National Geographic debuts ‘Cesar Millan: Better Human Better Dog’

July 14, 2021

The following is a press release from National Geogrpahic:

Today, National Geographic announced the highly anticipated return of dog behavior expert Cesar Millan with “Cesar Millan: Better Human, Better Dog,” premiering on July 30, 2021, at 9/8c on National Geographic and simulcast on Nat Geo WILD. The all-new 10-part series brings Cesar back when pet owners need him the most, as the world has changed significantly since Cesar made his television debut 16 years ago. Airing globally in 172 countries and 43 languages, new episodes will air back-to-back on Fridays at 9/8c and 10/9c on National Geographic and encore Sundays at 8/7c and 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD. Episodes will also be available to stream on Disney+ each Wednesday, starting Aug. 4, 2021.

As humans face a world never seen before, they have turned to four-legged friends as a way to console, bringing harmony and peace to their homes. In fact, dog adoptions are hitting record highs over the past year, with some cities reporting a 90% rise in adoption rates. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and sometimes more pooches can cause more problems. Many rescue dogs can come from a troubled past resulting in unknown trust issues, which can be difficult for new owners. “Cesar Millan: Better Human, Better Dog” showcases Cesar Millan as he takes on the most challenging cases yet, treating a host of new canine behavioral issues impacted by well-intentioned but impulsive owners.

In the new series, Cesar opens the gates to the famed Dog Psychology Center, his California ranch retreat for dogs. Here he transforms canines – and families – one case at a time, working to make the world a better place. With updated philosophies, new techniques and family support, Cesar tackles some of the most demanding cases of his career.

Transformations include cases like Goliath, a dog that was once so unpredictably aggressive he blocked paramedics from entering his home during a family emergency. He is now a medical companion animal, able to seek assistance when his owner suffers a seizure. Also, follow Insta-famous Ducky the Yorkie as he em’barks’ on a journey with Cesar to gain comfort and composure with his second owner so that the newlyweds can finally pursue their dreams of starting a family. A rottweiler named Kuma is also transformed from an unstable liability to a calm, confident member of a family with five young children. To complement his efforts, Cesar’s own exotic animal ‘paw’sonal assistants pitch in to assist in the rehabilitation process – including llamas, a parrot and a miniature horse – all full-time residents of the Dog Psychology Center.

Episode descriptions and premiere dates are as follows:

“Fit For Service”

Premieres Friday, July 30, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 4

Cesar welcomes a broken pack to the ranch and helps the pet parents overcome past trauma so they can move forward united. Getting a little help from DPC trainers, Cesar turns a dangerous pit bull into a well-balanced dog who can provide help in an emergency. The pet parents of a famous Yorkie seek help from Cesar to get his frantic behavior under control before they start a family.

“One Brick at a Time”

Premieres Friday, July 30, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 4

Cesar comes to the aid of a 68-year-old recently retired woman, Judy, whose over-excited Australian kelpie, Shadow, has ruined her retirement and has developed a strange fixation with bricks. After several attempts to train and correct both the dog and Judy’s behavior, Cesar is able to transform them both, making for one of the most rewarding transformations in Cesar’s career.

“Canine Quarantine”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 6, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 11

Cesar aids a family of first responders with three large and out-of-control dogs, including an aggressive pit bull. With help from his own pack, Cesar teaches the family new techniques to prevent dangerous behavior and get this pack back on track. First-time dog owners of an over-excited bernedoodle with separation anxiety look to Cesar for guidance to bring order to their home.

“Front of the Pack”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 6, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 11

Cesar helps a military veteran and his pack get back in order when his German shepherd mix, who helped him through his PTSD, has developed an unhealthy bond with him. And later, a young woman looks to Cesar for help when her dachshund puppy’s dangerous habit of eating trash off the ground has put her in a life-threatening situation.

“Pack Attack”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 13, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 18

The Thompson pack is recovering from past trauma at the hands of an abusive ex-husband. Now, the women have suffered another tragedy: coonhound Nyla has become explosively aggressive, accidentally killing one family dog and viciously attacking another. Cesar needs to help the entire Thompson pack heal from past wounds and rehabilitate Nyla before the family is faced with a heartbreaking decision.

“Blind Faith”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 13, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 18

Cesar sets out to help a young couple’s cantankerous Chihuahua, whose recent blindness makes him increasingly hostile to be around. And later, a family makes a desperate plea to Cesar to help them rein in their fast-growing and overexcited Belgian Malinois before he becomes too tough to tame.

“Twin Trouble”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 20, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 25

Cesar works with a Mexican breed close to his heart when he rehabilitates twin dogs whose over-excited behavior has put their owner at risk of eviction from her apartment building. Later, an actress turns to Cesar for help with an overprotective pint-sized pooch that’s creating too much drama of her own.

