Toy Story 4

Cast: (voiced by) Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack

Director: Josh Cooley

Writers: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton


In the three films that made up its near-perfect trilogy, Toy Story told what was more or less a complete story about the life cycle of a sentient toy. What started off as a pretty cute idea (what if your toys came to life whenever you left the room?) grew into something richer and more compelling by virtue of having so many characters just teeming with personality, thoughts and feelings. Over the course of the years-long span of these three movies we’ve seen Woody and the gang confront such weighty themes as growth, identity, parenthood, trauma, abandonment, mortality and transient love. It concluded with a grown-up Andy passing the toys on to another child so that their calling in life, to belong to a child and be played with, may never come to an end. It is as moving and powerful an ending as any Pixar could have dreamed up and to say that it left me satisfied would be an understatement. Thus, when I heard that a fourth movie was on its way, my reaction was apprehension and dread. Why mess with something that already ended perfectly? Why not leave well enough alone? Where else can they even possibly go with the story? Perhaps it’s the desperate move of a once fresh and dynamic company that’s struggling to offer its audience something new (of the ten films Pixar has released since Toy Story 3, six have been sequels and prequels). If there is indeed some anxiety within Pixar about the fear of becoming obsolete, irrelevant and forgotten, they’ve baked it into the very DNA of this film.

After having spent three movies exploring the emotional challenges and harsh realities of life as a toy, an immortal life of child-like dependence and parent-like nurturing that inevitably ends in relinquishment, the fourth instalment takes things a step further by delving into the theme of their very existence. What does it actually mean to be a toy? Enter Forky, a plastic spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and popsicle stick feet brought to life by Bonnie’s imagination and desire for a friend at her new school. Forky’s defining trait as a character is his existential crisis. He was created for the sole purpose of becoming trash and keeps trying to break away from Bonnie and make for the nearest bin so that his purpose might be fulfilled. Woody however thwarts him at every turn. Forky is a toy now; he has been endowed with a consciousness and a soul by a five-year-old girl’s desperate need for a companion during a scary time in her life and Woody tries his darndest to press onto the panicky spork that it is now his duty to be there for her. Throughout this whole series all the toys we have met, both good and bad, have shared a single motivation compelling their actions at every point, the desire for a child’s love. Through Forky we are given the greatest illustration yet of how that love isn’t just what these toys yearn and strive for, it is essentially what gives them life.

That desire to be loved carries with it a desire to be needed and since being given away by Andy to Bonnie, Woody has found himself relegated to the sidelines. He clearly cares for the kid and is as determined as ever to look out for his friends, but his heroics and leadership aren’t really called for in this safe, cushy gig that they’ve landed and he’s no longer the playtime favourite. Jessie is now Bonnie’s sheriff of choice; the old cowboy tends to be left stranded in the closet most days. When Woody elects himself to join the shy, nervous Bonnie on her first day at kindergarten, it’s like he’s a grandparent intervening in his granddaughter’s life in some minor, nominal way because he misses having a small child depend on him. He means well, but it’s still more about making himself feel useful than it is about helping Bonnie. Woody is essentially a weathered old hand on the verge of retirement and he’s simply not ready to be discarded and forgotten (a fate that befalls every toy sooner or later). For an immortal being, this is as close to death as it gets short of being incinerated (as they all very nearly were in Toy Story 3). Thus, with Forky’s creation, Woody finds some purpose for himself as the self-appointed guardian of Bonnie’s new favourite but even that can only keep him busy for so long. When Woody is later reunited with Bo Peep, whose departure we see in the opening scene, and learns of the life she’s built for herself since, it’s then that he starts to wonder whether there is more to being a toy than having a kid’s name written on the sole of your foot.

