This weekend, I was babysitting my two adored and adorable little nephews, Brady, who is 7, and Jack, who is 5. We went to the trampoline park and the toy store, and then we came home to bake a cake for their dad, who was celebrating a birthday. We mixed and measured and layered on nearly 5 pounds of candy, which they insisted their dad would love, including banana cannons and a candy fence we dubbed the fortress of bananatude (I know, this cake sounds banana heavy).
Anyway, the kids were discussing The Muppet Babies for some reason, which Jack pronounces ‘Muffin Babies’ and is pretty sure he’s saying the same thing we are. I’m thinking about Jack a lot today because he’s being brave and having a little surgery. Mostly I’m thinking about my sister, Jack’s mom – the surgery will likely be harder on her than on him. But anyway. After we discussed which muppets were our favourites (Kermit for Jack, Fozzy for Brady, who does work in an errant “wocka wocka” into random conversations), and how we’d recently seen them at Disney World, we decided that our pre-bedtime movie would be Lego Batman. Haha, just kidding, they watched that in the car (imagine as a kid having a movie screen in your car!) – we watched The Muppet Movie!!
It’s about two brothers, the human Gary (Jason Segel) and the muppet Walter, who is obsessed with THE Muppets, who they’ve compulsively watched on television since they were kids, but who have sadly been absent from show business in recent years. Gary and his human girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are celebrating their tenth anniversary and plan to visit L.A. to celebrate, and Walter is thrilled to be invited along with them (by Gary, and a much more reluctant Mary) as it is the home of the Muppet studios. But once there, he discovers that an evil businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is about to buy both the studio and the Muppet name right from underneath them. So he enlists Kermit to go on a roadtrip to assemble the old gang in an effort to raise the money to save the day.
Jason Segel showed his puppet fetish in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and went full kink with this script, clearly a loving tribute to a beloved franchise. There’s joy being spewed all over the screen in this film, the movie is dripping with it, and it’s fun just to sit back and get soaked in nostalgia. The script introduces a new character, Walter, with whom we re-experience the magic of the Muppets, and it’s great to see them back in action, recreating a lot of acts that we remember so fondly, in a format that we know and love. They work in plenty of celebrity cameos, both human and Muppet, and the whole thing feels like a love letter – not just to the Muppets, but to a new generation of kids just discovering them, two of whom were cuddled next to me in my bed.
At the end of the movie, when asked how they liked it, Jack exclaimed “I didn’t know Kermit had a car!” Because when you’re 5, even the most mundane things can seem momentous. The Muppets are that elusive thing that can bring out the kid in all of us.
Time and again, we have been told that a toy’s only intrinsic value is to be useful. And when that toy ceases to be useful – either it gets broken, or a kid stops playing with it – well, that toy has met the end of its life. Yikes. Woody and friends have occasionally had the chance to grab at immortality but have always convinced themselves that to be Andy’s toy is the highest possible achievement. There is no better thing, therefore it is okay to accept the eventual certainty of death. One day, Andy WILL grow up, will leave for college, will leave them behind.
That day has come.
Andy is indeed off to college. Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, 15 years after the first one, so by any accurate count, Woody and the gang have had some bonus years. But their luck has run out. Andy is packing up his room – putting aside a few things to store in his mother’s attic, a few essentials to bring along with him, and the rest will be marked for garbage. Andy’s sentimental side has him setting aside Woody for college, and bagging the rest of his old pals for storage, but a misunderstanding leads both his mother and the toys themselves to think that they’re meant for the trash. The toys manage to save themselves from the metallic maw of the garbage truck, and they throw themselves into a donation pile destined for Sunnyside Daycare.
