“If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” Disney’s Aladdin (2019)

  • [Image Source: Wikipedia]

    “If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything.” – Aladdin
  • “Steal an apple and you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom and you’re a statesman.” – Jafar
  • “We should only be as happy as our least happy subject.” – Princess Jasmine

(Taken together, all might as well be explaining the current state of world politics.)

I found Disney’s live action reimagining of Aladdin pretty delightful and a welcome, inclusive, and, dare I say, much-needed feminist update of the original. (Note: I liked this spring’s equally critically reviled Dumbo a LOT too, so fair warning.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yes, we all adored Robin Williams, but we forget that he is (arguably) the essential (sole?) reason the original animated film is held in such esteem. I think director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) rebalances the proceedings with a well-rounded and integrated effort in his live action remake. Does it occasionally suffer from some TV movie flatness (a la Disney’s own Once Upon a Time or The Descendants)? Maybe. Do the musical numbers look a bit like they were lifted from a 1980s cruise ship commercial? Probably. But on the whole, I thought it was a lot of fun. And don’t get me wrong. I was nuts about the original and saw it about five times in the cinema during my sophomore year of … college. So, yes, I’m a soft touch for this material, and also one who has a well-earned fondness for the original.

Disney’s storied 90s animated output was, on balance, comprised of big Broadway-esque musicals that made it ok for a sh*t-ton of Gen Xers and Millennials to like show tunes, fairy tales, AND cartoons again. The flicks earned oodles of money in process. Nowadays, since just about any movie can be viewed (legally or illegally) on an iPad via YouTube, the idea of Disney “re-releasing” the “classics” from the “vault” via DVD/VHS/carrier pigeon is a quaint memory. Consequently, the Mouse House has to find a new way to monetize their intellectual property for the children of the children of the children of all their original audiences. Hence, remade enterprises like the recent live action Dumbo, the upcoming Lion King, and this Aladdin.

Folks, it’s Disney. If they can wring a nickel out of a t-shirt or doll or knapsack featuring some obscure character from, say, The Aristocats, they sure as hell are going to get another billion dollars from one of their most popular animated flicks of all time: Aladdin.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The nice thing here is that Aladdin is actually pretty good, a pleasant early summer diversion, that leans into Will Smith’s estimable charms while putting a governor on his out-sized ego and that offers us a forward-thinking story line about people of color living as, you know, people and acquitting themselves with agency and wit and heart.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Even villainous Jafar gets a makeover here. Describing the original animated version of Jafar as ethnic caricature would be … kind. In the hands of Marwan Kenzari, Jafar is still pretty despicable, but with a motivation that is more political than icky-for-icky’s sake and who isn’t as creepily fixated on marrying the unwilling Jasmine. The downside is live-action Jafar is, well, a little bland, not-to-mention kinda pretty, so his menace ends up more subtle than overt. That said, it’s a stronger performance than I think many will initially recognize. (His sidekick parrot Iago is toned down too – nary a squawking voice of Gilbert Godfried in earshot.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Our leads Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine respectively are, yes, Disney dreamy, but they also have grit and spark underlying all that glamor. Scott particularly approaches each scene with an unselfconscious irony and fiery whimsy that gives us a very un-princessy princess (blessed be). By the way, in this update, Jasmine is less interested in romance than in being named (rightfully) sultan. Yasss, queen!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Saturday Night Live‘s Nasim Pedrad is great fun as Jasmine’s confidante and handmaiden, the newly created character Dalia, who suffers no fools gladly either. When Scott steps forth to deliver the score’s one new song, the anthemic “Speechless” (crafted by original composer Alan Menken with an assist from The Greatest Showman‘s/La La Land‘s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), a star is born, and the Disney princess merchandising machine gets a much-needed shot of #ImWithHer feminism:

I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless

‘Cause I’ll breathe when they try to suffocate me
Don’t you underestimate me
‘Cause I know that I won’t go speechless

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the end, though, Aladdin is still a rollicking fairy tale adventure, and Ritchie paces it as such. Musical numbers? Nah, not his forte, but he makes them work in an insular, oversaturated, Bollywood-lite sort-of-way. The marketplace shenanigans and palace intrigues, however, are all rock solid. Will Smith? Not a singer. But he can move and he lights up a screen like no other. (Robin Williams wasn’t exactly Pavarotti.) In Smith’s hands, the jazzy cut-up “Friend Like Me” gets a Fresh Prince hip-hop makeover, and it works far better than my description makes it sound. No one in the production is taking this material too damn seriously. Shakespeare, it ain’t. And that’s just fine.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

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They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.