If Elton John calls it a “huge disappointment,” you know something isn’t right.
The Lion King (2019)
Rated PG, 118 minutes.
Available Tuesday on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD. Now available on Digital HD.
When director Jon Favreau announced that he was making a photorealistic remake of The Lion King, it was met with mixed reactions. Anxious but excited, I saw Favreau’s Lion King in theaters. My feelings were a bit complicated.
The visuals deserve an Oscar win for their technical achievements. Supposedly, all visuals but the first frame (the sun rising) were digitally created, down to every blade of grass and speck of dust. For that, the film is worth seeing, especially in 4K Ultra HD. All the quiet moments feel like a Disneynature documentary.
At the same time, the film rings hollow. In the disc’s special features, you can see that the voice actors (Donald Glover, Beyonce, Seth Rogen and others) put all the emotions into delivering heartfelt and passionate performances. But somewhere in the animation process, it was lost to Favreau’s persistence to make his Lion King as lifelike as possible. That means the animals don’t have their exaggerated expressions to bring you into their world. After watching this film, I realize how essential a component that is in telling this story.
I voiced many of my other concerns at greater length in my theatrical review. So, all that aside, let’s review why I boosted the film a half a star to positive territory from my theatrical analysis. As mentioned, The Lion King looks beautiful in its ultra HD presentation. The clever camera tricks (rack focus, crash zooms and quick pans) and all the detailed computer creations could have you marveling at it over and over again.
But the bonus features included on the Blu-ray (sadly, they are not on the 4K) are just as stunning. Disney tends not to shy away from delivering good extras. The studio likes to explore all the love that went into making its features. It’s evident from the multi-part behind-the-scenes documentary that a lot of love went into this film. Favreau worked hard to capture the magic of the original while also taking creative license to drive the film to new territories.
The documentary starts with the music, an element that is indeed crucial to this story’s cultural footprint. Everyone remembers that thunderous feeling of the opening of The Lion King. Favreau hired original composer Hans Zimmer to come back to remind people why they fell in love with the original film but to also put a modern spin on it. They even got Elton John to do a new song. (However, just last week the pop legend expressed how he believes the creative team “messed the music up” that he wrote for the animated film. I have to agree with him. It’s excessive and should have been dialed back a tad.)
From there, the making-of documentary touches on all the areas. What is perhaps most compelling is watching the animators work on building everything. The amount of computer data required to make everything work smoothly is probably ridiculous. The animators spent hours studying animal behavior to nail it while also allowing the voice actors to run amok with their own creative touches (specifically the actors who play the comic relief characters like Timon, Pumba, Zazu and the hyenas).
Seeing how the sausage is made elevates the overall experience. This release is a tech demo that comes with plenty of commentary on how the filmmakers achieved what seems impossible.
Extras: Other special features include “More to Be Scene” (a deeper look at the many layers it took to create Lion King‘s iconic musical moments), a music video of the new song “Spirit” by Beyonce, a singalong with the movie’s songs, a filmmakers’ introduction, an audio commentary with Favreau, and a featurette that highlights efforts to protect real-life lions and their home.
Polyester (HHHH) I have to give it to Criterion. Their release of John Waters’ first studio picture, 1981’s Polyester, is a remarkable experience.
For those who were alive at the time of its release, you may recall the film using a promotional gimmick called “Odorama.” Attendees were given scratch-and-sniff cards to smell the unique smells that its central character smells in the movie, including perfume, oregano, pizza, gasoline and a fart (appropriately numbered No. 2). Criterion carries over this experience with its ultimate collector’s release. Inside the Blu-ray casing is the Odorama card. Whenever you see a number flash on the screen, you scratch and sniff the corresponding number on the card. It’s a great deal of fun.
But honestly, card or no card, Polyester is an offbeat and enjoyable film. It’s about a frustrated housewife (a deliciously effective Divine) who tries to keep her sanity intact while taking care of her dysfunctional household — including her adulterous husband (David Samson), delinquent son (Ken King) and pregnant teen daughter (Mary Garlington). But her life takes a turn when she meets the charming Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), the owner of a theater that specializes in art films.
Compared to Waters’ other films, this is one of his most accessible (like Serial Mom or Hairspray). It’s not quite as bonkers or zany as you would expect. There are some steamy fantasy sequences, but it’s nothing that pushes the envelope too hard for general audiences. And the premise isn’t as heavy-handed as it sounds, either. It’s a comedy, and only Waters could pull it off in such a way that will have you grinning from beginning to end.
