Disney’s successful returns to ‘Lion King,’ ‘Toy Story’

By Tom Von Malder | Nov 10, 2019
Photo by: Buena Vista Home Entertainment Young Simba and Young Nala greet a bird in "The Lion King."

Owls Head — The Lion King (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 118 min.). Disney has had a successful streak or remaking its classic animated films with live actors. When it came to “The Lion King,” I wondered why bother, as there would be no human actors and the animal actors and even the environments would be computed generated, making this film hardly “live” at all. However, the classic story, with all its emotional content and photorealistic animals, quickly won me over.

The original 1994 film contained a lot of “Hamlet” thematically, was one of the last hand-drawn Disney animated classics and was nominated for four music Oscars, winning for Elton John and Tim Rice’s song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and Hans Zimmer’s score. The other Oscar nominations were for the songs, “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata.” In this remake, directed by Jon Favreau (2 “Iron Man” films, 2 “Jungle Book” films), it not only offers different voice actors – with the exception of James Earl Jones, who repeats as Mufasa – but also offers different arrangements of the classic, beloved songs and music cues, and adds two new songs and some new scenes and sequences.

As uplifting as the film is, it remains rather dark for younger children, with scary hyena attacks, an especially scary underground chase and Scar’s end. Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the jealous, manipulative brother of King Mufasa of the Pridelands and Pride Rock, who feels he should be king and engineers it so that young Simba (JD McCrary) feels responsible for Mufasa’s death, when Scar actually killed him. Weighed with guilt, Simba leaves his mother (Alfre Woodard voicing Sarabi) and friend (Shahadi Wright Joseph voicing Young Nala) behind.

Finding a new lush land, Simba befriends warthog Pumbaa (voiced by Seth Rogan) and meerkat Timon (voiced by Billy Eichner), the film’s comic relief duo. While learning their “Hakuna Matata” song, Young Simba ages into his adult self, now voiced by Donald Glover. At one point, Timon throw is a “be our guest” reference to another Disney film. When Simba encounters the adult Nala, she is voiced by Beyoncé.

Visually, the film is excellent, in part due to the work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who has worked on many of the best live-action animal adventure films in history, including “The Black Stallion.” Thanks to the animators, the animals’ movements are life-like, astonishingly so. One of the expanded sequences is when baboon Rafiki realizes Simba is still alive by catching his scent on a tuft of Simba’s fur that has journeyed from the Eden-like valley, across the desert and to the Pridelands. We are shown that tuft’s journey.

The computer-animated animals and their movements often are astounding. There is real power to the movement of Mufasa, even as he scrambles up the side of a gorge to rescue Simba, while Scar is much more angular and skinny enough to look more menacing.

The two new songs are Beyoncé’s co-written and sung “Spirit” and Elton John’s co-written and sung “Never Too Late,” the latter playing over the end credits and co-written by Rice. Both are included as bonus music videos, respectively 4:28 and 4:08 long. The most fascinating extras in a three-part making-of feature (53:25), which begins with Zimmer recording the score with an orchestra and goes into great detail of how the animals and the film’s settings were created digitally, even to using digital cameras through a virtual reality system. There also are expanded visual versions of “The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “Hakuna Matata,” with storyboards, live action animation and behind-the-scenes clips (10:31). One can go directly to any of the eight songs in the film as well. Finally, director Favreau talks about the Lion Recovery Fund (3:02). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Toy Story 4 (Disney, 2 Blu-rays or standard DVD, G, 100 min.). The year after the original “Lion King” came the first “Toy Story” in 1995. Now the fourth film in the fun Pixar series expands the toy characters’ world considerably, making for a good adventure story.

The prologue takes place nine years before the rest of the film. It is when the girl who owned Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) decides it is all right to give up possession. At the same time, there is a fun sequence of Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) trying, from a second-story window, to rescue a toy left outside the house in the rain. During the opening, Randy Newman’s score is very reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s style. After the prologue, Newman sings his “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” during the opening credits.

The toys are now owned by Bonnie, who is rather neglectful of Woody. Woody does sneak along in her backpack during Bonnie’s first day at kindergarten and secretly helps her. During that day at school, Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw) creates a new toy, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), made of a plastic spork with popsicle sticks for feet and pipe cleaners for arms and mismatched eyes, all taken by Woody from the trash. While Forky comes to life like all the other toys, he feels compelled to throw himself into trash bins, which becomes a recurring theme, along with Woody’s attempts to prevent Forky from jumping into the trash. One such montage is set to Newman singing “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.”

Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip, which ends up near a carnival, where it turns out Bo Peep and her three sheep are hanging out in a park nearby with other “lost” toys, traveling in a mechanical skunk. While Woody is reunited with his “lost love,” Bo Peep, he also must rescue Forky from the nearby Second Chance Antiques Store, where Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), aided by for four menacing Benson duplicate ventriloquist dummies, plots to steal Woody’s voice box, as hers is broken.

