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THE LION KING

Producer: Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver and Karen Gilchrist
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jeff Nathanson
Stars: Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, John Kani, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Penny Johnson Jerald, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, Florence Kasumba, and Amy Sedaris.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

C

Cannibalism has come to the Circle of Life—perhaps not literally, although there’s a good deal of chomping in Jon Favreau’s remake of “The Lion King,” and one can’t always be certain of who or what’s being devoured.

But on a less literal level, the movie is the latest in Disney’s project to cannibalize its own animated classics by retooling them, usually in quasi-live-action form (as with the recent “Aladdin”). That’s not possible in this case, of course, but moving another step beyond the already impressive realism that Favreau managed in his 2016 version of “The Jungle Book,” it often comes as close to natural verisimilitude as one might want. Except, of course, when the animals move their mouths to speak or sing, you might be fooled into thinking you were watching the sort of true-life adventure the company used to make back in the fifties. (The visual effects supervisors were Mark Livolsi and Adam Gerstel, the production designer James Chinlund, and the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.)

The difficulty with that is that while a good deal of it is relatively happy and upbeat, there’s a good deal of violence in this story, and the more visually realistic it becomes, the more gruesome and unpleasant it is to watch, particularly for smaller children. It makes one dread what the result might be when such an approach is applied to the mother’s death in the seemingly inevitable new “Bambi.”

Apart from that concern, this new “King” isn’t—as some expected—simply a shot-by-shot remake of the much-loved 1994 original; it runs a half-hour longer, and the songbook is altered, in some cases expanded (there’s a new song by Beyoncé, for instance). But whatever the story has gained in terms of technical prowess, it has lost in charm and emotional impact.

The essence of the plot, of course, remains the same. Evil Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills his royal brother Mufasa (again voiced magisterially by James Earl Jones) and, persuading his young nephew Simba (JD McCrary) that he was responsible for the death, convinces the cub to go into exile. He is befriended by the happy-go-lucky duo of warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner), who teach him not to take things too seriously—and to curtail his carnivorous tendencies.

It’s in this idyllic environment that he grows into young lionhood (complete with a voice change to Donald Glover), until his childhood friend Nala (previously Shahadi Wright Joseph, now Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) shows up to persuade him to return to his land and reclaim the crown from Scar and his band of ravenous hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre). With the help of Nala, Pumbaa and Timon, as well as his mother Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), Mufasa’s ever-loyal aide the hornbill Zazu (John Oliver), and the land’s wise shaman, the mandrill Rafiki (John Kani), he succeeds. Peace and love return to the realm.

It would take a side-by-side comparison of the 1994 film and this one to measure exactly where the extra half-hour’s footage occurs (a good chunk probably is to be found in the endless closing credits), but even when scenes are effectively duplicated, they aren’t nearly as effective in this version. Perhaps that’s simply because though there are no human characters in either film (as there were in “The Jungle Book,” played by flesh-and-blood people), there was a human touch to the traditional animation of the earlier picture, while, as beautifully rendered as it is, there’s inevitably a soulless, machine-generated feel to the images here—a quality that’s undermined the Disney reworkings of their other animated films as well. Of course, it hasn’t stopped people from flocking to them, and they will undoubtedly fill the seats for this one as well.

And they will be rewarded not only by all those impressive though chilly visuals, but by solid voiceover work. Not all the newcomers match their predecessors, of course (as smoothly as he delivers his dialogue, for example, Ejiofor’s tones aren’t as unforgettable as Jeremy Irons’ were, and for all their exuberance Rogen and Eichner don’t efface memories of Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane), but most provide reasonable facsimiles of the originals, and a few actually improve on them.

Any remake of “The Lion King” would be unnecessary, of course, but while this one can be admired as a marvel of computer animation, it lacks the resonance of the original. As with its predecessors in this Disney series, one suspects that when in future years people reach for a Blu-ray of the title from their shelves, it will be of the earlier movie, not Favreau’s impeccably rendered but rather heartless one.

