Disney+

Why You Should Support Physical Media

Showing off my 4K UHD Steelbook of Black Panther.

My film collection is now almost 800 movies strong, with 135 of those being 4K UHD discs, 524 Blu-rays, and 133 DVDs. Now, why do I collect? Why stay with physical media when Netflix has been broadcasting some content in 4K since 2014 and Amazon, Apple, and HBO Max now offer 4K content too? The reason is how the video and audio components are affected by streaming. In theory, these streaming services offer picture quality that is comparable to discs the latest in digital video disc technology. However, when the same movie compared on that versus a Blu-ray disc and a 4K disc, A/V enthusiasts at WhatHiFi.com found that the 4K streaming experience was actually more in line with watching a traditional 1080p Blu-ray—and that Blu-rays had a clear advantage in terms of contrast and color. However, 4K discs looked far better than either. They even compared audio quality and they found that streaming would get compressed Dolby Digital Plus.

Dolby Digital Plus has been around since 1992 and it has been on televisions since 1998. More advanced surround sound formats encode discrete sounds on different channels.This audio technology was mandatory on DVDs and is now mandatory to have at least this on Blu-rays, though, obviously at a higher level. When we watch movies at home either via streaming or disc, this audio can be experienced or lost either by your television speakers or your streaming service (dependent on your internet). This can reduce the movie watching experience. How this is prevented is through a number of lossless audio compression formats Dolby and DTS. While there are many out there who would state their preference, in turn have found they are fairly interchangeable. DTS Digital Surround is comparable to Dolby Digital, DTS HD Master Audio is comparable to Dolby TrueHD, DTS-X is comparable to Dolby Atmos. The latter two audio are currently the two best audio formats out there. The problem is that streaming reduces the high level audio down to the old technology. 

I recently updated my Star Wars collection from Blu-rays to 4K UHD. Thank goodness for Black Friday!

This is due to compression as the picture and sound information have to be processed in a way to send it over the internet. On top of that, the content has to be there. To get authentic 4K content on Netflix, one must pay for their premium subscription ($17.99/month) and then your internet needs to be able to handle it. Both Netflix and Disney+ say that at least 25 megabits per second is needed to stream UHD (ultra high definition) content, and Amazon needs at least 15 Mbps to watch videos in UHD. The two cheapest high speed internets for the most bandwidth in the US are Verizon and Comcast at $40 and $35/month, respectively. This will get you download speeds of 100mbps for Comcast and 200mbps for Verizon. However, this is only if the streaming device is hooked up directly to the router and wifi is about 70% as fast, at maximum. Additionally, there are more confounding factors such as the type of router and how many other devices are on the wifi–even if your streaming devices are up to speed and your internet is the best possible, there will still be some information lost along the way. Compression is inevitable. That’s not to say that streaming services aren’t useful and don’t have some real advantages. Streaming services do provide a deal when it comes to price, selection size, and ease of use. 

Ultimately, the streaming experience is more like channel surfing through many channels, especially now with almost everyone having their own streaming service. Using these services may be nice for the selection but that selection is determined by someone else. Netflix constantly removes content depending on the month and so does HBO Max. It all depends on licensing similar to that of cable channels running movies during the day. In the past, cable became so expensive to get access to movies and tv shows. This allowed Netflix to become popular. People didn’t enjoy having to pay for movies so this company created a way to only pay a monthly fee and you get as many movies as you wanted but one at a time. This led to their streaming services which had all people’s favorite shows. You could find everything on Netflix which was a game changer. Now, it may not be called “cable” anymore but it’s essentially the same thing.

Anyone that knows me knows that I am a huge Batman fan, especially the animated versions.

On top of that, Netflix announced in August 2020 that they were going to rencode all 4K, HDR and HFR titles in its catalog. They claim to be able to deliver the same quality 4K video at half the bitrate. They stated, “For members with high-bandwidth connections we deliver the same great quality at half the bitrate on average. For members with constrained bandwidth we deliver higher quality at the same (or even lower) bitrate.” Other advantages of the new approach include “higher initial quality,” and “fewer quality drops while streaming,” less buffering, and a reduction in “initial play delay by about 10%.” Also in October, Disney revealed that in order to further accelerate its direct-to-consumer strategy, it would be centralizing its media businesses into one entity that would be responsible for content distribution, ad sales and Disney+. This move was obviously done in response to the global coronavirus pandemic which crippled the theatrical business and pushed more viewers to streaming services. As of August 2020, Disney had over 50 million subscribers to Disney+ alone.