Most of the smiles are owed to late drag performer Divine (aka Harris Glenn Milstead). Divine is completely at home portraying the role of Francine Fishpaw. You feel sorry for her, and you love her, which, in turn, causes you to cherish the movie.
Not rated, 86 minutes.
Extras: The Criterion Blu-ray release (available through criterion.com) includes a restored 4K transfer of the film (supervised by Waters), a 1993 Criterion audio commentary with Waters, a new conversation between Waters and critic Michael Musto (they talk about the scratch-and-sniff cards, casting and all the great stories in between and after), a new program featuring interviews with Waters and his collaborators, archival interviews, 20 minutes of deleted scenes and alternate takes, a trailer, a booklet (featuring an essay by film scholar Elena Gorfinkel) and fold-out poster.
Häxan (HHH ½) It takes a certain kind of viewer to watch a silent black-and-white film from 1922 about Satan and witchcraft. As much of a chore as that may sound for the modern-day, Häxan is an insightful and scary experience.
Also released through the Criterion Collection, Häxan is a hybrid of documentary and fictional storytelling. It displays representations of of evil in various art forms and explores the history of witchcraft, demonology and satanism. It’s hard to believe a movie like this was released in the 1920s, but I suppose that’s why it was made in Sweden.
Some of the images throughout are as haunting as anything I have ever seen. Body movement had a particular look in the early days of film, and the creepiness is only amplified by that unnatural appearance. The frame rate is choppy, and it makes the devilish and demonic characters feel like they are going to pop out of your TV to snatch you.
Seeing how the filmmakers accomplished what they did, and particularly when they did it, is akin to learning how the Egyptians built the pyramids. It’s absolute magic.
Not rated, 87 minutes.
Extras: And don’t worry. If you don’t have the patience to watch a silent movie, there’s a shorter version of the film that is narrated by author William S. Burroughs. Or, you can watch the film with the audio commentary, featuring film scholar Casper Tybjerg.
Other supplements include a 2K digital restoration of the film, a 1941 director’s introduction, outtakes (if you can believe that), a photographic exploration of the film’s historical sources, and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara and scholar Chloe Germaine Buckley, as well as remarks on the score.
3 From Hell (HHH) Lastly, we end with a 4K review of Rob Zombie’s latest film (and the third film in the Firefly family trilogy), 3 From Hell.
The movie picks up 15 years after the events of The Devil’s Rejects. Those familiar may be wondering how that’s possible because its central trio — Captain Spauling (the late Sig Haig), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Billy Moseley) — was shot to bits at the end of the 2005 film. That’s when Zombie pulls a bunny out of his hat. He begins with a documentary approach that shows how they survived and have become iconic like the Manson family. Even Otis embodies a Charles Manson-like persona.
Unfortunately, due to Sid Haig’s declining health weeks before production was supposed to commence, Zombie had to rush to rewrite his script. The film was supposed to start and end with all three cast members. So Zombie came up with a third character to complete the trio, Winslow (a howling Richard Brake), Otis’ half-brother, who helps them escape from custody. Haig still makes an appearance and receives a proper sendoff, but the film doesn’t have the magnetism of The Devil’s Rejects without him.
Truthfully, this film is only OK. If you are a fan of Zombie’s work, you know what to expect from its material and look. It’s sloppy, cartoony, violent and dark. It’s got that grindhouse touch that appeals to viewers who like blood-stained trash cinema (like me). So, I had a good time with it.
I enjoyed it even more after watching the feature-length, four-part documentary that’s included in the bonus material. Watching Zombie share how much he had to change to adapt to unforeseen circumstances is crazy. Say what you will about his films, but he is an encyclopedia of horror and darkness. Zombie has this don’t-care attitude that is fun to watch. He knows what he wants, and he’ll do everything in his power to make it happen. But it’s also nice to see him laugh. Most people probably think he’s an intense dude from his hardcore music, but he can be seen enjoying the filmmaking process.
Zombie also details his process thoroughly in the audio commentary. He discusses the problems he recognizes in sequels and how he worked to avoid the common pitfalls. His stories are educational, and for that, you should take the plunge.
Unrated, 115 minutes.
Also available this week on Blu-ray and DVD: 007: The Daniel Craig Collection on 4K; Angel of Mine; Bloodline; Charlie’s Angels (2000) on 4K; Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) in 4K; Crimson Peak (2015, an Arrow Video re-release); David Crosby: Remember My Name; The Dead Center (2018, an Arrow Video release); NOS4A2: Series 1; Satanic Panic; Strange But True; Tone-Deaf; and When We Were Kings (1996, a Criterion Collection release).