The Lion King, Star Wars, and Adaptation Fatigue

 

This teaser looks great right? I mean, it’s one of the most viewed movie trailers of all-time, and the film it promotes, this summer’s “live action” remake of The Lion King (1994) is going to make over a billion dollars.  Who wouldn’t be excited for it?

Me, for one.  It looks like a shot for shot remake of a perfectly good, existing film.  Check that, it looks like a shot for shot remake of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, animated films of all-time.  Disney says it isn’t, but they’re awfully cagey about it.

It’s one thing to re-imagine Dumbo (1941) or The Jungle Book (1967)  to better appeal to modern sensibilities.  I’m not 100% on board with that either, but at least there’s some redeeming artistic value in updating those stories.  Other than “Mickey needs money” (he doesn’t, by the way), I’m at a loss for the purpose of re-making a great movie just because there is new technology to play around with.

Yes, yes, perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, and I shouldn’t be criticizing a movie that I haven’t seen.  Perhaps Jon Favreau has found a valuable new perspective on a classic film, and this summer’s remake will win multiple Oscars and be hailed as the second coming of Citizen Kane (1940).  I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s certainly possible.

That said, the problem I’m pointing out isn’t a new one – it’s a feature of all adaptations.  I mean, the Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet, which itself is mash-up of Scandinavian and Roman legendary histories and perhaps even a lost play known to scholars as “Ur-Hamlet.”  Successful adaptations tell a stories from new perspectives, comment on previous versions, or re-imagine the stories to appeal to modern audiences.

That’s the difference between Maleficent (2014) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).  While Maleficent is not a great film, it at least tells the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from a new perspective.  Beauty and the Beast made a ton of money, but at the end of the day it’s little more than an inferior remake of the 1991 animated version.

While less true than it used to be, motion pictures are expensive to make.  Movies, to some extent, remain our most commercial art-form.  There are no university presses, community theater labs, or hobbyists – film studios have to make money in order to create more films.  One can’t blame Disney, therefore, for mining its existing catalogue for old material that can be repackaged using new technology in an ultimately lucrative endeavor.  Disney doesn’t exist to maintain the artistic integrity of the motion picture, it exists to make profit.  Beauty and the Beast (2017) made $1.2 billion, after all.

I’m picking on Disney, but re-boots, remakes, prequels, are way too abundant in modern Hollywood.  The commercial proposition is an easy one to understand – it’s lower risk to take an existing property and do something slightly different with it than it is to make something new popular.  At the same time, pumping out the same material over and over again has to have diminishing returns at some point for the audience.

Maybe this could be a “problem” that solves itself.  Take Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), for example.  Ron Howard may have performed a minor miracle turning a dumpster fire of a production into a fine movie, but a fine movie it remains.  Other than the Clone Wars animated movie and the Ewok movies, it’s also the lowest grossing Star Wars film by a wide margin.  After decades of Extended Universe stories and the Sequel Trilogy, there just wasn’t an appetite for yet another tale about Han Solo, even a competently crafted one.

On the other hand, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy also serves as the best example of why creating something new from an existing story is playing with fire.  The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017) both made a ton of money and were lauded by critics and fans alike – well, most fans.  There was an extremely vocal group that absolutely hated one film, the other, or both for very different reasons.  The merits of Episodes 7 and 8 (of which there are many, by the way) aside, the Sequel Trilogy’s biggest flaw so far is that it is trying to continue the story from Return of the Jedi (1983) AND tell and entirely new story at the same time, which leaves both stories somewhat watered down.

I’m going all over the place in this article, but my central point remains that certain stories can’t really bear the weight of being adapted in a repetitive or overstretched manner.  What is there to do?  I would recommend telling new stories within the framework of the old stories, rather than overstretching existing plots and characters.  The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy partially succeeds at this so far, but Episode 9 has some heavy lifting to do in order to really stick the landing.

For the Lion King (2019)?  The success of the animated children’s series “The Lion Guard,” shows that there is interest in using the framework of the Lion King to tell new stories, so there are promising directions for Disney to go.  After all, Disney can only do a “live action” shot for shot remake once, right?

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Full Analysis Part 2

Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things.  First, I saw the film a second time.  Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950).  This has sharpened my view of the movie.  While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some.  It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie.  But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.

None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present.  Most feel nit-picky to me.  One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements.  Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy.  Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.

The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker.  The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile.  The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?”  Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom.  But why?

I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me.  I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film.  The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.”  Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them.  If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw.  But how serious of a flaw is it?

Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon.  Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film.  Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more.  This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story.  For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.

The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.”  That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.

Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason.  The first two are bad movies, full stop.  The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II.  I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it.  A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too.  We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.

That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies.  The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books.  If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now.  The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.

