Disney+

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Mulan

*Editor’s note: this is the second roundtable review we have done on Backseat Directors. This format has been a lot of fun for our writers, and you can expect to see this more in the future with bigger blockbuster type films. For a more comprehensive (spoiler-free) review of Mulan, check out The Formal Review’s Podcast episode 25 (season 3) and his thoughts of the movie.

Mulan is available VOD (video on demand) on Disney+ for $29.99. The movie will be available to all Disney+ subscribers to stream for free come Dec. 4, 2020.

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 115 minutes | Director: Niki Caro

Rachel Wagner: I’m not sure what I expected out of this new Mulan. I haven’t been a big fan of most of these Disney live-action remakes, but occasionally they will produce a winner. The trailers looked pretty good and I felt that it is a story that could warrant different interpretations. Unfortunately, what they came up with thoroughly underwhelmed me. The power of the original Mulan (1998) is an ordinary girl who makes sacrifices to save her father and learns to be a warrior. In this new version, Mulan has the power of “chi” and is destined to save China, which is far less interesting. I also thought the actress Liu Yifei was very wooden and flat in the role. I think this might have something to do with a language barrier, but whatever the reason it kept me from being engaged in the film. In the end, they went for a superhero, “chosen one” narrative, and that was a huge mistake; making for a film that nobody will remember in 2 years, let alone 22 like the original animated classic.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

CJ Marshall: An old basketball coach used to tell me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Disney’s live-action Mulan feels like a perfect example of this. Mulan (2020) is merely decent, and the external forces (politics, Disney classic remake, expectation) are hard to ignore, because they don’t allow this phoenix to fly. They’re trying to serve too many masters here, and in doing so, it lacks a focus and gravity that would have made it a better picture. A Wuxia remake of Disney’s Mulan should have been better than this…especially with Donnie Yen and Jet Li involved. If you are a Disney+ subscriber, just wait until the movie is available to stream for free in December.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: As an Asian American, Mulan (2020) was a great experience, and frankly, it was the best thing that could come from a Disney remake of an animated movie. Unfortunately, the look of it won’t be appreciated because they won’t have a big enough screen to do so. The action and the colors and the costumes all looked great; though, historically inaccurate. Even though it’s trying to be diverse with its obvious attempt to be a wuxia film, it’s not exactly the genre it was trying to be. To tell an “authentic” story of a legendary Chinese warrior, Disney hired a white director, a white costume designer, four white screenwriters, a white composer, a white cinematographer, white film editor, and a white casting director. It was a good attempt, but a better one would be to have given a person of Asian descent the reins on at least one of those professions to help out. Having a female director is great, but there are plenty of Asian directors of all genders out there that could have directed this. The representation that it had on screen is important but so is the representation behind the camera as well. Even so, the score by Henry Gregson Williams is pretty amazing. Though controversial, the film had some really good acting by the many stars. It dared to be different while also feeling the same. It had a lot of good things that make it worth the watch. I recommend splitting the $30 rental price with some family or friends, and enjoy the movie together.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: In an ironic twist of fate, the parts where Mulan (2020) honors the original animated movie with its own twists were the parts that I most enjoyed throughout the movie. The relationship between Mulan and her father was expanded beautifully. I think the writers really understood that their relationship drove the whole story, and executed that part of the story perfectly. I thought the group of soldiers were portrayed wonderfully here, and I wish we got more time with them individually as opposed to just the love interest. The callbacks to the original musical numbers in both the score and dialogue was executed brilliantly. Sadly, every distinctly original element of this live action adaptation felt out of place or completely irrelevant to the story. The way chi is used in this story just felt like a lazy way to justify wire-fu to Americans not familiar with Asian/martial arts cinema, rather than having Mulan have natural talent in addition to her hard work and training. The witch detracts from Jason Scott Lee’s imposing performance as Bori Khan and his army, both in screen time and importance to the plot, and the idea of chi as traditional magic further muddles the idea of chi. Finally, the phoenix is literally only there for the most in-your-face symbolism since Game of Thrones. Mulan is one of the best live-action Disney Remakes alongside Cinderella (2015) and Aladdin (2019), but it still falls short of being great. I would advise those who want to see it to wait until December when it will be free to watch. Although somewhat enjoyable, $30 is just too much to pay.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Hamilton

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 160 minutes
Director: Thomas Kail