“Dogs v. Cats”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 20, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 25

Cesar helps a family of seven with their young Rottweiler, who’s grown aggressive and territorial after a burglary at the family home. With help from his own pack, Cesar instructs the pet parents on techniques to exert leadership behavior and reestablish themselves atop the pack. Parents of a young pitsky with an overactive prey drive toward their cats look to Cesar for guidance to bring order and harmony into their home.

“Tail End of Trauma”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 27, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Sept. 1

Cesar helps a fearful family, which is still holding on to the pain of losing their first dog in a tragic accident, deal with their two-year-old black lab’s similarly aggressive personality. And later, a young 10-year-old girl looks to Cesar for help when her emotional support puppy is causing more chaos than comfort.

“Hijacked Pack”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 27, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Sept. 1

Cesar sets out to help a young couple’s sensitive Australian cattle dog, whose severe separation anxiety has held hostage the lives of his pet parents for nearly a year. And later, Cesar attempts to calm a blinding Lhasa apso, who lacks basic hygiene and has almost become too hostile for his exhausted owners to provide his needed eye care.

CESAR MILLAN: BETTER HUMAN BETTER DOG is the perfect series for pet owners across America – new and old! Even through troubled times, Cesar constantly overcomes obstacles, instilling faith in disgruntled pet owners. Humans are clearly not the only ones feeling restless with the onset of the dog days of summer. Dogs need help adjusting to the dynamic world we are living in too!

CESAR MILLAN: BETTER HUMAN BETTER DOG is produced by Leepson Bounds Entertainment for National Geographic. Cesar Millan serves as host and executive producer, with special consideration to Cesar’s Way Inc. and support from the Cesar Millan Foundation. For Leepson Bounds, executive producers are David Leepson, Jane Mun, Roger Roddy and Aaron Rice. For National Geographic, executive producer is Breanna Hoepner; senior vice president of unscripted development and production is Janet Han Vissering.

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About National Geographic Partners LLC:

National Geographic Partners LLC (NGP), a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company and the National Geographic Society, is committed to bringing the world premium science, adventure and exploration content across an unrivaled portfolio of media assets. NGP combines the global National Geographic television channels (National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo MUNDO, Nat Geo PEOPLE) with National Geographic’s media and consumer-oriented assets, including National Geographic magazines; National Geographic studios; related digital and social media platforms; books; maps; children’s media; and ancillary activities that include travel, global experiences and events, archival sales, licensing and e-commerce businesses. Furthering knowledge and understanding of our world has been the core purpose of National Geographic for 133 years, and now we are committed to going deeper, pushing boundaries, going further for our consumers … and reaching millions of people around the world in 172 countries and 43 languages every month as we do it. NGP returns 27 percent of our proceeds to the nonprofit National Geographic Society to fund work in the areas of science, exploration, conservation and education. For more information visit natgeotv.com or nationalgeographic.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Review: ‘Black Widow’ (2021), starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone

June 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour and Florence Pugh in “Black Widow” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)

“Black Widow” (2021)

Directed by Cate Shortland

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and Russia and briefly in Ohio, Hungary and Morocco, the superhero action film “Black Widow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: Russian American superhero Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, battles an evil nemesis from her past named Dreykov, who has sent an assassin named Taskmaster to kill anyone who gets in the way of Dreykov’s goal of world domination through mind control.

Culture Audience: “Black Widow” will appeal primarily to people who already know a lot about what’s going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Scarlett Johansson (pictured at right) in “Black Widow” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

If you’re not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), then “Black Widow” might be too confusing for long stretches of the movie. For everyone else, “Black Widow” offers a satisfactory but not particularly outstanding chapter to the MCU. The best parts of the movie are the scenes showing the interpersonal dynamics between an estranged foster family that reunites, because the movie’s visual effects and villains aren’t as compelling as other MCU movies with the Black Widow character.

Directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson, “Black Widow” takes place primarily in 2016, in the period of time between 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” Viewers who haven’t seen or don’t know anything about “Captain America: Civil War” before seeing “Black Widow” will feel like they’ve stepped into a world that has passed them by, because there are several key plot developments in “Captain America: Civil War” that are necessary to know in order to fully appreciate “Black Widow.”

“Black Widow” is strictly a movie for MCU fans, because it assumes that people watching this movie know about have or have seen “Captain America: Civil War” and the other MCU movies leading up to it. “Black Widow” is not the movie for you if you don’t know the answers to these questions before watching the movie: “What is S.H.I.E.L.D.?” “What is Hydra?” “Who else is in the Avengers?”