So with Netflix compressing their content and Disney moving towards streaming services, films have the potential to become less impactful due to streaming limitations. This makes physical media more and more important. Physical media has been shown to be the better, more pure way to view movies for a number of reasons including the audio and visual components. While there are some who disagree and say that physical media is a fad and that streaming is the more modern way to go, the questions about internet speeds, the content, and the technology surrounding streaming still remain. When Wonder Woman 1984 was released on HBO Max, director Patty Jenkins stated that it would be the first film on HBO Max to be in 4K Ultra HD, HDR 10, Dolby Vision and have Dolby Atmos. However, Warner Bros. hadn’t released any information about what internet speeds were needed for this. On top of that, some devices that should get 4K content such as the Xbox Series X were not able to get 4K; it was only on certain devices. This again shows that most likely the high end video and audio components of the movie are being limited by these streaming services and their technology. Even if you have the highest and most consistent bandwidth available, physical media holds the upper hand. The compression still happens, and thus streaming limits viewers from getting the true aspects of the film and seeing what the filmmaker intended. Furthermore, having the movies in the palm of your hand can give a more direct connection to the movie itself that can last a lifetime. Even if you hate the idea of physical media, you have to admit at some point that you are okay with getting a lesser quality film experience. Streaming may be cheaper and more convenient, but physical media is a more premium experience; which is why I support physical media, and you should too.

ROUNDTABLE RECOMMENDATIONS: A Look Back at Some of Our Favorite Movies of 2020

*Editor’s note: The year that seemed like it would never end has done the impossible… it’s actually over. 2020 has been a year unlike any other in our lifetime, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us are glad to see it go. Through it all, we have gained experiences and memories (both good and bad) that will shape our lives for years to come. Movies, and the lack thereof, might seem a trivial things when compared to the crushing challenges many faced in 2020; death, sickness, unemployment, school closures, social interactions etc. have all paid a heavy toll on societies around the world. Encouragement, hope, friendship and love are forms of strength that can be derived from stories, and as pillar of modern day storytelling, we want to share with you which movies we fell in love with in 2020 and wholeheartedly recommend to you. Enjoy!

André Hutchens: As bad as 2020 has been for the movie theater industry (and I only hope a speedy recovery for the industry), streaming services have never been more in demand. Lockdown mandates and social distancing policies have all but crippled movie theaters globally, but one industry’s tragedy is another industry’s triumph. And no streaming service has reaped the rewards more so than Netflix. With over 200 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix is the King of streaming, and continued its dominance in 2020… which is where I will pull my movie recommendation. Hillbilly Elegy tells the true story of real working class Americans and their struggle for survival in towns long forgotten by the broader public. You’ll see lives and relationships shredded by drug addiction, the struggle of single parents trying to play the part meant for two, and how life can feel hopeless when you’re drowning in life’s struggles. But the reason why I am recommending this film isn’t for the depiction of real life struggles, but for how the characters are able to overcome them. With the help of family, the power of forgiveness, and the guiding hand of faith, Hillbilly Elegy will show every viewer the possibilities of a better life when you begin to take responsibility for it. Easily my favorite movie of the year, I unequivocally recommend watching Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix.

CJ Marshall: Pixar has maintained such a high standard over the years. Their projects are mostly varying degrees of “Good” rather than good or bad. Soul is no different. The film already had wit, charm, and an authentic Black culture flavor coursing through its veins (Spider-verse anyone?) Who could know what significance its message would carry going into a year like the one just past? Soul carries that added weight because of how sturdy Pixar built its foundation. It should rightfully take its place as one of the jewels in the Pixar crown. My single regret is that I couldn’t see this film on the big screen in 3D.

Parker Johnson: 2020 was a tough year for all of us, and The Personal History of David Copperfield was a perfect, charming movie to come out during this trying time. Dev Patel shines as David Copperfield, and this colorful cast brought this delightful pseudo-biopic of Charles Dickens to life in such a heartfelt way. Like Little Women (2019) and Emma. (2020) before it, The Personal History of David Copperfield was a perfect blend of wit, charm, and warmth that should delight anyone… as long as you don’t confuse it for David Copperfield the magician, like my mom did.

Rachel Ogden: The near impossible task for sequels is to find a way to provide the protagonist with new obstacles and growth without losing the character’s identity that made them cheer-worthy in the first place; in essence, changing the character without changing the character. Though it will draw dissent, I say Wonder Woman 1984 does this perfectly. Gal Gadot continues to amaze as a dynamic woman and superhero that even villains want to be like. The movie’s 150-something minutes follow three different character arcs that are integrated into a simple yet powerful plot that I found both well-written and engaging. What does it mean to be great? Both the message and material of the film serve as a satisfying answer, even if it’s not a popular one. Don’t let the haters get you down.

Rachel Wagner: Tomm Moore is perhaps the most consistent and underrated director working today. He already had triumphs in The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea and now he dazzles audiences once again with Wolfwalkers. Not only is the 2D animation beautiful but the story of 2 girls coming to understand their connection and who they are rings true. I love the way Moore weaves in his Irish lore into his stories without feeling the need to over-explain what is happening. We are charmed by both girls and that’s enough to get us invested in whatever fantastical challenges and adventures come their way. I also loved the music by Bruno Coulais and Kila. It all combines to make a special film that we are not likely to forget. Watch Wolfwalkers on Apple TV+ as soon as you can!

Sam Cooley: What’s crazy about The Invisible Man (2020) is that it came out before COVID blew up, but it still came and went nearly… invisible to audiences. But it is so deserving of all the attention and praise it can get. Between a chillingly unique premise of abuse and deception, subtle works in suspense and terror, and another expert, almost exhaustive performance from Elisabeth Moss, this is confidently endorsed as one of the best films of the year. Though its namesake is a classic, the most it has on the 2020 version is originality, but even then, 2020’s new and fresh version still approaches surprisingly close in that regard.