Hamilton is particularly challenging to review as a film since it wasn’t made as a traditional movie, instead being a filmed stage production. If I had to nit pick one thing, it would be that because this ultimately is a staged performance, the cinematography was not the same as it would be an actual movie. They had to make up for the fact that we’ve lost the ability to see the entire stage at once like we would if we were actually attending the Broadway performance. So, in some cases where they could’ve used a more cinematically pleasing shot, they cut to different angles so we could see a different perspective (I’m specifically thinking of the “rewind scene” from “Satisfied”). This is not inherently bad, since if we were a part of the actual audience, our attention would be focused on different things at different times. However, it doesn’t quite translate over to a film as well. But overall, the cinematography is the best we could’ve hoped for from a musical of this caliber.

Another thing that limited Hamilton was its choice of provider–Disney+. Lin-Manuel Miranda clarified on his Twitter account that in order for Hamilton to keep a PG-13 rating, its three “F-bombs” would have to be censored. While it is understandable (Lin wanted audiences of all ages to be able to enjoy the historically based musical) I personally felt like they should’ve left it uncensored and left Hamitlon unrated. It’s a filmed stage production after all, it shouldn’t be subject to the same weird standards that the MPAA places on normal movies. However, I respect Lin’s and Disney’s choice on the matter.

I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for five years now, and I was ready to see the context in which the musical existed and I was blown away by all the performances. The advantage of filming the live production has given us the ability to see all the subtle emotions playing on the actors’ faces. Seeing the fear, anger, disgust, heartbreak, and tenderness made the musical all the more emotionally engaging. Seeing Daveed Diggs bounce around the stage as Lafayette/Jefferson left me grinning from ear to ear. I was particularly surprised by Leslie Odom Jr.’s subtle performance. For nearly the whole musical he kept this fake smile on his face (reflecting Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy), but near the end of the final act it dropped to reveal the buried rage within. Truly a powerful performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and others member of the Hamilton cast perform on stage | Walt Disney Studios.

I was also stunned by how good everyone sounded. I’ve listened to the Original Cast Recording so much I’ve lost count, and I expected it to be the gold standard for the performances. However, I think the live singing was even better! My jaw actually dropped during “One Last Time” and “Satisfied” from the immense power of the vocals. Every solo was like this, so beautiful and powerful and emotional. I was also really surprised by the way Lin handled being the weakest link vocally. (Mind you, he actually held his own in his duet with Leslie in “Dear Theodosia”) Even though he’s not the best vocalist/singer, he portrays his singing with such earnesty and emotion that it overshadows his weaknesses. Honestly, all the cast were absolutely fantastic. Everyone was so good! 

RELATED:

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

Hamilton the movie is everything I wanted from the filmed stage production and more. As getting Hamilton tickets is a struggle, along with the pandemic affecting theaters across the country, this is the closest thing to actually seeing the live show as many people are going to get. Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece, and I am so glad he’s sharing it with us.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Who Tells Your Story: The Legacy of Hamilton

The original cast of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015).

If you asked me who Alexander Hamilton was five years ago, I would’ve maybe remembered that he was the guy on the ten dollar bill. If you asked me what he did with his life, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much at all. My interest in Hamilton: An American Musical began when I was on vacation in New York City. We were walking through Broadway, trying to find the specific theater our show was being performed in, when we passed the Richard Rodgers Theater that was housing Hamilton. I thought that the outside of the theater looked really cool; it was something I had never seen before. However, I didn’t feel the need to look anything up about the musical until later.

When I returned to college for the Spring semester, I was browsing Pinterest when I saw someone had animated Hamilton as a traditional hand-drawn Disney film. I was intrigued that a musical about the Revolutionary War had gotten so popular; not only that, but a hip-hop and rap musical had gotten so popular. I downloaded the soundtrack, looked up the lyrics on Google so I could understand what they were actually singing/rapping, and prepared to see what the hype was all about. I was completely captivated by the musical genius and the story of Hamilton. Thus began my obsession with everything Lin-Manuel Miranda has done. In the process of learning about how and why he created Hamilton, I began to understand how influential Hamilton was—not only as a small glimpse into a lesser known narrative of the Revolutionary War, but celebrating diversity. As Miranda so eloquently puts it, “Hamilton is the story of America then told by America now.”

Who Lives

Cast members of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) perform on stage.

