The Lion King: Animation or CGI?

It’s 25 years this year since The Lion King animated movie released. Two thousand and nineteen sees a computer-animated (or computer-generated imagery, CGI) re-release of the same story. The visuals in this new release are absolutely stunning. And the same unforgettable music that defined the first one is used, such as Hakuna Matata, Nants’ Ingonyama and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

The same well-rounded, satisfying coming-of-age story features. A young lion, Simba, is destined to be king. Through the machinations of his evil uncle, Scar, tragedy strikes Pride Rock and Simba flees. He befriends a comic warthog and meerkat pair who teach him not to worry about anything. Simba then spends his days avoiding his past, shirking his responsibilities, and generally living in a world that doesn’t function as it should. Duty calls, however, and Simba returns to Pride Rock to put things right.

The 1994 The Lion King was the very first video (note: not DVD) owned by my – then very young – children. It was also the only one for a long time. Hence it was watched over and over again and my children and I became brilliant at quoting lines and singing music lyrics.

Timon and Pumbaa, and their counterparts the snivelling, servile, sneaky hyenas became embedded in our memories. The well-defined characters of Mufasa and his anti-hero brother Scar (Simba’s father and uncle respectively) and their motives were clear in our minds. And the emotions invoked by music, romance, visuals of the beautiful African plains, and the tragedy of death will remain with us forever.

Gosh, I’m being dramatic and terribly nostalgic here. But I couldn’t stop comparing the two films while watching the new one.

So how does the new The Lion King compare to the old? I think the old one edges out this exceptional new version. There’s just something about animation. Even young children know that animation is not ‘real’. In animation comedy, accidents, dialogue and drama can all be ramped up. This heightens the entertainment for the viewer. As marvellous as this computer animated The Lion King is, it looks so real that I think the antics have to be dialled back so as to be in keeping with the ‘realness’ of the medium. And in that you lose something.

The Lion King opens at cinemas in South Africa on 19 July 2019. Don’t miss it.

 

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Aladdin

Why You Should Watch Aladdin

The children’s film, Aladdin, released at cinemas in South Africa aladdinrecently. It is based on the story Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and explores the themes of power and desire. The clever, satisfying ending makes the moral of the story clear for viewers: Your motives are powerful; be careful of them because, unchecked, they can lead to your destruction.

For parents keen to expose their children to films and stories that provoke interesting, worthwhile discussions I recommend Aladdin. But parental guidance is advised. This 2019 version is very similar to the 1992 animated one – funny, endearing and entertaining. However, this year’s film stars real people. Without the barrier of cartoon characters the romance between Aladdin and the princess Jasmine seems inappropriate for very small children. (Of course, this point is mild when you compare it to one of the older written versions of the story. In the latter, Aladdin spends the night with the princess after having lured an earlier suitor out of the way!)

aladdinBriefly, the story Aladdin opens with an unlikely hero: a poor, fatherless, young thief named Aladdin. The antagonist is a powerful man called Jafar, counsellor to the country’s Sultan. Jafar wants the Sultan’s powerful position for himself. Desire (for position and power). Aladdin – to put it crudely – wants the Sultan’s daughter (Jasmine) for himself. Desire (for riches and love). The source of empowerment in the story is a supposed magic lamp which contains a genie who is able to grant the lamp keeper’s wishes. Jafar and Aladdin vie for the lamp and this creates the conflict in the story.

Whilst the genie has the power to grant the wishes, the genie’s power is directed by the wishes and desires of the one who owns the lamp. He is enslaved to whoever commands him. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Genie’s enslavement is a picture of what our own desires do to us: they gradually enslave us.

As the struggle intensifies both Aladdin and Jafar become more desperate to have their thwarted desires met. And their desires escalate; instead of wanting only to be sultan Jafar eventually wants to become the most powerful genie in the land. (Think Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). For his part Aladdin is tempted to go back on his word in order to get what he wants.

Conniving and betrayal make up both Jafar’s and Aladdin’s journeys until the final scenes of the film see Jafar’s wish to be the most powerful genie coming true. But the benefits of Jafar’s new position (in particular) don’t quite live up to his expectations!

The Christian Bible essentially teaches the same idea. Romans 6:16 says: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Watch Aladdin with your children and discuss how the different characters (including Abu, Aladdin’s monkey!):

  • are tempted,
  • what desires within the characters are stirred by those temptations,
  • and the consequences of giving in to those temptations.

