Tag Archives: Disney

Jungle Love

Disney scores again with spectacular retool of Rudyard Kipling classic

THE JUNGLE BOOK

The Jungle Book

Starring Neel Sethi

Directed by Jon Favreau

PG

British author Rudyard Kipling wrote the stories that came to be know collectively as The Jungle Book more than a century ago, setting the best-known of the tales in India, where he’d spent his early childhood. It entered the pop-cultural mainstream in 1967 when Walt Disney turned The Jungle Book into a full-length animated musical children’s comedy.

Things have certainly changed in the world—and in the world of filmmaking—since then. Director Jon Favreau has steered steely summer blockbusters (the Iron Man franchise) as well as fluffier family fare (Elf), so he was a wise choice—by Disney, again, 40 years down the road—to retool Kipling’s ripping, roaring allegorical fable for a new generation of moviegoers weaned on spectacle as well as sentiment.

THE JUNGLE BOOKThe Jungle Book is the tale of a young boy, Mowgli, raised by a pack of wolves. All is well until a fearsome tiger—bearing horrific scars that remind him of what humans can do—catches the scent of the “man cub.” With his life in danger, and knowing that his very presence is a threat to the other creatures, Mowgli begins a journey to rejoin human civilization.

But the trip isn’t an easy one, as Mowgli learns more about himself and the meaning of friends, family and the “law of the jungle.”

The biggest spectacle the new Jungle Book is the sight of Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, the only human, flesh-and-blood actor onscreen for the entire film, except for a fleeting flashback) in a jungle teeming with wild animals. But none of them are real—they’re all digital effects, down to the last bit of fur, fang and feather.

THE JUNGLE BOOKAnd not only do they look, move and “behave” like real animals, they also talk—constantly. Remember the computer-generated tiger in Life of Pi? Well, imagine it conversing with Pi, and with every other living thing it encounters. Around The Jungle Book’s watering hole, the DirectTV horse, Smokey Bear, the GEICO gecko and Tony the Tiger would feel right at home.

The effects in The Jungle Book are so casually spectacular, you even forget they’re effects. You become so completely, convincingly immersed in the realistic, storybook world, just like Mowgli, it doesn’t seem unnatural that a menagerie of creatures can speak—or sing—just as easily as they can growl, prowl, crawl or climb.

THE JUNGLE BOOKThe all-star animal voices belong to Bill Murray (the slothful bear Baloo), Scarlett Johannson (the seductive snake Kaa), Lupita Nynog’o (the nurturing wolf Rakasa), Idris Elba (the vengeful tiger Shere Khan), Christopher Walken (the monstrous ape King Louie) Ben Kingsley (the protective panther Bagherra) and the late Gary Shandling (a comically possessive porcupine). Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Sidney Glass in TV’s Once Upon a Time, provides the voice of alpha wolf Akela.

It’s rated PG, but there are periods of action, peril and intensity that might be a bit much for very young viewers—especially if their parents, or grandparents, bring them into this Jungle with sugarplum visions of the candy-coated, song-and-dance Disney version. This isn’t that movie; it’s darker, more dangerous—and far superior, in almost every way.

It’s the same jungle Rudyard Kipling described 120 years ago, and it’s even got a trio of familiar soundtrack tunes (“Trust in Me,” “The Bare Necessities” and a reworked “I Wanna Be Like You”) from 1967. But it’s come to life in remarkable, resounding new technological, 21st century leaps and bounds. With this outstanding upgrade to yet another childhood classic, Kipling still gets a writing credit, but Disney—as it usually does—again gets the final word.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Hop To It

Hip, heartwarming ‘Zootopia’ shows how far House of Mouse has evolved

Zootopia

Starring the voices of Gennifer Goodwin & Jason Bateman

Directed by Brian Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Rush

PG

A little girl dreams of leaving her rural hometown, moving to the city, becoming something no one else has ever been and making the world a better place. Sounds like a cliché, you say. Well, maybe—except in Zootopia, the little girl is a bunny, she wants to be a cop, and the city is full of other animals, but no people.