Shay Satmary: Palm Springs was definitely the movie of 2020 that I told everyone I know to watch immediately after I watched it. It’s one of those movies where the less you know about the plot, the better it is to watch. What you do need to know is that it does a cracking job of summing up the feelings and aesthetics of most people’s 2020. It also stars a hot, understated Andy Samberg, à la Celeste & Jesse Forever,  and Cristin Milioti from Black Mirror. Along with invoking specific 2020 feelings and wonderful acting, Palm Springs will make you laugh out loud, and if you’re a sucker like me, you’ll end up crying too. 

The Formal Review: Research has shown that there is an appeal of rewatching movies because of the familiarity of characters, settings and plots–and Tenet exemplifies this. Nolan uses numerous scientific theories, and the ROTAS palindromic square, in a very ambitious and ingenious way. He is able take those ideas and stage them via action sequences that run backward and forward through time simultaneously. Yes, it will require multiple viewings, but that is in no way a bad thing. Each time will allow for new details to be discovered and will increase the appreciation for this movie. It is in the top tier of Nolan films. Complex? …sure, but phenomenal as well.

Thank you for your support of Backseat Directors this last year. It ended up not being the most ideal year to launch our new movie website, but we’ve made it out alive! May this new year be better than the last. Happy 2021, everyone!

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Soul

*Editor’s note: Amidst the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Disney made a bold move and decided to release the newest Pixar animated movie on their streaming service, Disney+. Pixar’s Soul debuted worldwide (where Disney+ is available) on Christmas Day. Unlike Disney’s Mulan (2020), Soul was available to any Disney+ subscriber at no additional charge, thank goodness! Whereas Mulan was part of the Disney+ Premier Access; meaning, if you wanted to watch Mulan at the time of its release, you would have to pay a rental fee of $29.99 on top of your subscription fees. We’ll see if Disney uses that same strategy with other movies that might debut on their new, shiny streaming platform… (hopefully not!).

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG | Runtime: 101 minutes | Director: Pete Docter

Shay Satmary: Soul ticks every Pixar box for me: great music, groundbreaking animation, complex characters and a deep meaning. Both, the jazz songs by Jon Batiste, and the other instrumental scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do an amazing job of transporting you into the different settings of the film. The animation of the physical world captures the characters’ details and uniqueness. The way the spiritual world was animated–from the way the colors kaleidoscope through the light to the linear figures of the counselor characters–left me in absolute awe. Joe Gardner is a humble main character with relatable problems (maybe not the dying part and trying to make it back to your body) that helped me feel attached to his journey.  I have watched it twice now and with each viewing I was moved to tears. The magical thing Pixar does so well is leave you thinking about their films long after you complete them, and Soul is no exception.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: I think we are all in agreement when we say that Pixar is one of the giants in the animation industry, and that it is due to their ability to tell a deep, rich, emotional compelling story that resonates with both young kids, and their parents alike–taking a deep, core concept like feelings, grief, or passion and making it kid friendly. Soul has all these elements, but is geared toward more older kids and adults, and in doing so solidifies itself as a different kind of Pixar masterpiece. The animation is still stunning (with the abstract worlds of the Great Before and the “in between” being especially beautiful and stylistic), and there is still that classic Pixar playfulness, but the subject matter and themes of the movie are more mature and refined. I really appreciated that. It was like having your first sip of sparkling cider after only drinking grape juice your entire childhood. Soul moved me deeply, and made me want to live a better and more purposeful life. I think it deserves to be ranked among Pixar’s greatest.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Rachel Wagner: Soul is a bold, ambitious film from director Pete Docter that I appreciate more than I love. I am grateful to the team at Disney Pixar for taking such a risk and making a beautifully animated interesting film that makes you think about the questions of life, and what price we are willing to pay to chase the dream. However, the script gets a little lost particularly in the middle section involving a cat. I also think the movie keeps us at a distance, and definitely keeps children at a distance, when with a few changes it could be more accessible. All of these choices impact the pacing and impact of the message. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have such an experimental film come from a major studio, and if it doesn’t 100% deliver it gives the viewer a lot to think about along the way.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Sam Cooley: Soul doesn’t have the exceptional wit nor the near airtight writing that is found in several other Pixar movies. However, I would recommend that anyone watch this film due to its sweetness, warmth and importance alone.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

The Formal Review: This movie is amazing, story wise and visually. The characters are engaging, the environments realistic and fantastical all at once, and most of all, it hits on an emotional level. There’s a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly captures what it feels like to get lost in the zone. However, the film does not seem to emphasize death outside of the fact that it happens. One of the main characters, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), could also have been looked at a little deeper, which would have had a more emotional moment. While the message is understood to be along the lines of getting to know someone by walking in their shoes, I couldn’t help but think of 2017’s Get Out. Though not Pixar’s best film, Soul is good for a laugh, and it does have an emotional and enriching experience. The film does have a positive message about not taking your life for granted that ends up feeling satisfying in the end.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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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