The toys are sad to leave Andy, but thrilled that they might once again be played with. Until now, the toys have spent their lives caring solely for Andy, wanting nothing but his happiness. Their own needs have occasionally gone unmet in this quest, especially in these last few years, with Andy the teenager no longer having time for them. The toys, and Woody in particular, have often seemed parental in their concern for him, and in fact, with Andy’s dad curiously absent and unremarked upon, Woody seems to have stepped into that of father figure. But parents too must say goodbye to their children eventually, and when they grow to become useless, they too will be placed in an institution. The toys are optimistic about the daycare centre, but it’s easy to read it as relegation to retirement living, being put out to pasture (Buzz even gets lobotomized, like a dementia patient). There’s always been this double read to Toy Story, one that often leaves us choked up. Thanks a lot, internet. I thought the well had finally run dry, and now I’m flooding my keyboard with tears.
But that’s not even the sad part! Toy Story 3’s genius has the toys not just facing oblivion and meaninglessness without a kid to serve, but it has them facing actual death. When the daycare turns out to be a pretty awful, tyrannical living situation, they find themselves embracing death. This is possibly this decade’s most traumatic and touching scene: with death mere moments away, the toys stop their futile efforts to save themselves, and hold hands to face it bravely together. Luckily, Pixar thinks better of killing off their revered heroes, and they do get a last minute reprieve and a second chance at life with Bonnie, a little girl just down the street from Andy. Even Woody, who was meant to accompany Andy to college, gets reassigned, and frankly, it’s with a sigh of relief that we find he will remain with his friends. Because for me at least, it wasn’t actually death that seemed the worst of it, it was thinking of Woody and Buzz, best buds and life partners, being separated in their twilight years. Is anyone not thinking of their grandparents, and who will die first, leaving the other to face those bleak years alone?
Toy Story 3 improves upon its predecessors in my ways. In 11 years, the animation has of course improved by big heaping gobs. In the first film, we briefly see a teddy bear that’s been relegated to the shelf; they chose not to make him part of the gang because fur was just too hard to get right. In this film, Lotso the bear is made a proper villain, and he looks glorious. Not only are the colours and textures perfect, but the animators find ways to show proper wear and tear on the toys as well. The animation is vivid and astonishing. The expressions on the toys’ faces are often so realistic that you have to pinch yourself to remember it’s just a cartoon (Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face alone). In Toy Story 3, the Pixar animators are fearless. Whereas before they struggled to get clothes right, in this film they embrace them, with Ken making over 20 costume changes alone (and all of them fabulous). Hair swings. Fibers are differentiated. But they’re not just improving, they’re innovating. Believe it or not, in this film, the real challenge was the trash bag. They have properties that apparently you and I take for granted, but the animators truly struggled with.
But we don’t keep coming back to this franchise for the richly drawn cartoons, we come back because these characters are our friends, and the excellent story-writing has made us care. And boy did we line up in droves to see this film, even if it had been more than a decade since the last installment: it was the first animated film to make a billion dollars worldwide, which it did in just over 2 months at the box office. It was also one of only 3 animated films to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast and Up were the other 2), and it did it without any of its predecessors being nominated. Toy Story has continued to surprise fans because it actually feels that each sequel is better than the last, while Hollywood of course has led us to expect exactly the opposite. Although, it should be noted: while the first and second films both had 100% ratings on Spoiled Red Fruit, this one had a mere 99.
If the nostalgia attached to vintage toys and TV shows and lunchboxes isn’t enough for you, I find it kind of neat that Toy Story has managed to keep the same guy, John Morris, as Andy’s voice for its entire run (there was an 11 year gap between this film and the one before it – the producers had no idea if adult Morris would at all be suitable, but they called him up and his voicemail convinced them on the spot). And Laurie Metcalf as his mom; Roseanne was still on network TV when the first film premiered, and now I suppose it’s kind of on again. Of course, we’ve lost some voice actors along the way: Jim Varney (Slinky) was replaced by his friend Blake Clark. And Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head) will appear in the latest film via archival audio. But we’ve also seen some great additions. Toy Story 3 introduces Ned Beatty (Lotso), Michael Keaton (Ken), Jodi Benson (Barbie – but most famous as the voice of Ariel, of course), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), and the list goes on. Toy Story 3 has over 300 characters, which is a lot for any movie, never mind one in which each needs to be rendered from scratch!