It’s a tough question that Woody struggles to answer because he and so many of the other toys he’s encountered over the years have been conditioned to believe that a toy’s existence is meaningless without the love of a child. The dark side of this desire is presented in Gabby Gabby, a 1950s pullstring doll hidden away in an antiques shop. Her voicebox is broken, a manufacturing defect, and so she was rejected and stored away, left to sit and gather dust for all these decades. It’s a cruel lesson that the Toy Story films taught us before back when Woody tore his arm in the second film, that the adolescent love and adoration these toys all crave is conditional. Since no child wants to play with a pullstring doll that cannot speak, Gabby sets her sights on Woody’s voicebox when he Forky happen to wander into the shop in search of a friend. What makes Gabby a great antagonist (apart from being voiced by Christina Hendricks) is that she isn’t an outright villain in the way that Sid and Lotso were. She isn’t in herself a bad person but the years of neglect she’s suffered and the harsh belief that only true perfection will make her worthy of the affection she so despondently pines for compels her to act out in harmful ways. In meeting her Woody is treated to a dark reflection, a warning of who he might become if he allows his desire to be needed to consume him.

All of this talk about existential crises, moral dilemmas and empty futures makes Toy Story 4 sound like it could have been directed by David Lynch or Werner Herzog (either of which, incidentally, I would absolutely love to see happen). I should therefore take this chance to stress that the movie is in fact a delight to watch in all the ways Toy Story has always been. The movie is a visual splendour from beginning to end, not only in the wonderful designs it conjures up from the dark, sinister antiques shop that Gabby dominates with her ventriloquist dummy stooges (the scariest things in the film) to the colourfully resplendent fairground just across the road or in the seamless fluidity of the movements and action but also in the character animation. So many of the film’s most touching moments hit all the harder because the animators always know the exact right expression to go for to complement the performance, just as writers Stanton and Folsom and director Cooley know when to stop for a moment so that the audience has some time to take it in. Pixar remains one of the modern masters of visual storytelling and Toy Story 4 is yet another testament to them. The movie is also incredibly funny, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of such new characters as a pair of conjoined plush dolls voiced by Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele and a Canadian Evel Knievel knock-off as voiced by Keanu Reeves.

It shouldn’t be possible for a movie to be this funny and entertaining while still being this loaded with philosophy and metaphor and yet Toy Story makes it look almost childishly simple. Part of the reason it works as well as it does is due to how freely flexible so much of the subtext is. The movie is loaded with images and ideas that can be a hundred different things to a hundred different people, all of whom can impart their own feelings onto the text of the film and read it all of their subtly different ways without the movie ever seeming like it’s at odds with itself. Woody is a character so rich in personality, history and mythology that he can be whichever character the individual viewer needs him to be. When Toy Story 3 came along nine years ago and delivered not only the perfect ending to its own story but also the ending that my seventeen-year-old self needed to see at that age, I was adamant that Pixar had no business revisiting this franchise and tarnishing its legacy. Having now watched Toy Story 4 I still believe that this is a movie that didn’t need to exist, but I’m glad that it does all the same. That the 1995 animated classic grew into such a magnificent blockbuster series and has against all odds proven itself capable of evolving and reinventing itself across generations is a feat worthy of celebration. Now please Pixar, for the love of God and all that is holy, stop making these films!

★★★★★

Men in Black: International

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway


Men in Black is one of those curious franchises that, even decades after its first release, has yet to prove itself a viable franchise. As is the case with Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters, the continuing popularity of the series has endured almost entirely because of a single original film that no subsequent release has managed to match, never mind surpass. The profits are there, to be sure, but that’s more of a marketing achievement than it is a qualitative one. On the two occasions that the original team from the 1997 hit (minus screenwriter Ed Solomon) reunited to revisit what appeared to be a strong enough foundation upon which to build a continuing franchise, the results have been underwhelming. Whatever the secret ‘X’ factor is that allowed the first Men in Black to be this perfect, unique action-comedy-sci-fi blockbuster, neither of its sequels were able to figure it out. Maybe it’s a case of lightning being captured in a bottle where the success of the original was so singular and unlikely that any attempt to recapture the magic will always be doomed to fail. Or perhaps all Sonnenfeld, Smith and Jones ever needed to do was let the original be and allow somebody else take a crack at the series. With Men in Black: International however, as directed by F. Gary Gray and featuring an all-new cast, comes yet another instalment in a franchise that still cannot justify its own continuation.

