Young Simba (JD McCrary), Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Togen) and Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) on an adventure in “The Lion King.”

The “live-action” Lion King remake, ‘The Art of Self-Defense’

The Lion King

General Released

If you have come here to read yet another take on how this next-gen remake of a beloved film doesn’t bring anything new to the story, you’ve come to the wrong place.

I love cinema as an art form, and when analyzing a movie, I typically look for the good and enjoyable, rather than focusing on every element I might be able to criticize … never forgetting that the on screen presentation is the culmination of work performed by many dedicated people so that I might sit back in a comfy seat within the confines of an air-conditioned theatre and be entertained for a couple of hours. And entertained I was.

It only takes a few moments for the awe to set in. The look is, at times, so realistic that kids may actually believe animals can talk. More than once the fur of an animal or the splash of the river reminded me of my recent two weeks in Africa with its ultra-high definition photography.

So let’s clear up something right now. This has been labeled as a “live-action” remake of the animated classic from 1994. You should know, even if your eyes tell you otherwise, that there is nothing “live” in the film. Instead, everything you see on screen is computer-generated. No, the lions and elephants aren’t real and neither are the trees or distant mountains.

Of course, neo-realism can be admired only as a technical achievement when we are discussing a movie in which lions talk and warthogs sing. So while we marvel at the technical achievement, let’s not lose sight of the story … what made the original so popular and beloved 25 years ago.

Although it’s approximately a half-hour longer than the original, this one is exceedingly close to a scene-for-scene remake. Only minor tweaks will be noticed, mostly in the demeanor of Scar and the banter between Pumbaa and Timon – each actually improving on the first film. What remains is the coming-of-age story that will now touch many new hearts and minds.

Kids will be immediately entranced with the cubs, Simba and Nala, voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (the daughter in Jordan Peele’s “US”), and with Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), the goofy and comical bird tasked with keeping an eye on the two adventurous youngsters as they get themselves into trouble.

James Earl Jones (now 88 years old) reprises his iconic voice role as the wise Mufasa, and Alfre Woodward voices Sarabi, the pride’s leading female. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the bitter Shakespearian villain Scar, but I couldn’t help but wish Jeremy Irons had returned for this interpretation of the jealous and power-hungry brother of Mufasa.

The energy level jumps once Simba meets Pumbaa and Timba.Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take the comedy routine to a new place, and we can only assume much of their banter is off-script. Kids may not get every joke, but they are sure to respond to this odd couple.

Donald Glover and Beyonce voice the grown Simba and Nala, and both are outstanding – especially with their singing (no surprise there). Nala’s role is expanded a bit … as expected when you cast Queen Bey. Her original song “Spirit” is included but it’s her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that is a real musical standout.

Director Jon Favreau has been in the chair for such hits as “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Iron Man” (2008) and “Elf” (2003), and he was also behind Disney’s live-action remake of “The Jungle Book” (2016). The writing credits belong to Jeff Nathansan (“Catch Me If You Can”,2002) for the screenplay, Oscar winner Brenda Chapman (“Brave”, 2012) for the story, and Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton for the characters. The latter three were among the 28 writers credited for the 1994 version.

Also back is composer Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his 1994 score, and songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, also Oscar winners for their 1994 song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”

This more realistic version is rightly rated PG rather than G, as some of the scenes are likely to be a bit intense for younger viewers. And it’s important to remember that this version is meant to bring Simba’s story to a whole new generation – it’s not meant to replace the 1994 version for those who were kids when it came out so many years ago.

The Art of Self-Defense

General Release

Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is a corporate accountant. He’s a meek guy. He is an outsider at work, and has no social life beyond his TV and devoted dachshund (because a poodle would be too obvious). To put it bluntly, he’s a lonely guy.

One evening, while walking back from the grocery store to buy dog food, Casey is mugged and brutally attacked by a motorcycle gang. This leaves Casey not only alone and battered, but also afraid. His decision to buy a gun gets sidetracked when a local dojo catches his eye. He’s drawn to the whispered guidance of the Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and the confidence and power derived from the self-defense skills being taught.

Filmmaker Riley Stearns takes on toxic masculinity in a subversive and satirical manner. His dark comedy is played straight by the participants, putting viewers in a state of awkward laughter and uncertain reactions to what we are witnessing. It’s both exaggerated and nuanced, as there are informative subtleties in both the dialogue and mannerisms of the characters.

Imogen Poots plays Anna, perhaps the most interesting character in the film. She’s a talented brown belt frustrated by her Sensei’s unwillingness to award her with a much-deserved black belt. Instead, she is relegated to teaching kids’ classes, and only gets to shine in the mysterious night classes.

Ah yes, the night classes. Participants must be personally invited by Sensei, and it’s here where Casey finally begins to understand the dark forces at work. Henry, played by David Zellner (co-producer with his brother Nathan) is so desperate for Sensei’s stamp-of-approval that he makes the tragic mistake of attending night class without being invited. The violence in the film elevates quickly.

We witness the changes in Casey as he gains confidence, and the many transitions in his life take the form of shifting colors, foreign language and music. The insecurities that accompany the male ego are contrasted with the extra hurdles women must clear to be accepted as equals.

These people could possibly be caricatures, but possibly not. There is much confusion over how to be a man in today’s world – what it means, how to act, how to control sparks of aggression, how to prevent the misuse of power. We watch as Casey becomes so similar to those he so despised.

We also learn that the Alpha male may not be male after all. These are some serious topics buried within the lesson of “kick with your hands and punch with your feet.” It’s an offbeat film presented in a way that makes us sit up and take note.

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