Toy Story 3 earned a place in our hearts with scenes that register both pleasure and pain – bittersweet, like life. It taps into our primal fears (uselessness, loneliness, death) but ends with a hopeful note. Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end a beloved franchise: Andy says goodbye to his toys, and so do we. We know they’re safe and happy in their after(Andy)life, with the final scene panning up into white fluffy cloud, reminiscent of Andy’s wallpaper, but also a sure symbol of heaven. But this franchise has again proved irresistible and Disney-Pixar just couldn’t stay away: a fourth installment hits theatres this weekend, so if you’re curious what life has been like for the toys in their new home, you’re in luck. Just pray that this one holds up to the rest.
Disney is releasing a whole slew of “live action” remakes of its most beloved classics, so Sean and I are taking a stroll through the Disney vault to revisit movies we haven’t seen since childhood. So far, the only one of these that I’ve genuinely enjoyed is Cinderella; the others – like Beauty & The Beast, Mary Poppins, and Dumbo – have missed the mark, and I downright disliked The Jungle Book. And unfortunately, I’ve tended to assume that I’ll feel the same about The Lion King, mostly because I don’t approve of calling this “live action” when it’s clearly also animated, just animated in a more realistic, CGI-style. But it’s still just computers. In real life, lions don’t sing and dance and cuddle up to warthogs in a strictly platonic, non-hungry way. BUT it does have an AMAZING voice cast that I admit intrigues me. More on that later.
The Lion King (1994) doesn’t need improving upon. It’s quite a lovely film. The animation holds up. The songs are part of our cultural lexicon. We all know the story: Simba is a young lion prince who will won day rule the pride lands when his father Mufasa passes. But Mufasa’s death is hastened by evil uncle Scar, who wants the seat of power for himself. Scar murders his brother and exiles his nephew. He allows his pals the hyenas to share hunting grounds with the lion tribe, which totally fucks with the circle of life, and pretty soon they’re all starving. Meanwhile, Simba has grown up with a sweet gay couple, Timon and Pumbaa, who adopt him despite their initial misgivings about him being a meat eater and all. Their worry-free existence is pretty sweet until Simba’s past shows up to shame him into returning. And once he knows how bad things are, he can’t help but engage. He returns, but he’ll have to face his uncle Scar if he wants to take his rightful place as King.
As a kid I didn’t pick up on the Shakespearean undertones of this film because I was just a dumb, Sesame Street watching baby. It’s definitely Hamlet-adjacent. But as an adult, I have so many more experiences that are informing my viewing.
Like any good Canadian who often escapes the winter by going down south, I first saw The Lion King musical experience at an all-inclusive resort where they pirate the heck out of anything they can and squeeze it until the lawsuits come. The first time I saw it, it was an excellent production (I think I was in Mexico). It made me want to see the real Broadway version, so when it came to my city, I saw it with my in-laws, and it was even better than I’d imagined. Then I saw several low-rent versions at less ambitious resorts – my favourite at a Cuban hotel where my friends got married and their young daughter was cast as the baby Simba.
Hakuna Matata (such a wonderful phrase!) was a full-on craze in the 90s. People cross-stitched it onto pillows. Nothing trendier than that! It means “no worries for the rest of your days” and was lampooned by Matt Stone and Trey Parker in The Book of Mormon. In that Broadway musical, which Sean and I were lucky enough to see with its original cast, Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells), the phrase they pick up is Hasa Diga Eebowai. It inspires its own musical number which is every bit as perky and upbeat as Hakuna Matata – only imagine the little Mormons’ consternation when they find out it means Fuck You, God. Oops.