The same surface elements are there. We have a mismatched duo in the level-headed rookie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and the devil-may-care pro Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), some big-budget special effects, and a tone that attempts to thread the needle between buddy comedy, action movie thrills and campy sci-fi. What appears to be missing is an adequate understanding of how the first movie employed those components to make it as enjoyable as it was. When Agent M (or Molly) comes to the secret agency’s London branch (after having learned of their existence and successfully applied to be recruited) and meets her new partner, a celebrated agent who saved the world once before, the spark that the two actors shared in Thor: Ragnarok is entirely absent. The movie doesn’t seem to get that in order for a mismatched double act to work, there needs to be enough contrast to fuel both the comedic and dramatic sides of things. Agents J and K worked well together because it was so much fun to watch the cockiness and immaturity of the former clash with the formality and humourlessness of the latter and there was also ample room for both characters to grow. This movie however doesn’t impart enough of a personality to either character for such a rapport to develop; Agent M is overly confident in herself but not to the point of outright arrogance while Agent H is a maverick but not to the point that he needs to be reined in. The most conflict we get between the two comes in snide remarks and knowing looks.

When it is discovered that the Men in Black (a name that inspires a mildly funny exchange between Agent M and her boss Agent O (Emma Thompson)) has been infiltrated by a mole, it is up to the rookie and her hunky partner to track them down. The case takes them all over the world from Marrakesh to Paris to Naples and along the way there are plenty of action scenes to be had, high-tech gadgets to be used, and weird-looking aliens to meet. It’s a convoluted plot that involves an alien race called the Hive of which we learn little, a three-armed femme fatale named Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), and a tiny weapon capable of Death Star levels of destruction. The movie mostly concerns itself with world building on the mistaken belief that complicating the story is the same thing as making it more interesting. Instead we get a film at odds with itself as it tries to make sense of its own mess. One major plot point is how Agent H has never been the same since the celebrated mission when he and his former partner High T (Liam Neeson) saved the world, a point that holds little water when you compare Hemsworth’s performance in the opening flashback to the rest of the film. On both occasions he plays the role of the dashing hero leaping head first into battle and always wearing a cocky smile. If there was any change in his behaviour, it escaped me.

What the film needed to focus on far more pressingly was the comedy, of which there is depressingly little save for the odd comment made by a tiny, Jiminy-Cricket-looking alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Even if the plot made any kind of sense on its own terms, it wouldn’t matter a bit if the audience didn’t have any fun watching it. The movie gives its two leads little in the way of actual jokes, opting instead for the kind of light, semi-improvisatory banter that tends to prevail in American comedies nowadays, trusting that the stars’ shared charisma and chemistry will be enough to carry the audience through. In a big-budget sci-fi romp that’s constantly rushing from one action set-piece to the next, these scenes grow increasingly meagre and tedious in their aimlessness and failure to add any spark or energy to a movie already lacking in such sensation. Gray, who boasts an adequate enough filmography to feel like a safe bet for this kind of title, directs the movie with the kind of perfunctory competence that is the lifeblood of passable movies. Passable, however, is the wrong approach for a property this weird; the Men in Black universe demands the touch of a director who can transmit a wackier, more cartoonish personality than what Gray has to offer. His style, if it can even be called that, feels far too routine and indifferent.

Too much of Men in Black: International feels calculated in its course rather than inspired. Towards the end as the film starts to realise that it needs to offer some kind of emotional payoff, it suddenly takes a turn and plays around with vague ideas that feel like they were half-heartedly thrown it at the last minute. It’s not even terribly clear what ideas the movie is trying to impart, but as things start to slow down and the music starts playing it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be moved by whatever is happening on screen. I guess there’s something about love or friendship there, although it isn’t really clear which since the film never quite makes its mind up on whether it wants Agents M and H to be understood as love interests or if their relationship is to remain strictly platonic. There’s also some hint of a past trauma that one of them is supposed to overcome, but that whole arc is so confused that it’s difficult to say for sure. The reason these themes are so difficult to define is because they are so largely concerned with indefinitely elaborated relationships and underwritten characters. Whatever ideas this film has on its mind, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring them beyond the minimum required for whatever they think constitutes an emotional beat. So long as it feels like something significant has been said or done, it doesn’t really matter what that is; that’s how little this movie cares about anything beyond the bottom line.