Talk about Aladdin:

  • do you think he was a ‘better person’ than Jafar was?
  • were Aladdin’s desires ‘more worthy’ than Jafar’s?
  • could Aladdin have had the same end as Jafar did? How? Why?

The Least of These: A Story of Enduring Love

The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is based on the true story of the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The film is set in India and is directed by Aneesh Daniel. South African, Bruce Retief, was responsible for the stirring soundtrack.

Decades before his death Graham Staines and his wife Gladys started and ran a leprosy mission in India. They imbued the patients with dignity, defying conventional wisdom that treated lepers as outcasts. In the 1990s religious tensions rose, when, in Hindu areas, accusations of ‘illegal conversions’ were levelled at Christians.

The action in The Least of These starts at this point and centres on journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) who has a wife and a new baby. Banerjee is an ambitious writer with desperate living conditions and he tries to make it big by covering the sensationalist rumours of the aforementioned illegal Christian conversions. Urged on by his editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawardi), Banerjee searches for evidence linking Staines (Stephen Baldwin) to these accusations. Along the way Banerjee unwittingly speaks inflammatory words to a listening crowd, and influences a serious outcome.

Banerjee’s own journey in the story takes him from scepticism and suspicion, through regret, to realisation and putting things right. The journalist’s journey also acts as a vehicle for highlighting the role of the media in political and religious tensions.

Ultimately, though, The Least of These is a gently told story of relationships, of faithfulness, of genuine, selfless love, and of forgiveness.

Some of the acting in The Least of These is stilted – particularly from Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby (who plays Gladys Staines). The focus on a White ‘saviour-type’ missionary in an Indian environment is racially uncomfortable. But the setting in the suburbs of Odisha, India, is authentic and the storyline well-rounded. The Least of These is worthwhile viewing and is currently on at cinemas in South Africa countrywide.

Beautiful Ugly Women

It was really strange to see Nicole Kidman ‘dressed down’ in the film Destroyer. It reminded me of Charlize Theron in the 2003 Monster for which Theron won an Oscar. Kidman and Theron are both beautiful women who have to be made up to look ugly. (Most of us I think need to be made up to look beautiful!) There is the notion that playing gritty roles like those in Monster and Destroyer shows how serious these actresses are. That they be judged on the merit of their acting and not just the appeal of their faces. Much like Harry Potter author J K Rowling writing under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith, with the idea that she be praised for her writing rather than her former fame.

Kidman’s character in Destroyer wore manly clothes that hung on her thin frame. Her short, brown shaggy hair was annoying. And her skin was full of pigmentation. The only thing the make-up artists didn’t do was cover up Kidman’s bright blue eyes.

Kidman does a good job of portraying sad, desperate, hardened cop Erin Bell who has a past. Bell is by no means a one-dimensional character, something that comes to light as the woman’s history is slowly revealed in the movie through flashbacks. There is a good twist right at the end that makes the plot believable. Despite her hard exterior Bell is actually motivated by love – both romantic and filial. Unfortunately, this incentive, undermines the plausibility of the story.

Destroyer is currently showing at cinemas in South Africa.

Captain Marvel Makes a Human (Not a Feminist) Statement

Captain Marvel is a superhero also known as Carol Danvers. Before she became Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers was a fighter pilot. A human with quirks, vulnerabilities and friendships. As a superhero Captain Marvel has a streaming light source that courses through her body and makes her a powerful fighter. In Captain Marvel the film, Captain Marvel learns to understand and appreciate these two parts of herself.

Marvel is a woman, and her former sidekick and boss were also women. Marvel has little problem beating up men and male aliens. This setting and characterisation is a great platform for a feminist statement. And yet Captain Marvel is not that. The film makes more of a comment about ordinary people who become heroes. It’s just that the main character in this story happens to be a woman.

I liked that. It’s not a film about women proving who they are. Or about women being better than men. Or women being just as good as men in male-dominated roles. It’s as if Captain Marvel has leapfrogged over aggressive feminist debates to a future world where women, and men, are just humans (or in this case superheroes).

There are problems with the film. From the jarring over-the-top, future-world, Star-Trek like sequences in the beginning it’s a relief when Marvel, followed by warring Skrulls and Krees, arrives on Earth (planet C53). And yet this change in scenery is also a plot weakness. It’s as if the superhero stuff in the beginning couldn’t be believably sustained and so the story switches to something audiences can easily identify with.