The film touches on the concepts of loyalty and the toys needing a purpose, mainly to make a child happy. There is quite a bit of action and humor. Other new characters include Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves), Bunny (voiced by Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key), with the latter two being wisecracking plush prizes at one of the carnival’s shooting games. Old friends Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) and Cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) also get involved in the action.

Extras on the film disc include audio commentary by director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen; a good look at the “rebooted” Bo Peep (6:21): and the filmmakers talking about their own toys (5:38). On the second disc, Ally Maki, who voices Giggle McDimples, gives a humorous dissection of the voice recording process, from temporary scratch dialogue to the final recording (5:41). There also is a look back at the relationship between Woody and Buzz (3:35); an anatomy of the playground scene (9:31); a minute-long run through the carnival set at ground level and a 29-second view from a nearby rooftop; a look at the new toy characters (13 min.); six deleted scenes with introductions by director Cooley (28 min.); and a character montage, Carnival Prizes (3:25). Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars

The Art of Racing in the Rain (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 108 min.). After “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Journey” films, I am not sure I was ready for another film narrated by a dog, in this case Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner), who is quite erudite in his vocabulary. The film begins towards the end, with an obviously ill Enzo unable to control his bladder; then most of the film is a flashback of his life and that of his master, an aspiring racing car driver named Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), who lives around Seattle. We see, through Enzo’s eyes, Denny meet and fall in love with Eve (Amanda Seyfried) – Enzo, of course is jealous, but does serve as their ringbearer at their wedding – and Enzo’s growing attachment with their daughter, Zoe (Ryan Keira Armstrong), when she arrives.

To my eye, the film is basically two movies in one, with the first too predictable and a bit boring – I kept wanting it to end. However, (spoiler alert) once Eve is out of the picture – literally – the film got more interesting, as Denny has to battle his in-laws (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker as Maxwell and Trish) over custody of Zoe.

Extras look at the three dogs who wonderfully portray the various ages of Enzo (6:19); how the book and the film were developed, featuring book author Garth Stein, also a car racer (5:48); director Simon Curtis (5:09); Enzo’s point of view (4:39); producer Patrick Dempsey, the actor from Portland, making sure the car racing sequences were authentic (6:12); and a closer look at the heartwarming scene in which Enzo finally gets to ride in a race car, in fact a vintage 1957 Ferrari (5:24). There also is audio commentary by director Simon. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Stuber (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 93 min.). The latest mismatched buddy comedy stars Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, an Uber driver known as Stuber, who does the driving to help his female pal (Betty Gilpin as Becca) open a woman-only spin gym, and Dave Bautista as Detective Vic Manning, who has been temporarily blinded and thus cannot drive – although his ill-fated attempt to drive is one of the film’s best scenes. Stu would like to have a relationship with Becca, but she ignores him for men who treat her badly. Meanwhile, Stu’s day job is working for a sporting goods store that is run by a jerk rich kid (Jimmy Taro as Richie).

The opening action sequence, during which Vic’s eyes get damaged, takes place around the Staples Center in Los Angeles. After he has Lasik eye surgery, he hires Stu to drive him around as he wants to continue trying to arrest drug dealer Oko Tedjo (Iko Uwais). While Vic’s boss (Mira Sorvino as Capt. McHenry) has taken Vic off the Tedjo case, Vic persists and his trail leads to a male strip club, where Steve Howey of Showtime’s “Shameless” has a big part, and a veterinary clinic, among other stops.

There are some funny moments, particularly Stu with prisoner Cortez (Rene Moran), and a fun action car chase, but mostly the film tends to go too many places. Bautista and Nanjiani work well together, however.

Extras include audio commentary by director Michael Davis and Nanjiani, who also provide optional commentary on the five deleted scenes (4:35). There also is a gag reel (3:01); a joke-o-rama with some fun (5:14); a photo gallery; and an animated promo for filming in Georgia (3:01). Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.25 stars

Prey (Cinedigm DVD, PG-13, 85 min.). At least they stick the ending in this horror film that turns out to have supernatural elements. Logan Miller (“Love, Simon,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) plays Toby, who apparently is so traumatized by his father being murdered in their driveway during a car-jacking that he has to attend a “Lost and Found” program, part of which involves spending three days alone on an island in Malaysia. However, on day two, Toby finds he is not alone as he discovers Madeleine (Kristine Froseth of TV’s “The Society”), who warns him to stay away from certain parts of the island, as well as her mother (Jolene Anderson).