★★

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

Director: Simon Kinberg

Writer: Simon Kinberg


Dark Phoenix marks the end of a two-decade journey for one of the franchises that helped launch the superhero phenomenon that has overtaken the world. As the genre has involved so has the series, going from a modestly-budgeted action flick with a mostly serious tone and black, leather costumes to a more campy sci-fi/fantasy style with larger effects-driven set-pieces and more inventive varieties of outfits and powers. Since then the franchise has also branched out to deliver a cartoonishly crude lampoon satirising the customs we’ve come to associate with the genre and an elegiac, western-inspired drama that explored and reflected on those conventions in complex and profound ways. The eleven films that came before have led the series to soaring heights and dreadful lows and, while the Disney-Fox deals guarantees that this is nowhere near the last we’ll see of the mutants, Dark Phoenix marks the end of an era all the same. That the film opted to once again draw from the ‘Phoenix Saga’ in the comics, the go-to character-killing storyline for the franchise when the actors are ready to be released from their contracts, should indicate this if nothing else. If ever there was a time for the series to pull out the big guns, be bold and daring, and make a loud, definitive statement for all to hear, this was it. Instead Dark Phoenix has turned out to be their weakest, most uninspired film yet (which is saying something).

The movie isn’t as terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it may not even be as bad as The Last Stand, but what both of those movies had that Dark Phoenix does not is personality and purpose. Wolverine was abysmal on almost every conceivable level, but it at least had the courtesy to be so laughably bad that it offers some entertainment value for those who enjoy hate-watching movies. The Last Stand, the last movie to adapt the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga, was similarly condemned by audiences, but I’m still prepared to defend it insofar as it took actual chances with its story and characters, something that too few blockbusters are willing to do today. Dark Phoenix meanwhile is so dull and unimaginative in its approach and so pointless in its very existence that I can hardly believe it is technically considered a movie. Not only does it utterly fail to deliver its own compelling standalone story or to advance the overarching narrative of the franchise in any meaningful way, it hardly seems to care enough to so much as try. Not even the talented cast at its disposal could overcome the dismal script they were made to work with nor the failings of the first-time director the studio saw fit to entrust with their coda to the series. When Fox appointed longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg to captain this conclusive title, what they doubtless expected was something safe, standard, and uncontroversial and that is exactly what they got in all the worst ways.

After opening with a brief flashback featuring Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) tragic backstory, the movie picks things up in 1992, precisely eight years before James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (once again reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto) are due to morph into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse human-mutant relations have improved and the X-Men have been embraced as heroes and saviours (the Oval Office even has an X-shaped phone for the President’s use when their services are needed). Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has also flourished into a haven for mutants in need of community and guidance and there Jean has grown to become one of the Professor’s brightest and most capable students. Xavier acknowledges that this harmony they’ve attained is more the result of necessity than it is of acceptance and that mutantkind is only one bad day away from returning to square one, but the contemporary connotations of such a concept are quickly brushed aside so that the X-Men series (as created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as a metaphor for racism in the 1960s) may remain blissfully apolitical. Jean joins the team, as led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), on a risky space mission that ends up going badly as she gets struck by some solar-flare-like force of energy. Jean inexplicably survives the blast and emerges not only unharmed but feeling stronger than ever. Her powers soon grow out of control however and it isn’t long before she finds herself heading down a destructive path.

Jean, having served as little more than a minor role in the last film, is the protagonist this time around and so much of why Dark Phoenix doesn’t work has to do with how much the movie takes our investment in her character for granted. The film for example assumes that we’re already on board with the romance between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) despite their relationship barely amounting to a sub-plot in Apocalypse because the leg-work for these characters was already done back when they were played by Famke Janssen and James Marsden. Turner, as demonstrated in her tenure on Game of Thrones, is a talented enough actress that she ought to have been able to make the character her own and find some meat in the role of a conflicted woman with a fractured mind furiously at odds with herself and her loved ones. She never gets that far however because the movie has little interest in exploring her psyche and, more crucially, her feelings about the man responsible for perpetuating her rage and trauma. The shock from the cosmic explosion reawakens a lost memory that Xavier chose to repress in his first meeting with Jean, that of the tragic car crash that she inadvertently caused with her powers as a young girl and the harms it inflicted on her parents.