Last month Sean and I took the niece and nephews to see Disney on Ice, and they had quite the generous Lion King portion, no doubt to generate interest for a movie hitting theatres later this year. But the original film is also celebrating its 25th anniversary, and sure, you could figure that out with simple math, but we found it out at Disney World, where they’d outfitted Animal Kingdom with photo ops celebrating it. We also frolicked at the animation hotel, where an entire branch of the resort is dedicated to the film, its rooms are movie-inspired and the grounds are full of scenes from the movie. I turned to Sean and said: “Hey, remember when YOU played in an elephant graveyard?” and I kid you not, he responded “At the hotel?” Now, like most (all) men, Sean is an idiot. But he’s also the King of Stupid Questions. Now let me ask you, perfect stranger: how many times do you think Sean has played in an elephant graveyard? We’re CANADIAN. I think the fact that he’s done it once is remarkable. Why, then, the clarifying question, as if he’s done it so many times he’s not even sure to which one I’m referring. Hasa Diga Sean.
When Scar undertakes to kill his brother, he orchestrates the murder so that it looks like an accident. He plants Simba in a gorge and then sparks a wildebeest stampede. It’s a frantic, pulse-pounding scene that took 3 years and the invention of new software to animate the thing. Musafa of course saves his son, but Scar pushes him to his death. In the aftermath, little Simba finds his father’s body and curls up next to it, wrapping his father’s dead paws around him. It’s a very tender scene of course, but it reminds me of my nephew and something he once said. This kid loves his family and insists he’ll never marry and never move out – he simply can’t imagine a time when he won’t be vitally attached to his parents. He’s even insisted that when he dies, he wants to be buried in his father’s arms. These are soul-destroying words to his sensitive aunt’s heart. I wept over it then, and I wept over it again when Simba all but reenacts the scene.
So there’s no doubt, really, that Scar must be among Disney’s very worst villains. But there’s a secret (or not so secret) side to Scar that I never considered as a kid. The LGBTQ community has adopted him as a coded-gay character. Of course it’s problematic as hell because he’s a reprehensible guy, but when you were gay in the 90s, you didn’t exactly have a lot of choice. Scar IS slightly effeminate, I suppose. And he’s camp. He’s snide. He slinks around. He has a goatee! He’s scrupulously correct and he’s British for christ’s sake. Is he a mean old Queen? Possibly. He’s definitely the bachelor uncle who, while inheriting his brother’s kingdom, has absolutely no interest in the pride’s lionesses. He spends his time with a singing parrot. So when people saw the trailer for the “live action” Lion King, fans of Scar were dismayed. In the cartoon he comes off as very vain and very feline, but in the trailer for the new one, he just looks emaciated. Anyway. I think we can do better than Scar for gay icons, but so far Disney really hasn’t. There’s a void there, and a gaunt, bedraggled Scar isn’t going to fill it.
Anyway. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King will hit theatres in July, with James Earl Jones providing continuity as the voice of Mufasa but Jeremy Irons has been replaced as Scar – and so has everyone else.
Simba: Donald Glover
Scar: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Pumbaa: Seth Rogen
Timon: Billy Eichner
Zazu: John Oliver
So it’s not The Lion King of your childhood. But might it still be good?
Danica (Tika Sumpter) has a great job, a gorgeous apartment, and a nice boyfriend named Charlie. Her perfect, pretty life is about to be disrupted when her sister Tanya (Tiffany Haddish) crashes with her post-prison. Tanya is impressed by Danica’s lifestyle but dismissive of the hard work it takes to achieve and maintain it. And she’s immediately suspicious of Charlie, a year-long relationship that’s taken place solely over the internet. She’s about to blow shit up.
Meanwhile, Danica innocently starts her days at her favourite coffee shop where owner Frank (Omari Hardwick) pines for her and plies her with free caffeine. Danica is faithful to Charlie but Tanya sees potential, and enlists Danica’s friend and coworker Kalli (Amber Riley) to help shake things up. So now Danica has a tough choice to make: the perfect on paper Charlie who she’s never even met, or the rough around the edges Frank who is kind to her but doesn’t meet all her requirements.
Even as I’m writing this, I’m reminded again what a fine premise this is. It’s just too bad that Tiffany Haddish ruins things by being off-leash one too many times. The movie and its story get totally derailed by her constant mid-scene stand-up specials. We get it, Haddish: you’re funny. I don’t even disagree. But there’s a time and a place and director Tyler Perry is too cowed to tell her that. So off she goes, improvising her little heart out, destroying any momentum the film’s earned, and any interest the audience has. I was so put off by Tanya’s constant threats against her sister’s life that for me, the only real comedy came from Whoopi Goldberg, who plays their pothead mother.