One of the main criticisms of Hamilton is that while almost all of the characters are played by people of color (POC), there are actually no POC characters in the story. There is one throw away line about Sally Hemmings (a slave that Thomas Jefferson owned and had a relationship with) but that character is played by an ensemble dancer and has no significant involvement in the story aside from taking a letter from Thomas Jefferson. Other than this three second sequence in the song “What Did I Miss?” there are no characters of color in Hamilton.

The phrase, “History is written by the victors” is commonplace now in this age, but no less true. Right now, especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, we are more focused on scrutinizing our media and the way we view and understand history. Many films about race have come under fire for being “White savior movies.” Historical accounts of people of color have been coming forward to highlight how significant their role was in the history of our country—it seems as though diversity has never been more important, analyzed, and talked about. So why did Miranda choose not to include POC characters in the story? After all, In the Heights (Miranda’s first musical) was entirely about POC characters. Couldn’t he find a Revolutionary War story from a perspective of a person of color?

Who Dies

Cast members of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) perform on stage.

Before Hamilton, my knowledge of Revolutionary War history was very minimal: the British were taxing the colonies without allowing the colonies to have representation in Parliament, we protested, revolutionary sentiment spread , we went to war, George Washington was awesome, and somewhere in between Ben Franklin discovered electricity. That was pretty much it. I had no idea what Alexander Hamilton contributed, or who he even was. Even the lyrics of the opening number of Hamilton acknowledges this: “His enemies destroyed his rep/ America forgot him.”

Hamilton’s first act focuses on a group of revolutionaries that not many people are aware of: Hamilton himself, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan. We are given a very basic story of what they contributed to the war effort, all under the legendary George Washington. The second act takes historical figures we know (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) and deconstructs them into more antagonistic roles while still respecting all that they did for the founding of America.

While Hamilton may be historical fiction and has taken creative liberties, it is a brilliant introduction (and it really is only an introduction) into the complex nature of the founding of our nation. However, I think the historical backdrop is secondary to the actual message of Hamilton.

Who Tells Your Story

Cast members of Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) take a bow at the end of the show | Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.

Ultimately, Hamilton is a tragedy. The character even refers to himself as “another Scottish tragedy,” comparing his life to Macbeth’s. Hamilton was so caught up in his legacy (a constant theme of the show); he spent a plentitude of time dedicated to his writing and securing that legacy at the cost of his wife and children. He was even willing to die in order to be remembered—and eventually, he did die over an argument about his reputation with Aaron Burr.

The truly ironic thing about Hamilton’s obsession with his legacy is that he would’ve been forgotten if not for Eliza—the wife he neglected for so long. In an earlier draft of the song “Burn” Eliza sings, “And when the time comes//Explain to the children//The pain and embarrassment//You put their mother through//When will you learn//That they are your legacy?//We are your legacy.” The final shot of the musical is Miranda leading Eliza up to the front of the stage, and she sees the audience, realizing that Hamilton’s legacy exists because of her.

Miranda has taken the founding of America—a story told traditionally through the lens of White men—and recontextualizes it to fit the story of modern America. Hamilton is a story about immigration, slavery, feminism, the value of family and marriage fidelity, and the inherent worth of all people regardless of gender, race, or financial status. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Aaron Burr in the Broadway production, viewed the message of Hamilton as a vehicle for these themes when he addressed Vice President Pence:

“We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values. We truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.”

Aaron Burr in Hamilton: An American Musical (2015)

Rather than telling the people of color’s story during the Revolutionary War, Miranda instead chose to correlate the struggles of the Founding Fathers then to the diverse America now. Through our own dedication and determination, we have a chance to improve our nation, and leave behind a legacy of good for our children. People of all colors, genders, sexualities, races, nationalities, and abilities have an opportunity to “rise up” and create a better world. And that is a message we so desperately need in our time.

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Josh Gad

US actor Josh Gad poses on the red carpet as he arrives to attend the European premiere of the film Frozen 2 in London on November 17, 2019. (Photo by Niklas HALLE’N / AFP).

Before he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, Josh Gad spent four years being roommates with a musical theater hopeful named Rory O’Malley, who became his close friend. A few years after graduation, both Gad and O’Malley were cast in a Broadway show called The Book of Mormon. It would go on to become one of the most successful musicals of all time and earned both roommates Tony nominations. O’Malley says of Gad, “I’ve certainly had faith in Josh…I always knew that he is a comedic genius and it was just a matter of time.” He added that Gad was a drama major and never in the musical theater program; he just sang on the side.