That the good Professor elected to suppress a little girl’s emotional development in a sorely misguided attempt to protect her is a questionable act worthy of interrogation, but that would mean confronting issues of underlying misogyny that the movie would prefer to leave unacknowledged. The film wants us to be critical of Xavier, but not so critical that he ceases to be sympathetic. Instead the film simply chastises him for his actions insofar as they enraged an increasingly powerful and unstable mutant and triggered a lethal rampage and tries to score what cheap feminist points it can through empty gestures and lip-service. With Mystique’s eyeroll-inducing declaration that the X-Men ought to consider calling themselves the X-Women, the film appears to be operating under the assumption that female empowerment amounts to meaningless ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ statements, caring not whether the substance even supports the statement being made. When Jean reaches the conclusion that it’s her emotions that make her strong, the words ring hollow coming from a character who is defined far more by her abilities and her connection to her previous incarnation than she is by her own personal feelings. It’s all there to provide token gestures towards a vague notion of progressivism without pressing any buttons in a world where people’s intolerance for the sexist exercise of patriarchal power and control over women is gradually increasing.

Ethical objections aside, Dark Phoenix ranks lowest in my estimation of the X-Men canon because of what a continual slog it is to sit through. Compared to First Class where each performer, most notably McAvoy, Fassbender, and above all Lawrence, brought so much spirit and enthusiasm to their roles, here they put in all the effort of mildly acquainted co-workers taking part in a mandatory team-building exercise. McAvoy and Fassbender do at least act like they somewhat care about what’s happening in the film if only because both men are physically incapable of phoning in a performance, but Lawrence, who in Apocalypse could barely disguise how bored she was of starring in these films, is so wooden and uninterested that they might as well have employed a CGI duplicate. Chastain however comes the worst out of the whole deal as a villain whose personality and motivations are so ill-defined that I’m honestly struggling to remember a single substantial thing about her character. She’s a shape-shifting alien with some kind of connection to the space energy consumed by Jean and manipulates her into performing hurtful acts towards her loved ones for… reasons. What she essentially amounts to is as an unambiguously villainous diversion (so that Jean’s dark turn need not be blamed solely on the objectionable mind games of Xavier) and an eventual antagonist for the whole team to combat in the film’s serviceable third act.

There isn’t much to talk about in terms of how the movie is shot and constructed. The style is so bland and nondescript that I can hardly remember a single image that had any kind of memorable effect on me in the whole movie. The climatic train battle does at least offer some basic thrills, particularly in the way it uses Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but even that scene boils down to nothing more than each mutant dutifully performing their single trick in turn. So little happens in this film that I am honestly confounded as to why it was made in the first place. There’s no sense of momentum or direction to any of it; everything just more or less unfolds along the parameters of the plot points they decided to include and the movie doesn’t care enough to try and understand how or why. This movie was specially designed to be as broad, harmless and generic as is cinematically possible and the result of that endeavour is a movie so unbearably bland and meaningless that the reason for its very existence escapes me. If this is to be the final statement on Fox’s X-Men legacy and its place in the superhero movie canon, then this is the weakest, feeblest note on which they could possibly have ended especially compared to the poignant swan song of Logan. Talk about ending with a whimper.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi

Director: Michael Dougherty

Writers: Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields


“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport”. This King Lear quote is one that I kept returning to as I watched the latest Godzilla film. There’s something mythological about the way the monsters are portrayed here in their awesomeness and ineffability. It’s there in the primitive, superstitious mentality through which the human characters behold and regard the titans that roam the Earth as reflections of their own feelings and actions. Throughout the history of our species since the earliest days when disease, famine and ecological disaster were understood as divine punishments for our sins, human beings have always longed for some form of theological order to make sense of our chaotic and incomprehensible universe. Our perception of the world is so rooted in our emotional and sensual experiences that we often cannot help but feel that those forces beyond our control are somehow shaped by our existence. Lifted from one of his most tragic plays, the above Shakespeare quote demonstrates the human tendency to comprehend such intangible forces in human terms, through such recognisably human emotions as deliberate cruelty and malice. And yet the rain feels no more malice as it extinguishes our fires than it does benevolence when it feeds our crops; it simply exists. It’s through this frame that the movie invites us to observe and consider Godzilla.

