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Non-Review Review: Lady and the Tramp (2019)

Lady and the Tramp represents a new frontier for Disney’s reimaginings of their animated classics.

The studio has had great success adapting those older films for younger audiences with a hybrid of live action and computer-generated remakes, with Aladdin and The Lion King ranking among the highest grossing movies of last year. Mulan looked like it might have been on course to continue the trend, and the studio is working away on a new version of The Little Mermaid. However, what makes Lady and the Tramp so interesting is that it is not going to be one of those theatrical blockbusters. Instead, it was released directly on Disney+, the company’s streaming service.

A completely identical meatball game.

There are two ways of looking at this. Disney might have been hoping to give Disney+ a bit of a boost by offering an exclusive brand-name and star-driven family-friendly film. Alternatively, the studio might have accepted that Lady and the Tramp was never a viable theatrical release to begin with, whether because it didn’t scratch the right nostalgic itch or because of the quality of the adaptation simply wasn’t up to snuff. In reality, it seems like a combination of the two factors.

Lady and the Tramp is fairly standard as these adaptations go. It is hurt by the push to verisimilitude and by the decision to expand a tight animated story into a bloated live action one. It is also very visually, aurally and tonally flat. It’s a film that seems built around the ethos of “just enough”, often feeling like a television movie that has somehow earned a theatrical special effects budget. Lady and the Tramp is not the worst of the Disney live action adaptations, but it may be the most lifeless.

No far horizons.

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Non-Review Review: Onward

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Onward fits comfortably in the upper middle range of the Pixar canon.

To be fair, at least part of this is structural. Onward is transparently a road trip adventure. There have been a couple of truly great Pixar movies built around that rough template – Toy Story 2, Up and Inside Out all come to mind. However, Onward does little to disguise its genre elements. Onward is transparently a story about two teenagers who embark on a long journey with a tight schedule that takes them through a series of episodic adventures featuring a host of memorable side characters. There is something very standard about the premise, even against the film’s fantastical backdrop.

To be fair, at least some of that mundanity is intentional. After all, the central hook of Onward is that it unfolds in a magic kingdom (“Mushroomton”) that has eschewed the art of wizardry for the utility of science. So much of Onward derives from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the sublime that it makes sense that the film should be a fairly standard genre template that just happens to follow two magical creatures driving a van with a rock-album-artwork unicorn on the side on a mission to reunite with their resurrected father. However, the plotting is a little too haphazard and too episodic to completely elevate the film.

That said, Onward is consistently charming throughout. Its world and characters always feel well-drawn. More than that, the film coheres marvellously in its third act, when it pushes past that familiar road movie template into the more emotionally astute and mature sort of storytelling that audiences have come to expect from the studio. While Onward doesn’t rank among the studio’s very best, it is well worth seeking out.

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166. Aladdin (#246)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this week joined by special guest Graham Day, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Ron Clements & John Musker’s Aladdin.

A thief in ancient Agrabah finds his fortunes changing for the better when he is recruited to recover a precious treasure. With fame and fortune at his fingertips, Aladdin sets about trying to seduce the beautiful Jasmine, but soon discovers that there’s more to love than power and wealth.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 246th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On the Need of “Star Wars” to “Grow Beyond” the Skywalkers…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last night, looking at the future of the Star Wars brand.

While there is still some ambiguity about where Disney will take the cinematic franchise following the release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, a clean break might be the best course of action. Modern franchises are too beholden to fan service and familiarity, to retreading old ground in order to avoid offending or challenging existing fans. This prevents franchises from growing and embracing new ideas and new possibilities. It leaves them stagnant, and ultimately does little to appease fandoms with very strong ideas of how characters or ideas should be portrayed.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! How Disney Have Monetised Spoiler Culture…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine over the weekend. I’ve been thinking about this for a little while, since the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and it came bubbling to the surface with the announcement that the first episode of The Mandalorian would include “a dramatic Star Wars-universe spoiler in the first episode.”

This got me thinking about the way in which, more than any other mass media company, Disney have weaponised spoiler culture as a selling point, to create urgency among consumers and to use that to drive the market. They have also used it to shape the conversation, to control what can or cannot be said about their films and at what point. Spoiler culture has grant Disney a surprisingly strong control of the fandom-driven market. It’s an incredibly canny move from the company, one which has exploited a core part of current nerd culture.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

139. The Lion King (#45)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Phil Bagnall and Graham Day, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers’ The Lion King.

The Pridelands have enjoyed a period of sustained peace under the stewardship of the proud king Mustafa. However, Mustafa’s young son Simba finds himself embarking upon a journey of self-discovery and adventure as he learns just how fragile happiness can be and just how heavy responsibilities can weigh upon a king.

At time of recording, it was ranked 45th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: The Lion King (2019)

It’s a very strange comparison to make, but the film that most obviously comes to mind when watching Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is Gus Van Sant’s infamous nineties remake of Psycho.

This is Favreau’s second “live action” adaptation of a classic Disney animated film, even if that descriptor is somewhat misleading. It might be more accurate to describe The Lion King (which was shot entirely in virtual reality) as “verisimilitudinous.” It is designed to approximate “live action”, rather than being live action itself. On that note, the film is a technical triumph. On the level of pure craft, The Lion King is a staggering accomplishment. It is a virtual reality film that is in many ways indistinguishable from reality itself. However, the onion has even more layers to it. It is a virtual reality film approximating the reality while meticulously and faithful reproducing a beloved animated film.

Join the cub.

As such, and much like Van Sant’s Psycho, there is an element of reflexive postmodernism to The Lion King. Both the Psycho and Lion King remakes feel more like conceptual art installations than movies in their own right. They are certainly more interesting as abstract objects than as actual stories. After all, the stories in question were so closely wedded to form and context the first time around that the idea of remaking them so literally and so faithfully seems absurd from a creative point of view. As such, the process of replication becomes intriguing of itself. Both Psycho and The Lion King are incredibly faithful copies that consciously lean into their uncanniness.

Favreau’s Lion King looks beautiful, but largely feels like a limit case. It is a certain approach to modern filmmaking taken to – and perhaps pushed beyond – its farthest extreme.

Pride of the Pridelands.

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