But plenty of lighthearted humour in the explosive outer-world scenes and in the down-to-earth ones, do make Captain Marvel fun to watch. Marvel (Brie Larson) herself is quite funny, and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), a cop that Marvel teams up with, is very amusing. As is a sweet ginger cat who is not quite as he would seem, and who travels into space with Marvel and her cohorts.

I enjoyed Captain Marvel. The film opens at cinemas in South Africa on 8 March 2019.

Oscars 2019: Focusing on those in ‘Second’ Place

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody

The 2019 Oscars have come and gone. Number ones for best picture, best actor and actress, best animation feature and so on will be remembered. They are, respectively, Green Book, Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (see my review here). But what of those who came ‘second’? Are they just as memorable, if not more so?

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice

Two of the films nominated for best picture for this year’s awards were Vice and The Favourite. Neither of them won Best Picture. Interestingly, though, both films were about the people behind the main political leaders of the time, those in second place. In Vice, the story concerns Dick Cheney who became Vice President of the USA in the G W Bush era. In The Favourite, the main focus is on the two women in 18th Century England who get closest to Queen Anne. The women are Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham.

Not only do the films focus on these ‘vice-leaders’, they also show how exceptionally powerful the vices were. Political machinations go on behind the scenes that make George W Bush and Queen Anne, respectively, look like weak, easily manipulated puppets. The films were an excellent depiction of how leaders of countries/institutions can be merely figureheads, with the real power devolving from influential people who work cunningly to get their own objectives met.

Other similarities between the movies were how they were filmed. Vice breaks the fourth wall constantly with a quirky narrator whose identity is revealed in shocking fashion three quarters of the way through. There is also an amusing section when credits begin to roll as if the film had ended, when in fact it hadn’t. The Favourite uses wide-angle lens shots, gloomy lighting, and lurid details often hidden from the camera to depict reality and confront the viewer.

Olivia Colman – who played Queen Anne in The Favourite – won 2019 Best Actress (read about her acceptance speech). She was excellent as the ill, dithering, batty, very sad Queen Anne. In addition to her performance it’s the stories of the aspirations of those in ‘second place’ that make The Favourite and Vice riveting viewing.

 

Book Club Benefits

My book and movie entertainment this week was local, down to the town in which I live. More than the pleasurable local aspect, my enjoyment of the book in question was greatly increased by the book club discussion around it; I should think of joining a movie club to, similarly, enhance my appreciation of the films I watch.

The film I saw, 3 Days to Go, by producer Bianca Isaac, showed familiar backdrops of the Durban beachfront and shoreline. Summer sunshine filtering through in the indoor shots was, likewise, wonderfully recognizable. As with the setting, I thought the filming itself was well done and made for good viewing.

The story of 3 Days to Go revolves around the death of the patriarch of a South African Indian family. Upon his death, for the first time in many years, the man’s four adult children return to the family home and to their widowed mother. Tensions ensue as each comes with a load of baggage. Abusive or wayward husbands, difficult teenage children, gambling brothers, schemes, betrayal, extended family issues and more are what emerge during the three short days before the man’s final ocean memorial.

I’m not a fan of all romantic comedy, and some of the acting in 3 Days to Go is a bit stilted. But the actors themselves are beautiful to behold, and the film will find a following amongst audiences.

Family concerns and more also feature in the book The Blessed Girl by South African author, Angela Makholwa. More seriously, The Blessed Girl raises the thorny (horny?) subject of blessers – people ‘(usually male and married) – who sponsor younger women with luxury gifts or a luxurious lifestyle in exchange for short- to medium-term sexual relationships’ (The Blessed Girl).  During a lively discussion of the book at the book club I attend we discussed the author’s treatment of the role of social media, the mockery of government corruption, male irresponsibility, shocking family handling of young girls, drugs, and of course the prevalence of blessers and blessees. The Blessed Girl is written in a flow-of-consciousness, conversational style, and is laced with humour and colloquialisms that I especially enjoyed.

Disagreements as to the merits of The Blessed Girl, and grappling with the issues raised in this book made for fruitful discussion.

Here’s to South African flavour and to discussion forums!

The Blessed Girl is available on Kindle. 3 Days to Go opens at South African cinemas on 25 January 2019.