If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games,  so be it – film has always been a commercial artform.  But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot.  If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

 

 

 

 

 

2017: The Year in Review

Well another year is in the books.  I’ve been doing this for almost 6 years now, which judging by some of the blogs I’ve encountered here on WordPress is an awfully long time to keep up a movie blog.  Anyway enough patting myself on the back – time to do the usual Year in Review Post:

2017 Was a Good Year to Be

Star Wars

Yes, 2017 was a great year for the Star Wars franchise.  Rogue One made a ridiculous amount of money.  The Last Jedi has wowed critics and audiences (well except for a few cantankerous Twitter eggs), and, also, has made a ridiculous amount of money.  The TV series Rebels is quite good I’m told.  Sure a few directors were sacked, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Narrative Inertia

It’s always a good year to be an abstract concept, but the concept of narrative inertia had a top flight year.  It can gather around the water cooler with all the other abstract concepts and talk a big game.  What I mean by this is that two of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones and The Americans had sub par seasons, but I still watched and I’m still excited for the final season of those shows.  I’m even probably going to watch the last season of House of Cards despite the fact that Season Five was a dumpster fire of epic proportions.

Streaming Services

The “big three” (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) streaming services had a great 2017.  Netflix has been doing the original programming thing for a while now, but 2017 felt exceptional.  The Handmaid’s Tale won a well-deserved Emmy, and I’m currently sucked into the charming “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Good work internet people!

2017 Was a Bad Year to Be

A Scumbag

New rule. Every year should be this bad for scumbags.

Movies for People with 401(K)’s and Mortgages

Was it just me or was nearly every movie in 2017 a comic book movie, a “tent pole” franchise movie, or a cartoon?  Sure there were a few big hits like “Get Out” and “Dunkirk,” but those were few and far between.  Maybe once Oscar season starts I’ll be reassured that someone is still making movies for people over 30.

Tired of an Endless Barrage of Mindless Hot Takes

Sure there have always been opinion websites, but there seem like there are far too many of them now. Everyone has to have a unique take, and it just becomes noise.  Twitter, which was supposed to be bankrupt by now, is still the worst offender.  I kind of just wish the internet would shut up for five seconds and think before it talks.

Scenes from the Great Ale House in the Sky

After last year I considered not doing this one anymore.  Still I couldn’t help but imagine a sold out Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, and Tom Petty concert.  It’s tomorrow.  Tonight Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Guillaume are giving a talk on what it was like being huge televisions stars in the days before so-called “peak TV.”  It’s called, “You’re Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Game of Thrones.”  Since that show has actual giants, the pun is clearly intended.

Jerry Lewis stopped by.  Sure, Dean Martin owns the place, but that particular beef is long squashed.  Long before people talked about squashing beefs.  Besides if he didn’t come by Don Rickles was going to zing him very hard.

Adam West is here, and yes he’s dressed as Batman.  Roger Moore is here too, although he is not dressed like James Bond, at least not officially.

 

Anyway, that’s our year in review!  Tune in next time for 2018!

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Full Analysis Part One

I promised a full analysis of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and why I liked it so much. In order to really get into my thoughts, I’m going to have to delve into the details of the movie.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:

And here’s a “jump” so that you don’t accidentally see anything:

Continue reading Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Full Analysis Part One

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Review, Spoiler Free)

In your travels in the internet over the past few days, you may have seen comments, user reviews, and tweets calling The Last Jedi a bad film. Or a disappointment. Or claiming it “ruined Star Wars.”

These opinions are objectively wrong.

In the coming days I’ll expand on my thoughts of what a masterpiece this movie is. But in order to do so I’d have to reveal major plot points. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m give you one traditional, spoiler-free review.

I can’t emphasize enough how much I like The Last Jedi. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I can’t think of a single Marvel MCU movie that is superior. In fact, The Last Jedi serves as a direct response to those films and their often “paint by numbers” nature. It makes me wonder if any of those films are that good to begin with.

It doesn’t draw from a place that most fans of the modern blockbuster are necessarily familiar with. It draws from the same influences as the Original Trilogy, especially Kurosawa. But there’s a heavy dose of Greek Tragedy and Bergman in there too.

That is to say, despite a surprising number of jokes that land, it is a bleak, bleak movie. Far bleaker than The Empire Strikes Back dared to be. Then again, I’ve never seen Empire without being able to watch Return of the Jedi in short order. I don’t know how bleak Empire must have felt to people who viewed it in 1980.

That said, this isn’t a perfect film. There are legitimate questions about how well the creative choices will hold up if Episode 9 doesn’t stick the landing. These points are hard to get into in a spoiler free review, so I’ll save them for later.

Overall, the Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie aside from the first two. With time to breathe and a well executed Episode 9, it may rank even higher in the end.

You might like The Last Jedi if: You are willing to challenge your assumptions about what a franchise blockbuster should be.

You might not like The Last Jedi if: All you want is a predictable remake of The Empire Strikes Back.

(C) 2017 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – First Trailer

First – YES!

Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what Luke’s words at the end of the trailer could mean:

  • The Jedi were becoming aloof and corrupt by the end of Episode 3 (as better chronicled by the Clone Wars cartoon series).  He’s saying that it might be time to jettison the order and start fresh.
  • Luke is acknowledging that he failed to create a new Jedi order and is feeling sorry for himself.
  • Luke now sees the old Jedi/Sith paradigm as a force-user arms race that can only end by ending both orders.

We’ll see – fun stuff so far though.

(c) 2017 D. G. McCabe

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)

Directed by J.J. Abrams, U.S., 2015

First let’s start out: The Force Awakens is good.  What follows is a  completely spoiler-free review.  Fortunately, in a previous post I already laid the groundwork for such a discussion.  However, if you wish to make a completely independent assessment of The Force Awakens, as I did, you should stop now.

Continue reading Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)