And there’s this: Rabbits are “prey,” like 90 percent of the population of the mammal metropolis of Zootopia, which is also home to predators—lions, tigers, wolves, foxes, jaguars. But over the centuries, prey and predators have evolved past their primal, biological instincts and learned to coexist…mostly.

And Zootopia, the latest Disney film, shows just how far the House of Mouse has evolved from dreamy prince-and-princess fairy tales of decades past. There’s bold new energy and excitement coursing through the studio, and it’s everywhere in this hip, ingenious, wildly creative tale full of wit, emotion and a message of inclusion, understanding and diversity.

To see where the movie gets its mojo, start at the top. Co-directors Brian Howard and Rich Moore’s credits include Disney’s Tangled, Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph as well as The Simpsons.

Zootopia’s first bunny officer Judy Hopps finds herself face to face with Nick Wilde, a fast-talking, scam-artist fox.

The smart, super-sharp story (Jennifer Lee, one of the writers, won an Oscar for Frozen, and Phil Johnson wrote the new Sacha Baron Cohen comedy The Brothers Grimsby and the underrated Cedar Rapids) begins with the departure of buoyantly optimistic Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) from pastoral Bunnyborough for the teeming Xanadu of Zootopia, where she aspires to become a police officer, the city’s first bunny cop. She does, and quickly hops smack into some deep-rooted prejudice, fears and stereotypes.

An elephant refuses to serve a fox in his ice cream parlor; a tiger is told, “Go back to the forest, predator!” It’s no stretch to substitute racism, sexism and other “isms” for the “species-ism” that Judy finds separating animals that are otherwise friends, neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens.

After Judy encounters Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a sly fox who makes his living running small-time scams and hustles, she soon must enlist his help investigating a mysterious case that’s baffled the police chief (Idris Elba, a blustery cape buffalo).

To say much more about the plot—which deepens and thickens considerably—would give away its many delights. The animal animations are outstanding, and the computer artists create special-effect magic melding the menagerie with the personalities of the actors—J.K. Simmons as a lion, Jenny Slate as a sheep, Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong) as a “naturalist” yak, pop star Shakira as a sexy gazelle (who sings the movie’s theme song, “Try Everything”).

The movie is a visual feast full of fun, suspense, surprise and adventure. It delivers its uplifting, more serious theme of unity and togetherness in a way that will rarely feel preachy or ponderous for kids. Grownups will keep busy tracking the dozens of pop-cultural riffs, sight gags and in-jokes, including meta-references to other Disney flicks and nods to classic Hollywood, like an especially clever Godfather scene and one of the best cop-doughnut jokes in any movie, ever.

From a talking mouse mascot to a flying elephant and 101 Dalmatians, Disney has always had a thing for animals. In Zootopia, they’re not only running the show, they’ve taken over the world. And they’ve got a very important, oh-so timely message for us all.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Here’s The Pitch

Jon Ham stars in unlikely true underdog baseball tale

MILLION DOLLAR ARM

Million Dollar Arm

Starring Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma & Alan Arkin

Directed by Craig Gillespie

PG, 124 min.

Based on a true story from 2008, Million Dollar Arm stars TV’s Mad Men leading man Jon Hamm as a struggling sports agent who goes scouting for baseball’s next pitching superstars in an unlikely part of the world.

After hopeful negotiations to rep a pro footballer (played by Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga) fall through, Hamm’s character, J.B. Bernstein, and his business partner (Aasif Mandif) turn their sights to baseball, hoping to find a young, unknown, unsigned player. But where? All the international hot spots (Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, even China) have already been staked out and tapped.

In a flash of inspiration, J.B. sees a cricket match on TV and gets an idea: Go to India, a country where baseball is virtually unknown, find cricket “bowlers” who can pitch, and bring them back to America.

MILLION DOLLAR ARMSo he concocts a contest, called the Million Dollar Arm, and sets off to the other side of the globe to discover what he hopes will be the next ballpark sensations—and the ticket to keeping his small agency afloat.