Toby, after an uncomfortable first night, seems to be getting along on the island, but then discovers his rescue boat upside down in the water, with counselor Kay (Jerrica Lai) dead. The film is quite slow until this point. Director and co-writer Franck Khalfoun (“Amityville: The Awakening”) and writer David Goggeshall then step on the pedal, ramping up the action, with a good showdown between Toby and the threat. The DVD comes with no extras. Grade: film 2 stars

A Discovery of Witches (Acorn, 2 DVDs, NR, 355 min.). This supernatural series, based on the critically acclaimed and bestselling “All Souls” trilogy by Deborah Harkness, is set in the modern day, but it is a world where witches, vampires and demons secretly live and work alongside humans, albeit hidden in plain sight. Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is a brilliant historian, who has been dampening down her own witch heritage, until the day she unexpectedly calls up an ancient, bewitched manuscript from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a book that other supernaturals desperately want. She finds herself allied with vampire and enigmatic geneticist Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode of “Downton Abbey”), even though there long has been distrust between witches and vampires.

One of those who wants the book is powerful witch Peter Knox. The powerful Satu also has evil intentions against Diana.

The series is often gorgeous to look at, with the Oxford University settings and later the castle that is Matthew’s ancestral home. The show was broadcast on both AMC and BBC America. It already has been renewed for two more seasons. Extras include a look at the characters (14 min.) and a look at the mythology and TV magic (31 min.). Grade: series 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

The Stand (1994, CBS/Paramount Blu-ray, NR, 359 min.). This is the first Blu-release for the four-part TV adaptation of Stephen King’s giant novel that follows a group of survivors after a deadly plague wipes out most of the population. The survivors must align themselves with either the forces of good, led by frail 108-year-old Mother Abagail Freemantle (Ruby Dee) in Nebraska, or evil, led by Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan) in Las Vegas. The series also stars Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Corin Nemec, Rob Lowe, Miguel Ferrer and Laura San Giacomo.

In the California desert, within a secretive government installation, a super flu that the human body cannot defeat is being created. When there's a breach in protocol and the flu is loosed within the facility, a guard named Campion (Ray McKinnon) flees with his family and makes it as far as a small town in east Texas before he succumbs to the illness. Not long after, the entire nation, and then the world, falls victim to the disease that has a 99 percent mortality rate. Those called to Nebraska include Stu Redman (Sinise), the deaf-mute Nick Andros (Lowe), teenager Frannie Goldsmith (Ringwald) and her smitten neighbor Harold Lauder (Nemec), and budding music superstar Larry Underwood (Adam Storke). Those joining the dark side include imprisoned murderer Lloyd Henreid (Ferrer), Trashcan Man (Matt Frewer), and New Yorker Nadine Cross (San Giacomo).

This restored collector’s edition comes with behind-the-scenes commentary by King, who also wrote the screenplay, and director Mick Garris. There also is a look at the making of the mini-series with exclusive interviews with the cast and crew, including King, Sinise and Ringwald (5:29). Grade: mini-series 3.5 stars; extras 2 stars

Star Trek: Picard Movie & TV Collection (1990-2002, CBS/Paramount, 6 Blu-rays, NR, PG or PG-13, 11 hours). With a new series about Capt. Jean-Luc Picard due to appear on CBS All Access in 2020, this set allows fans to relive Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) greatest adventures. The set includes the feature-length TV episodes “Chain of Command” and “Best of Both Worlds” from the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series, as well as the Next Generation films: “Star Trek: Generations,” “Star Trek: First Contact,” “Star Trek: Insurrection” and “Star Trek: Nemesis.” These also star William Shatner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn and Tom Hardy.

The set comes with more than 10 hours of previously released special features, including behind-the-scenes looks, commentaries, gag reels, deleted scenes and more. Additionally, there is an exclusive 16-page comic book from IDW Publishing that features an original, never-before-seen storyline inspired by the franchise. Basically, the extras are what came with the four films’ original individual releases, with a commentary track for each film, as well as commentary tracks for the two TV episodes, each a combination of a season-ending cliffhanger episode and its resolution at the start of the next season. Grade: collection, including extras: 3.75 stars

The Swan Princess (1994, Sony Blu-ray, G, 89 min.). Also making its Blu-ray debut is a 25th anniversary edition of the beloved animated film that spawned a franchise. Based on the classic fairy tale, “Swan Lake,” the film won the Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence and the Parents’ Choice Award. The film tells the story of beautiful Princess Odette, who is transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s spell. While she is held captive at an enchanted lake, Odette befriends Jean-Bon the frog, Speed the turtle and Puffin the bird. The spell can only be broken by a vow of everlasting love.

Supplying the voices are Jack Palance, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Sandy Duncan and Michelle Nicastro. Howard McGillen voices the adult Prince Derek. It has songs by David Zippel and Lex De Azevedo, who also wrote the score. Richard Rich directed and co-wrote the story with screenwriter Brian Nissen. This release includes a new featurette, “A Look Back, Tease Ahead,” as well as the archival original making-of featurette and five sing-alongs. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

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