King of the Monsters is the third instalment of a proposed cinematic universe for movie monsters that promises to one day deliver a King Kong-Godzilla crossover. It intends to bring together the many Toho-created kaiju, the Hollywood-created ape, and presumably some other famous, yet-to-be-announced movie monsters into a single shared narrative. In this universe these giant super-species are all part of an ancient ecosystem that predates human history. They have been in hibernation for millennia but are now waking up in response to the destructive and pollutive effect that human activity has had on the Earth. The environmental message isn’t subtle, but then subtlety isn’t really what you look for in a movie about giant monsters beating the shit out of each other. The films in the series so far, which include the 2014 Godzilla and the 2017 Kong: Skull Island, have been unambiguous about human activity (nuclear and chemical warfare, fossil fuels, overpopulation) being the direct cause of this awakening, leading some of the characters in this film to believe that the global catastrophe they bear witness to is humankind’s fateful reckoning. Through the eyes of these characters we are invited to consider Godzilla as both the scourge of civilisation and the saviour of humanity. Both views however presume that Godzilla is directly conscious of humanity’s feelings on the matter and that he (it?) has a moral stake in the earth-shattering brawl, a presumption that the movie also invites us to question.

The movie is an ensemble picture where several different characters offer vastly different takes on Godzilla and the monsters that he engages in their apocalyptic battle royale. Some we’ve met in previous films such as Dr. Ishirö Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), both of them scientists who have devoted their lives towards studying the monsters for Monarch, the secret government agency responsible for keeping track of the beasts. There are also many new characters, the most important of whom are a family whose lives were fractured by the events of the first film. Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is a scientist who left Monarch following the death of his son in the battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs in San Francisco five years prior. His ex-wife Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) remains a part of the agency and is continuing the project she and Mark started together, the development of a device that could allow them to communicate directly with the monsters and manipulate their actions. Living with her is their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who is also fascinated by these colossal, ancient creatures. Before long we learn that it wasn’t just the grief over their loss that drove the husband and wife apart but also their fundamental ideological disagreement over how the titans should be treated. Emma believes that these monsters could be used for the betterment of mankind whereas Mark feels that every last one of them ought to be eliminated.

The character who actively brings about the Armageddon that makes up the majority of the film is Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). He is an eco-terrorist who believes with the full resolve of a religious zealot that Godzilla is the Earth’s answer to humanity’s desecration of the Earth and he wants to awaken the rest of the monsters still in hibernation in order to accelerate the cleansing of man and his sins. As was revealed in the trailers that preceded the movie’s release, Emma is on board with Jonah’s crusade and joins him in his plan to wake up the remaining creatures, many of whom kaiju fans will immediately recognise. These include Mothra, a giant moth whose glowing wings are put on dazzling display in images of breathtaking beauty, Rodan, the giant pterodactyl, and Ghidorah, the malicious, three-headed behemoth and the greatest challenger to Godzilla’s dominance over the titans. Emma and Jonah believe with all their hearts that if these monsters are allowed to roam free and bring an end to the toxic, barren, depleted world that humanity created through their indifference and greed, then biological balance will be restored and the futures of the planet, the monsters and even of the human race will ultimately be assured. But therein lies the question: what price must humanity pay for the sake of the greater good?

The movies in the MonsterVerse so far, whilst financially successful, have not had the best track record with audiences. Many were disappointed by the Gareth Edwards Godzilla for how overly philosophical it was and how little screen-time the titular monster ended up getting in the end (about seven minutes) while others were let down by the Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong for going overboard with the monster-on-monster action in the absence of any compelling characters or story. King of the Monsters attempts to offer a middle ground between these two approaches, combining the thematic ambition of the former with the abundant action of the latter. The execution is not always successful however; there are too many action scenes that take place in dark settings obscured by rain or snow and the film’s genuinely intelligent and compelling philosophy is undermined by its inability to trust the audience. The overall moral and ideological conflict of the film is present in the family drama between Mark, Emma and Madison, as are the themes of grief and trauma that are personified by the monsters who have been summoned to bring about humanity’s end. A film that placed more focus on the trio could have made for the kind of moving, high-concept family fantasy that Spielberg used to do so well. The film however devotes far too much time to such side characters as Dr. Sam Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) and Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), who serve as little more than surrogates, reacting to these seismic events on behalf of the audience and explaining the significance of any given moment for fear that the viewers might not understand for themselves.