Nobody’s Fool failed to win me over, and I refuse to be made a fool by it. There are good ingredients but Tyler Perry doesn’t quite mix it right, or in the right proportions, so the resulting cake is undercooked with uneven flavour.
It’s a bad time for corrections officer Nicole Stevens (Tessa Thompson) to get away. It’s always a bad time. She lives with her mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and cares for her round the clock when she’s not at work. But go away she must. A prisoner’s mother is dying and Joan (Melissa Leo) has a 36 hour death bed visitation furlough coming – supervised by poor, beleaguered Officer Stevens.
C.O. Stevens is distracted, and Joan is a master manipulator, determined to squeeze every last drop out of this respite. The trains and buses upon which they rely are predictably unpredictable, and Stevens is just a little too trusting, a little too good-hearted. Joan does not have this problem.
You watch this movie with dread, knowing something is going to happen, something bad, and you almost don’t want it to. Despite Joan’s self-centered assholeness, you kind of buy into this ultimate odd-couple road trip. It will be sad to see it end.
Tessa Thompson is all kinds of wonderful. She’s overwhelmed by the assignment but too dutiful to refuse. She’s a caretaker who wants to see the best in everyone. Joan has lived a hard life, the details of which are only hinted at. We don’t know how long she’s been locked up, but she sucks in fresh air like it’s in limited supply, so I believe it has been a while. She’s shifty and nervy and she pushes Stevens’ buttons. She pushes MY buttons. And yet Leo gives her just enough charm that we can’t quite write her off. Whoopi has a smallish role but it’s kind of great to see her on screen.
Director Laurie Collyer knows she’s got us hooked based on the cast alone, and the movie doesn’t quite live up to its promise. It feels slight. It does a gender flip and a race flip but still winds up feeling less than 48 Hrs. Leo isn’t really up for the over-the-top comedy, and the movie fails to shift gears to accommodate dramatic moments. It’s a good try that doesn’t quite pan out. For me, it’s totally worth it to bask in Thompson’s radiance for an hour and a half, and since it’s on Netflix, there’s not much to lose.
My bullshit meter was flashing big red lights when I read Netflix’s description of the Kate Hudson film, A Little Bit of Heaven: she plays a “woman who has everything – including cancer.” Hell yes I was wary, but it seemed like it would be light enough that my head cold could deal with it, so I gave it a go. It was actually a little bit of hell.
I mean, first, kudos for giving Kate Hudson ass cancer. Well, that came out wrong. But you know what I mean: usually a pretty blonde will linger with some glamorous kind of cancer that makes you pale but otherwise untouched. Colon cancer is a mother fucker. I mean, you wouldn’t know it from the movie. She even keeps all her hair! But she does get to suffer the indignity of the old camera up the wazoo trick, and has to admit to cute guys that she’s bleeding in her poop. So that’s kind of wonderful. A laugh riot, if you will. At least that’s what they’re striving for. In reality, the movie’s quite tone deaf.
They try really hard to make Marley (Hudson) an edgy, new kind of female character, one that doesn’t need love to be happy. Except of course it’s her dying wish. And of course her oncologist happens to be dreamy Gael Garcia Bernal. But there are even worse travesties than this afoot. First, as she lays dying, Marley talks to “God” (Whoopi Goldberg), who apparently is in the business of granting 3 wishes, like a genie. Even more egregious is Peter Dinklage, who pops up as a little person hooker whose nickname is – you guessed it – A Little Bit of Heaven. Because when the jokes about butt cancer dry up, why not make a joke out of someone’s sexuality? Ugh.
But just when you’re about to really give in to this sexy romcom -slash-terminal cancer hilarity, director Nicole Kassall shoves a funnel down your throat to make sure your overdose on sentimentality is complete. It’s the kind of movie that has you wishing Kate Hudson would just die already.