Though he got his start on Broadway, Josh Gad was born to be in Hollywood. He was actually born in Hollywood, Florida, the youngest of three brothers and raised by traditionally Jewish parents. Both of his older brothers became lawyers, but from a young age Gad knew he wanted to be an actor. As a kid in the 90’s, he was obsessed with Disney movies, his favorite of which was Aladdin (1992) because of Robin Williams’ performance as Genie. Little did he know that one day he would be a Broadway star living in the same building as Williams and get to meet him in person. Josh Gad himself is most famous for his own portrayal of a comedic Disney side-character: the loveable, magical snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen (2013) franchise. Apart from the success of the film and its effect on his career, Gad became the first actor ever to win two Annie Awards for Voice Acting, both for his portrayal as Olaf in Frozen and Frozen II (2019) respectively. The character even got its own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and has appeared annually since 2017. He doesn’t let that go to his head though; he scored not one but two nominations for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for performances in The Wedding Ringer (2015) and Pixels (2015). Ironically, he shares that accolade with none other than Robin Williams, who was also nominated twice in 1999. 

But even for someone that’s talented, trained, and motivated, finding success or even just work as an actor can feel impossible. A few years after graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Gad grew weary of rejection and decided he was going to quit and go to law school like his brothers. When he told his mother, he was shocked to hear her crying. “I’m disappointed with you,” he recalls her saying, “I’m disappointed because you’ve spent 15 years dreaming about doing something and only 3 years trying to live out that dream.” Gad credits that conversation with giving him the courage to fly out to New York and audition to replace a Tony-winner in a Broadway production called, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. At the time, an episode of ER was his only professional acting credit, but he won the part.

Josh Gad sings in a scene of Beauty and the Beast | Walt Disney Studios.

It wasn’t too long after that that he exploded onto the scene as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, and then made seemingly seamless transitions into television and film. One of his breakout movies was Love and Other Drugs (2010), where he played an awkward but entertaining brother of Jake Gyllenhal’s character. From there, he’s been in comedies, murder mysteries, dramatic biopics, as well as a long list of voice-acting credits. He’s gotten to use his Broadway-level singing voice not only in Frozen but also in the live adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (2017) as LeFou and as Birdie in Central Park (an animated musical sitcom that just debuted on Apple TV+ and is getting great reviews). As for movies, you can catch him as Mulch Diggums in Artemis Fowl (2020), which just debuted streaming on June 12 via Disney+.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the work hasn’t stopped for Gad. For kids, the “At Home with Olaf” animated shorts are fun and entirely produced from home by Gad and the animators, but by far my favorite is his “Reunited Apart” Youtube series where he brings together casts from classic films via Zoom in order to raise money for charity. Recently he brought together the cast of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I loved every second of it. Despite it all, he still finds time to go on daily walks with his kids and read them the Harry Potter books (complete with his multitude of character impersonations, of course). I’m glad he’s had time to be home with his family, because his stardom train has been going strong for some time, and I don’t anticipate him giving up the spotlight any time soon.

REVIEW: Artemis Fowl

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh

With their huge hauls at the pre-COVID19 box office, a lot of people might not realize that Disney has a bit of a live-action movie problem. It has been years since the “House of Mouse” produced a winning, successful new franchise or original film, and that’s not from lack of trying. From The Lone Ranger (2013) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018) to Tomorrowland (2015), their attempts to start new franchises have not been successful. Even something with the pedigree of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) as a sequel underperformed.

The only successful new franchise I can think of are the Descendants films on Disney Channel, which is saying something.  Now we have Artemis Fowl based on the popular books by Eoin Colfer, and I was hopeful it could break this worrying trend. Unfortunately, it may be the worst of them all. Artemis Fowl makes baffling choices and fails to give us intriguing characters or an engaging plot.

The story of Artemis Fowl is fractured amongst a number of characters (part of the problem), but supposedly centers around the brilliant but devious Artemis (played by Ferdia Shaw) trying to find a device called the ‘aculos’ which will help him find his missing father (Colin Farrell). As he searches we meet a fairy named Holly Short (who is the lead character in the first novel) played by Lara McDonnell but is given little to do. Then there’s Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Nonso Anozie, and more. Most of these characters aren’t given anything to do but are stuck explaining their story to either Artemis or Holly. It reminds me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (which I hated) in that regard. Magical creatures are stuck explaining magic instead of actually being magical.

