A week spent with the grandchildren meant age-appropriate films. Today I will talk about those films, but stick around—at the end, there will be a review of a decidedly inappropriate-for-kids film. Let’s do “The Lion King” first, because it just opened in very, very wide release. “Screen saturation,” they call it. There has been a lot of buzz about how Disney is raiding its animation catalogue to come up with, basically, the same story but with what looks like live-action photography and new voices, in order to (horrors!) make a lot more money. While some of the recent films in that genre have not been huge box-office successes, I’m here to say that I think this one will do just fine. I was enchanted by the amazing photography (bravo, Caleb Deschanel) and voice work of terrific actors (Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogan) and the always-wonderful James Earl Jones repeating his original role as the patriarch, Mufasa. The story of a young lion prince’s maturation from adorable cub through wandering, guilt-ridden adolescence to taking his place as king is charming, and the setting—Africa, from barren deserts to lush forests—is made vivid by the photography and live-action techniques. Mind you, I tell you this from the perspective of someone who saw the original back in the day and hasn’t seen it since, and who hasn’t seen the much-lauded Broadway musical; the die-hard animation version advocates may not feel the same.
Two kid-friendly films that are still in theaters but will mostly likely be available to stream soon are “Toy Story 4” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Again, I enjoyed both. Yes, they each milk the original and their ensuing sequels for all they’re worth, but each brings fresh new perspectives to the usual cast of characters and introduces new ones that really do liven up the stories. In the case of “Toy Story 4,” as well as the traditional gang, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) et al., we have a new toy (Forky) and another from the past (Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts), not to mention a magical toy store, and an ending that is bittersweet but just right for a finale to the series… or not, of course. In movie-making today, there doesn’t seem to be an end story, does there? Which brings us to the “Spiderman” sagas: They’ve been going on and on for a long time with different young men in the lead roles and even a cartoon version with a ghetto-inspired storyline. Tom Holland was terrific when he debuted as Spidy in 2017 and he stars in this follow-up, which is jam-packed with high school trip adventures in Europe. Jake Gyllenhaal is on board this time as a new character, Quentin Beck/Mysterio, but Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury as is Zendaya as MJ. I found the film lots of fun to watch, but by the end, the special effects—amazing as they are—took over and had a numbing effect. If you’ve read my reviews, I tend to say that often when the dazzle supersedes substance.
We put the kids to bed, now for a documentary available on HBO. It’s called “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter.” You may remember the case from a few years ago when a teenage girl was tried for causing her boyfriend to successfully kill himself. It was a shocking story; the media painted the girl as totally evil. This documentary reveals that the actions of humans are neither black nor white, but somewhere in the gray-ish middle. It’s a two-parter, the first being the prosecution’s case, the second, the defense. This approach is clever; as soon as you think you know how you feel, you realize you may be wrong. It’s a grown-up, extremely sad story and quite an indictment of the addiction to phone texting to which our civilization has succumbed.