“Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” The Green Book and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Family is what you make it. Two holiday film offerings – seemingly disparate as can be – explore that notion with nuance, surprising gravitas, and humor to spare.

The Green Book is pretty darn magnificent. Just when you think you’re getting another magical Hollywood-cures-racism retro-tear-jerking fantasy, the film subtly indicts the prejudices that plague us all, without avoiding the fact that we have some grade-A hateful jackholes in our country who need to be taken down a notch … or eight. Viggo Mortensen runs just shy of coming off like a Hanna-Barbera character, but he is nonetheless lovably/adorably brilliant in one of his broadest roles to date. Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali is brittle, haunted, wry, and superb, and they make a heckuva duo. Oh, and the film still manages some retro-tear-jerking holiday magic too.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There is a strange sub-genre in well-meaning, liberal Hollywood: the crowd-pleasingly simple-minded, amber-hued “let’s overcome racism together in two hours” flick (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy, on and on). There can be a tone-deaf, self-satisfied entitlement to the “white savior” trope in these films, and that is just as off-putting as the nasty institutional racism these movies overtly critique. I’m not sure Green Book, directed by Dumb and Dumber‘s Peter Farrelly of all people, entirely avoids this trap, but the performances of Mortensen and Mahershala (not to mention perpetually underrated Linda Cardellini as Mortensen’s stoic-but-free-thinking wife) raise the film’s profile significantly from Hallmark Hall of Fame pap to something more vibrant and compelling.

Depicting real-life jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur/hired muscle Frank Vallelonga as they tour the Deep South in 1962 and encounter one well-heeled bigot after another, The Green Book draws its name from a guide that helped African-American motorists of the era tour the country with as little aggravation as the era would allow. Reportedly, Shirley and Vallelonga would eventually become lifelong friends, but that is the kind of factoid that becomes increasingly debated as a biographical film like this grows in popularity and collects more end-of-year trophies. So, who knows?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As for the film’s central thesis, it is summarized in this comment by a member of The Don Shirley Trio when asked why Shirley would take them all below the Mason-Dixon Line in the first place: “Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s the kind of line that sounds like it was penned expressly for the daily horoscopes, but in the context of Mortensen and Mahershala’s exceptional dynamic (not to mention today’s strange days), it takes on a heart-wrenching profundity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is unlike any superhero film nor any animated film I’ve seen: inventive, whimsical, poignant, heartfelt, transporting, kinetic, inclusive, unashamedly odd, surreal, and funny as hell … a true comic book brought to life in the best possible ways. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is the superior film to the awards-baiting Green Book where issues of race, gender, identity, and inclusion are concerned.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rife with the delightfully irreverent influence of producers/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street), Spider-Verse introduces its audience to a new Spider-Man in the form of Afro-Latino Miles Morales whose ethnicity isn’t a gimmick or a plot point but just part and parcel to his character, that is, in addition to him being a teenager, a science prodigy, an artist, and a music lover. How about that?

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

After a multiversal quantum physics experiment gone awry, Miles finds himself surrounded by a Benetton ad’s worth of fellow Spider-people: neo-feminist Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (notably not “girl”), silver-haired ass-kicking Aunt May (cheekily voiced by Lily Tomlin), Untouchables-throwback Spider-Noir (another fun voice cameo, this time by Nicholas Cage), paunchy and midlife-crisis’d Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, Japanese robotics expert Peni Parker and her sidekick SP//dr, and (for us animal nuts) an anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker / Spider-Ham. Miles’ mission – in addition to navigating his newfound super powers and his loving-but-demanding parents who want him to focus on nothing but his science academy studies – is to help these Spider Buddies save the world and return to their respective parallel Earths. A bit like The Wizard of Oz, in reverse, but with super villains and web shooters.

The movie has a visual language unlike anything seen in computer animation before, photo realistic yet simultaneously comic book flat: a bit Andy Warhol, a touch Roy Lichtenstein, a smidge Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, yet wholly original, breathtaking, and dreamlike. The film’s comic timing borrows liberally from Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Pink Panther, and Tex Avery, while the narrative grounds itself in the polyglot humanity of modern day NYC. It’s an exceptional piece of pop art, and effortlessly leverages the best of superhero egalitarian metaphor to give the middle finger to MAGA nationalism. I can’t wait to see it again.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“How many lives is one man-cub worth?” Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46830494

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.

Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)

I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.

That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)

I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”

(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)

The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.

Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents)  in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.

To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.

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LMA 16 3Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.