(From left to right): Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in a scene of Artemis Fowl | Walt Disney Studios.

Miss Peregrine’s (2016) at least had some cool visuals—Artemis Fowl doesn’t even have that. It feels more like a pilot for a show introducing its characters than a movie. For example, in the book Holly is a vivacious character and leader of her people. She goes up against Artemis who is the villain and outsmarts him in many ways. Here, she is stuck in a cage the entire time talking with nothing to do or say.

If I was running Disney+ I would be concerned; with releases like Artemis Fowl they are in danger of appearing as Disney’s garbage bin. I have enjoyed films like Togo and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made but they haven’t made much of a cultural impact. Artemis Fowl (being a YA franchise that readers love) has that potential and it could leave subscribers with a bad taste in their mouth. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t work as a film and most of the blame falls on the weak script and choppy editing. It’s simply a big, bland miss.

My recommendation is to watch one of the Disney Classics on Disney+ such as Pinocchio (1940) instead. That would be a far better use of your time.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEWS: Dolphin Reef & Elephant

With all the cancellations and postponements of films announced this month, at least there is one long-delayed film that finally was released to the public on Disney+. This is the new Disneynature film Dolphin Reef, which we were supposed to get in 2018 under the name Dolphins, but it was never released in the United States (only in France for some reason). In addition to Dolphin Reef, we also had the documentary Elephant added to Disney+, so April has been a wonderful time to be a nature documentary fan!

Dolphin Reef

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 78 minutes
Director: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey

My Rating: 7/10

In every Disneynature film they try to make following the animals more of a story to help make the footage more accessible to young children. The idea is if they can follow a narrative and give the animals cute names the kids will be more invested in the storytelling. This works sometimes better than others, especially in Chimpanzee where the story ends up surprising even the filmmakers involved. However, in Monkey Kingdom the story felt too contrived and arranged and honestly what’s the point of watching a documentary if it isn’t going to feel real?

In Dolphin Reef (or Dolphins) we meet a young bottlenose dolphin given the name Echo who learns how to get food from the coral reef and interact with friends of the reef, like Mr. Mantis (a peacock mantis shrimp), Mo’orea the whale (a humpback whale), and her newborn baby Kumu, and other oceanic creatures.

If you love the ocean like I do you will enjoy Dolphin Reef just on that level. It brought back memories of going snorkeling at Hanauma Bay in Oahu, Hawaii (one of my favorite places in all the world). The coral reef is so beautiful and kids can learn a nice lesson about preserving the ocean for all the creatures in the delicate ecosystem.

Natalie Portman acts as a serviceable narrator for the film, and overall I would put Dolphin Reef in the middle of my Disneynature rankings. It’s hard to get tons of personality from the dolphins because they are constantly moving but it’s still cute and made me long for the ocean!

Elephant

Disney+
Rated: G
Run Time: 89 minutes
Director: Mark Linfield & Vanessa Berlowitz

My Rating: 6/10

Next up we have the Disneynature film Elephant that follows a tribe of elephants in the the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa. This area of Africa floods over spring creating a fertile and lush land for all creatures—but especially for elephants. Then later in the year the land dries up and the elephants have to travel many miles in order to find new ground for them to live until they can go back to the flooded land.

This cycle repeats itself each year and provides all kinds of intense experiences for our adorable elephants. This particular herd is led by an aging elephant named Gaia and her protégé Shani. Evidently most of the tribe is related in some way and Gaia leads by hearing the vibrations of the other elephants ahead of them as they travel. I don’t know if that is true or not but it’s a pretty effective line.

The thing that hurt Elephant is I saw essentially the same documentary but better at Sundance in 2019 called The Elephant Queen. In that film Chiwetel Ejiofor is the narrator (Meghan Markle narrates in Elephant) and he has more gravitas in his voice. Plus, the storytelling is less cloying in The Elephant Queen with a less manipulative feel about it.

Currently, The Elephant Queen is playing on Apple+, so if you have access to that service I recommend it over Elephant; however if you don’t, the latter is fine and kids will enjoy watching the elephants as they make their way across the desert, so it is worth a watch.

If you’ve seen either of these Disneynature documentaries, let me know what you thought of them! Leave a comment in the comments section below.

Recommendation for both films: STREAM IT

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