King of the Monsters fits into a category of science-fiction cinema that is so deeply concerned with themes of faith and spirituality that it could almost be called a religious picture. It reveres the titanic creatures with a divine sense of wonder, both at its most awe-inspiring and terrifying. Godzilla and his kind are gods among men; their powers are nearly beyond comprehension and their intentions are ultimately unknowable. The film enables us to appreciate their grandiosity by framing them in profoundly human terms. The movie cares deeply about the ordinary people caught up in this catastrophe and how they all must feel about living in this strange new world where titans reign supreme. Much of the film’s time is devoted towards exploring the implications and realities of this universe they’ve created and it is positively bursting with countless astounding images in which the ideas it wants to convey come to stunning life. Such images include Godzilla swimming through the pitch-black depths of the ocean illuminated only by the fiery pale-blue lights on its spine, Mothra unfolding its resplendent wings against the luminous backdrop of a waterfall, and Ghidora roaring triumphantly atop an exploding volcano as the camera dramatically sweeps to reveal a crucifix in the foreground. The movie is certainly uneven and has plenty of problems where plot is concerned, but at its most visceral and thoughtful it is truly a work of magnificence.

★★★★

Aladdin

Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: John August, Guy Ritchie


Perhaps the single most famous scene in the 1992 animated classic Aladdin is when the titular street rat, disguised as a prince, sweeps the beautiful princess off her feet onto his magic carpet and shows her a whole new world. Singing the iconic Menken-composed song that would win him and lyricist Tim Rice an Oscar, the couple embark on a magical, physics defying, geographically illogical journey into the clouds and around the globe, marvelling at all the wondrous, hand-drawn sights the animating team could dream up. Having now watched the live-action remake’s equivalent of that scene, it really makes me wonder whether Ritchie and his team fully understood the irony as they were filming it. We are after all talking about a film whose whole premise isn’t to show us a dazzling place we never knew but to take us back to a familiar place we already know. Spontaneity and novelty give way to obligation and nostalgia and yet these two characters still sing the same old song about beholding incredible new sights, broadening their perspectives and pursuing uncharted horizons. The oxymoron would be laughable in its thematic emptiness and shamelessly weaponised inter-textuality were it not already a consistent feature of Disney’s unyielding chain of reliably profitable photo-realistic remakes. Once again Disney has produced a movie that re-enacts its predecessor so closely and customarily that it’s left me wondering all over again why they even bothered.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to enjoy or that the movie doesn’t offer a couple of new twists and spins. The story however remains fundamentally the same. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a poor kid living in the slums of Agrabah who, with the help of his pet monkey Abu, steals in order to get by. Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the daughter of the Sultan (Navid Nebahban) and lives an unfulfilling, sheltered life that requires her to be married off to a prince. The two meet one fateful day when the princess sneaks into the city and are immediately smitten with one another. Aladdin however is a street rat, something the world never lets him forget, and so it looks like the beautiful princess will forever be kept beyond his reach. That is until the Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) approaches him with promises of wealth and power beyond his dreams if he’ll only complete one task for him: enter the forbidding Cave of Wonders and retrieve a lamp. Jafar of course has no intention of keeping his promise, but his double cross backfires and Aladdin ends up trapped in the cave still in possession of the lamp. He gives the lamp a rub and *poof* out pops the Genie (Will Smith), a magic, omnipotent being with the power to grant three wishes. Aladdin thus hatches a plan to woo and marry Princess Jasmine with the Genie’s help, but Jafar is still determined to take the lamp and use it for his own nefarious purposes.