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO

Producer: Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Christina Oh
Director: Joe Talbot
Writer: Joe Talbot and Rob Richert
Stars: Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, Finn Wittrock, Danny Glover, Willie Hen and Maxamilliene Ewalt
Studio: A24 Films

C

Narrative coherence is sacrificed to visual poetry in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a film that’s pictorially impressive but fails to engage simply as a story. For a while it coasts along on its succession of hypnotic images, but ultimately its wooziness becomes wearying.

At its basis, Joe Talbot’s film is a story of the profound melancholy that gentrification can cause in those who lose precious family property. Jimmie (Jimmie Fails, who co-wrote the script with Talbot, using his own experience) is a somber skateboarder with a faraway look in his eyes. He works, at least occasionally, as an aide in a nursing home, but devotes as much time as he can to the upkeep of the exterior of a handsome old house in the city’s Fillmore District, an area that was once predominantly African-American. Jimmie spent the first years of his childhood in the house, which he believes was built by his grandfather, and though it’s now occupied by a white couple who are not terribly happy about his unauthorized intrusions on their property, he is determined to keep it in pristine condition.

Jimmie is estranged from his parents—his father (Rob Morgan), who’s apparently peddling pirated DVDs, has little to do with him, and his mother barely acknowledges him when they bump into one another. So he rooms with his best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), a fish-market clerk and aspiring playwright, in the home of Mont’s frail grandfather Allen (Danny Glover). Mont accompanies Jimmie on his travels through the streets of the city, carrying a notebook in which he records material for use in his writing efforts.

When the couple in Jimmie’s house leaves as the result of a squabble over an inheritance, he decides to move in, bringing belongings retrieved from his Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold). Mont moves in as well, and they consult with a realtor (Finn Wittrock) about how to go about buying it. (Naturally, the sleazy fellow will target it for himself.) They begin transforming the inside as well as the outside.

But questions arise about Jimmie’s notions concerning the house, especially after a guide (Jello Biafra), leading a bunch of tourists around the neighborhood on scooters, argues that it must be much older than his grandfather’s time. That will lead to the film’s climax: a play Mont writes and performs in the house that, in a windy and histrionic way, effectively argues that his friend needs to abandon his illusions and move on.

There are a few other threads to the narrative. One centers on a group of young black men who occupy an area on the street outside Grandfather Allen’s house, acting like a sort of Greek chorus, badgering Jimmie and Mont and quarreling among themselves; the boys will invite one of them, Kofi (Jamal Trulove) inside their house, but tragedy soon follows. Periodically a preacher (Willie Hen) appears on the street, carrying a crate on which he stands to harangue no one in particular. There’s a subplot about an old friend of Jimmie’s father, Bobby (Mike Epps), who lives in a car. And there are other grace notes designed to convey the poignancy of displacement and transformation, like a brief scene in which Jimmie sits on a bench, joined there by an aging, nude hipster, and both are ridiculed by a crowd passing by on a tour bus.

All of this is filmed by cinematography Adam Newport-Berra in luminous, lush tones, transforming the individual shots into poetic compositions that are undeniably beautiful. Yet while in their totality they provide a visual feast suffused with the longing for times past that is obviously the film’s fundamental point, when one looks beneath the surface there’s not much complexity to be discerned. In a film that runs a full two hours, that’s a problem. So is the fact that apart from a few of the supporting characters—Morgan’s James Sr., Arnold’s aunt, the guys in the chorus, Hen’s preacher—the performances haven’t much energy. That’s especially the case with Fails and Majors, though the latter certainly gets a chance to explode from his lethargy performing his one-person play. The house, however, is quite extraordinary both inside and out, and may become a true tourist attraction in future.

The soft tone of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” which is soothing despite the socio-economic issues at its core, has a lulling effect—so lulling, in fact, that despite (or perhaps because of) the visual opulence, it might just put you to sleep.