Hamm is the star of this show, clearly, but Million Dollar Arm is also a movie about journeys, geographical as well as emotional. As J.B. adjusts to his new surroundings in India, we meet the two young men, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, from Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma, the star of Life of Pi), that will eventually be chosen for a shot—a long one, at that—at baseball’s big leagues, and we come to understand their anxieties about leaving their families, their rural villages, and the only ways of life they’ve ever known.

MILLION DOLLAR ARM

Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma portray the two contestants ultimately chosen to come to America.

J.B. is accompanied on his trip by a grumpy semi-retired American baseball scout (Alan Arkin, dialing in his usual comical crankiness), and he ultimately brings his new recruits home to learn fundamentals under the tutelage of a former MLB player now coaching college ball (Bill Paxton, portraying real-life USC coach Tom House with just the right dose of sunburn and seasoning).

MILLION DOLLAR ARM

Lake Bell and Jon Hamm

Bollywood actor-comedian Pitobash brings both heart and humanity to his sidekick role as J.B.’s volunteer Indian assistant, who dreams of someday becoming a baseball coach himself. But the movie’s real “heart” belongs to Lake Bell, as J.B.’s brainy med-student guesthouse renter, whose graceful, unforced acting keeps her character’s slow-blooming romance with J.B. feeling more sincere than sappy.

The Disney folks surely took some license, as moviemakers often do, but all of this really happened. To see just how closely the film paralleled the real characters, stay for the credits and the photos, video clips and other postscript highlights.

More cynical viewers might wish for a more cynical movie, a movie with more rough edges or tough breaks or dark corners. But for anyone who wants to bask in a ray of early summer sunshine, this uplifting, spirit-boosting tale of baseball, dreams, second chances and the grand, glorious game of life itself could be just the ticket.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Ice, Ice Baby

Disney princesses in ‘Frozen’ are too cool for storybook endings

frozen520e61c7bae80

Frozen

Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff & Idina Menzel

Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

PG, 108 minutes

Disney princesses are nothing new, but this movie is generous: It has not one, but two.

Loosely adapted from a 19th century Hans Christen Anderson folk epic, Frozen marks a return to the buoyant, song-filled fairytale-fantasy format that became a Disney hallmark in The Little Mermaid (another Hans Christen Anderson fable) and Beauty and the Beast.

Here, a pair of young royal daughters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), grow up apart, sequestered from each other in their sprawling Nordic palace after an unfortunate childhood incident reveals the dangerous darker side of Elsa’s mysterious “gift” to deep-freeze anything she touches.

When the girls become young women and Elsa is reluctantly crowned queen, her coronation ball ends in an unplanned eruption of her powers. Accidentally turning summer into winter and perma-frosting her entire kingdom, the “ice queen” flees to the top of a desolate snow-swept mountaintop.

FROZENSome of the townspeople think Elsa’s a “monster.” Her little-sis princess, insisting she’s just misunderstood, sets off to find her. Along the way, Anna meets a helpful ice harvester (Jonathan Groff, from TV’s Glee), his trusty reindeer Sven, and a goofy, gabby snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad), who longs to experience the warmth of summer—without realizing what heat can do his cool composure.

The songs woven into the storyline are almost all standouts, signaling a new batch of Disney musical cream rising to the top. They’re from the husband and wife songwriting team of Bobby and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Lopez has won Tony Awards for his Broadway work, and the tunes in Frozen likewise sound like they’re just waiting to be launched into a lavish, long-running stage production.

The story sags a bit in places but comes through with plenty of humor, heart and a couple of rousing action scenes, including a thrilling chase by snarling wolves through a predawn forest and an encounter with a fearsome snow monster. And the computer-generated animation is impressive, with many dazzling cinematic variations on the “beautiful, powerful, dangerous, cold” ice themes noted in the opening musical number.

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.And in the end, we’re left with a message that won’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen any Disney movie—but one that, refreshingly, doesn’t quite conform to a “typical” princess-storybook ending, either. The two Frozen sisters may not exactly represent a new royal standard in Disney females, but they do pack a powerful two-fisted punch about the power of love…and waiting for the right person who, as Olaf puts it, is “worth melting for.”

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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