On a scale from Alice in Wonderland (doing something almost entirely divorced from the original) to Beauty and the Beast (basically a shot-for-shot remake), Aladdin is undoubtedly closer to the latter. It follows the old and familiar path so religiously that when it momentarily strays or digresses, it’s as if the movie has been freed from captivity like a genie from his lamp. And yet these departures are so inadequately scarce that the movie is never able to develop a personality or style it can call its own. One such variation is the attempt to give Jasmine more agency in the story, an idea that climaxes with her singing an empowering ‘Let It Go’ style solo of her own entitled ‘Speechless’. It’s a song about her refusal to be silenced by the patriarchy that Scott sings the hell out of, but it’s so awkwardly wedged in and is so disconnected to the rest of the film’s mode that its inclusion feels more like a corporate calculation than a narrative payoff. They likely could have made the song’s inclusion feel more organic in a movie that devoted more of its time towards Jasmine’s arc, but such an approach would have necessitated a more drastic restructuring of the narrative as a whole, an undesirable prospect for a film that’s more interested in capitalising on an existing property through explicit mimicry than it is in telling an updated story with a timely message.

The possibilities of the film that could have been are most evident in the actors’ performances. Massoud has the right amount of charm and energy for a likeable protagonist and he’s particularly good at straight-faced comic deliveries, but that aspect of his performance only gets to shine in those few instances when he isn’t repeating bits and gags we remember from the first film. Scott brings a fiery passion and graceful dignity to her role, hinting at a resolve that goes beyond a desire to see more of the world. Oftentimes Disney heroines in positions of royal authority are shown to be rather ambivalent about their statuses and seek some form of escape from their responsibilities; Jasmine, in contrast, has the will to be a leader to her people, and a capable and compassionate one at that, but is being constricted by a culture that she wishes to change. When acting opposite each other in those scenes that are copy and pasted directly from the animated film, it is their talent and chemistry that save those moments from feeling like a clumsy high school re-enactment of the stage musical. When they get to break free from the original for a little while and trade jabs in the kind of wisecracking banter that Guy Ritchie knows how to do well, that’s when they really get to shine.

Smith has a much tougher sell to make to those viewers who love the 1992 classic for Robin Williams’ iconic performance. That they cast Will Smith in the role as opposed to a famous comedian/impressionist like Jim Carrey or Bill Hader seemed promising at first as it suggested that they were determined to take the character in an entirely different direction rather than settle for a pale imitation. However the movie can never bring itself to commit to the idea fully and instead has Smith stand in this awkward middle ground between Williams’ Genie and the Fresh Prince of Arabia. After a career of over three decades, Smith remains one of the most naturally charismatic stars in Hollywood today but he can only bring so much personality to a role that requires him to spend 60% of his time imitating a character that was built so specifically around the persona of an equally idiosyncratic star. Within that tension is, I think, not only the biggest problem with this film but with all the Disney live-action remakes in general. The movie’s main selling point is the nostalgia it inspires, but that ardent worship of nostalgia over all else leaves little room for creativity and inspiration. The 1992 film was conceived and designed as an animated fantasy/adventure and it lives on today largely because of a phenomenal performance brought about by an ideal marriage between performer, character and format. You cannot translate these things into a live-action form and expect them to remain tangibly the same.

While the story in the original film flourished in its animated setting, here it too often seems constrained by the limitations of live-action filmmaking. Or perhaps the issue is more with conventional filmmaking, which is pretty disappointing considering what an unconventional director Ritchie often is (in ways both good and bad). One small moment that helped me appreciate how good the 90s Disney cartoons were at making a little count for a lot happens right before the magic carpet scene when Aladdin holds his hand out to Jasmine and says, “Do you trust me?” The line matters because he says it earlier in the film and it ignites her recognition of him. To make sure this point was not lost, the animated film took the care to frame Aladdin in the exact same way on both occasions, emphasising the reoccurrence in visual terms. Not so this time around thanks to the movie’s generic cinematography and editing. Jasmine’s performance signals to us that Aladdin’s line has triggered her memory of him, but there’s nothing in the way that the shot is composed to reinforce it. So much of the film is arranged in such a routine manner and relies so heavily on CGI that few moments truly dazzle and captivate the viewer the way the animated film did throughout. The musical and action sequences feel slower, the world feels smaller, and the designs (especially that of the Genie) lose in spectacle and wonder what they gain in photo-realism. There’s a common misconception behind these remakes that live-action is more legitimate and ‘real’ than animation and these films continue to prove that snobbish, narrow-minded assertion false.

★★