Jack starts playing Beatles songs and people like them. Ed Sheeran, charmingly playing a version of himself, invites him to tour as his opening act. In Moscow, Jack plays “Back in the USSR,” which is a huge success with the crowd, even though most of them were not born when their country was the USSR. Ed Sheeran challenges Jack to a songwriting competition, and has to admit defeat. “You’re Mozart and I’m Salieri,” he says.
An agent named Debra (Kate McKinnon in a sizzling performance) arrives to offer Jack “the poison chalice” of fame and money. Jack, who has waited so long for success as a musician and performer, says yes.
This is very much a lesser work from Richard Curtis, the man who wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio,” and “Love Actually.” There are lovely moments — the first recording session, the fun of the astonishment when people are stunned by songs we all know so well they are a part of us, the fantasy of being adored by worldwide audiences, the hilariousness of playing one of the greatest songs of all time for your parents and their not having a clue. And it is intriguing to see a person of color appropriate white musicians’ work for a change. But the friend zone/romance storyline and a bad swerve at the end show that even the world’s greatest songs cannot prop up a script that outstays its welcome. The songs are all sublime, but these new versions do not add anything special.
George Martin, who worked more closely with the Beatles than anyone else, said that their charm was as important to their early success as their music. That early success gave them a chance to develop and grow and take huge risks and reflect on their experiences, all of which became a part of their endlessly innovative and ground-breaking work.
To have even some of their greatest hits all thrown into what is supposed to be one performer’s series of songs, unrelated to what is going on in the lives of the songwriter or in the world, and, to adapt the title of an ex-Beatle song, imagine there’s no Beatles, gives the music an unearned power, relying on our love for the songs and what they mean in our lives, whether we first heard them in kindergarten, at spin class, or as they first came out. That makes this story empty at its Apple Corps.
Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations and some strong and crude language.
Family discussion: Why did Deborah call what she was offering the poison chalice? What did Jack learn from his meeting with John?
If you like this, try: “Begin Again” and “Across the Universe” and the Beatles movies
Fantasy/action peril and violence, character sacrifices a part of his body
Date Released to Theaters:
June 21, 2019
Let’s get right to the big three questions about “Toy Story 4.” Yes, it’s good, yes, you’re going to cry, and yes, you have to stay ALL the way to the end for one final blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is worth the wait.
The small miracle of the “Toy Story” series is that a film that would have been memorable for its technology alone as the first fully computer-animated feature film, the shiny, plastic toy characters the focus because Pixar had not yet developed the technology to animate hair, fur, or more expressive faces, was smart, heartfelt, and genuinely moving. Woody (Tom Hanks) was a retro cowboy doll with a pull-cord attached to a voice box and said things like “There’s a snake in my boot” and “You’re my favorite deputy!” When their boy Andy was away and the toys came to life, Woody was their natural leader, looked up to by the other toys, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, the T-Rex (Wallace Shawn), the slinky dog, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts).
And then a new toy arrived, a shiny spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with flashing lights and pop-out wings, and a digital voice to proclaim, “To infinity and beyond!” But Buzz did not know he was a toy, creating an existential conflict. He thought he really was a space explorer who could really fly. The conflict in the film came from Woody’s jealousy over Andy’s affection for the shiny new toy and his frustration in not being able to persuade Buzz that he was not “real” in the way he thought he was. His purpose was not to explore space and fight the evil Emperor Zurg. His purpose was to be a companion and inspiration and comfort to Andy, a boy we barely glimpse in the film. The excitement comes from the toys’ efforts to escape the mutilations of the boy next door and to be reunited with Andy when they become separated. The heartwarming theme of the film, though, is about the friendship that develops between the rivals and their mutual understanding of the meaning of their existence as Andy’s toys.
These themes continued through the next two films. The second raised the issue of value — the difference between a mint condition toy still in the box that can be sold for a good price and a well-loved toy that might be scuffed and missing some pieces but meant something to a child, even a child who has grown up and has other interests. The third film gracefully and very poignantly saw Andy leave for college but give his toys to the imaginative pre-schooler Bonnie, so they could continue to fulfill their purpose. The first image in the original film was of clouds in a blue sky that turned out to be painted on the ceiling of Andy’s room. The final image of the third one was the real sky, showing that Andy’s world had opened up.
So, how to move on from that perfect ending? With another existential crisis, or maybe two. Woody has always defined himself by being important to a child. But increasingly Bonnie is leaving him in the closet, even taking his sheriff star and pinning it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie is nervous about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sees a chance to be useful and he sneaks into her backpack so he can to with her.
But what comforts Bonnie at school is creating something new. From a plastic spork and a broken popsicle stick she makes a…something she calls “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Woody tells the other toys back at home that Bonnie made a friend at school, he is speaking literally. But, in a parallel to Buzz in the first movie, Forky does not know he’s a toy. He cannot adjust to the notion that he is more than a single-use plastic utensil whose destiny is to be thrown in the trash. He keeps trying to throw himself away. But Woody sees Forky as a chance to be useful to Bonnie. If Woody can’t be important to Bonnie, he can teach Forky how to be.
And once again, the characters are separated from each other and from their child. Bonnie and her family rent an RV and go on a trip that puts the toys in two settings rich with fascinating details, colorful characters, and all kinds of wildly inventive and delightfully treacherous adventures. The first is an antique shop, where Woody glimpses the lamp stand that his old friend — and maybe more — Bo Peep used to be on. He brings Forky inside to look for her, and there they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a Chatty Cathy-style talking little girl doll with perfect curls and an imperfect voice box and her entourage of identical creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies all called Benson. Note that “Toy Story 2” involved “vintage” toys but now they are antiques. Keanu Reeves all but steals the film as a proudly Canadian Evel Knievel-style stunt rider toy called Duke Caboom.
The other new setting is a carnival, with rides and arcade games, and there we meet two plush toy prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have a blast riffing with each other. And it turns out that Bo Peep is there, too, having left her lamp, traveling with the carnival and seeing the world.
There are separations and perilous rescues, many near-misses and close calls, a gasp-inducing sacrifice, and a very sad farewell. The Pixar team is getting older, and they take us with them as they confront their own existential conundrums. You know you’re not going to get out of a Pixar movie without tears, and this one may be more like boo-hoo sobs. But that’s because we care about these characters and we care about the way they care about and for each other. Watch out for another shot of the sky — and for some fun scenes over the credits and, when the long, long list of filmmakers and production babies is over, a just-perfect scene at the very end.
Of course you can now buy a Forky doll. You can even choose between one that talks and one that walks. But I’m guessing that kids who see this movie will want to make something of their own.
Parents should know that this movie has extended action/fantasy-style peril with some scary ventriloquist dummies, and a genuinely shocking moment when a character voluntarily undergoes doll surgery to give up a piece of himself for another toy. Characters use some schoolyard language.
Family discussion: Why does Bonnie love Forky? How does Woody change Forky’s mind? Did Woody make the right decisions about Gabby Gabby and Bo Peep?
If you like this, try: The other “Toy Story” films and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”