Likewise, if you don’t know that Avengers superhero Black Widow, also known as Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson), died at the end of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” (it’s really not spoiler information at this point), then the end-credits scene in “Black Widow” won’t make much sense. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in the “Black Widow” end-credits scene, which makes a direct reference to Black Widow’s death and who Black Widow was with when she died, because it’s a likely revenge plot for a Marvel series on Disney+ or a MCU sequel. The “Black Widow” end-credits scene takes place at the gravestone of Natasha Romanoff, so anyone who sees “Black Widow” who didn’t know that she died will have that part of “Avengers: Endgame” spoiled for them.

If you know absolutely nothing about the MCU and Black Widow (whose first MCU appearance was in 2010’s “Iron Man 2”), then here’s what “Black Widow” does fairly well: It shows more of her backstory, in terms of how she was raised at a certain point in her childhood and why she got separated from her biological family and her foster family. The highlights of “Black Widow” are what happens when she reunites with the foster family she had for three years when she was a child.

Each of these family members has gone on to be involved in shady dealings of the Russian government. It’s an often-contentious, sometimes poignant and occasionally humorous reunion. Their up-and-down interactions speak to the love/hate feelings that people have for past or present loved ones. And that’s the humanity that makes “Black Widow” more than just a bunch of action scenes in a big-budget superhero movie.

“Black Widow” opens with a scene taking place in Ohio in 1995. Alexei Shostakov (played by David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (played by Rachel Weisz) are a Russian immigrant couple raising two girls on a rural farm. The older girl, who’s 11 years old, is a young Natasha Romanoff (played by Ever Anderson), while the younger girl is Yelena Belova (played by Violet McGraw), who’s 6 years old. Why do they all have different last names? Because they’re not biologically related to each other, but they have been living together as a family for three years.

Life seems to be “normal” for this makeshift family when a day comes that the Alexei and Melina have been dreading: The family will be separated by the Russian government. Some military-looking operatives invade the home one night, but Alexei and Melina have already planned their escape. Melina pilots a small plane with Natasha and Yelena as the passengers, while Alexei tries to keep the home invaders away from the plane, by shooting at the invaders with a rifle.

The plan to escape ultimately fails. Melina is shot but not gravely wounded. A terrified but quick-thinking Natasha takes over in piloting the plane. However, this family of four eventually couldn’t evade caputure, even though Natasha pulls a gun on the military men tasked with separating the family. Alexei hands over a mysterious computer disc to a man named General Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone), who is the one in charge of this home invasion. Meanwhile, the girls are drugged and taken away from the only parents they’ve known up to this point.

The movie then fast forwards to 2016. Natasha is in Norway, and is now a fugitive running from U.S. general Thaddeus Ross (played by William Hurt), because she’s has been accused of assaulting the king of Wakanda. (That’s a reference to the African nation of “Black Panther,” in case you didn’t know.) Natasha is also in violation of the Sokovia Accords, a set of regulations for people with superpowers, especially people working for government agencies. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is also a fugitive, although he does not make an appearance in this “Black Widow” movie.

Natasha has been hiding out in a trailer somewhere in rural Norway. Several times in the movie, Natasha will make a reference to the falling out that the superhero group the Avengers had in “Captain America: Civil War.” As her trusted friend Mason (played by O-T Fagbenle) tells her as he hands her a stack of fake IDs to use, “I hear the Avengers are getting divorced.” Any viewers expecting any of the other Avengers to make a surprise appearance in “Black Widow” will be disappointed. Mason also gives Natasha a box of unopened mail that he says came from the Budapest safe house where she previously stayed.

“Black Widow” follows the typical superhero movie trope of a villain wanting to gain possession of an object that will help the villain take over the world. In this movie, it’s explained in a somewhat convoluted way that Dreykov and his cronies have been capturing female orphans and other vulnerable girls. The captured girls are held in a Red Room torture facility in Russia, where the girls are forced to be in a spy program.

In the Red Room, the victims undergo chemical treatments that alter their brain and allow Dreykov to have mind control over them. All of the victims’ reproduction organs are removed, and they grow up to become trained assassins called Widows, who do Dreykov’s bidding. Depending on how much their brains have been manipulated, the Widows have varying degress of memories of their lives before the Red Room.

Natasha and Yelena both spent time in the Red Room, but the movie has no flashbacks to this painful period of time in their lives. However, it’s revealed in conversations that Natasha was brainwashed but able to escape from the Red Room and never underwent the chemical treatments to the brain. Natasha’s spy life in America eventually led her to join the Avengers. Yelena wasn’t so lucky: She got the Red Room’s brain altering chemical treatment, which leaves her vulnerable to Dreykov’s mind control.

It’s why Yelena is seen in Morocco fighting an operative named Oksana (played by Michelle Lee), who is stabbed by Yelena in an outdoor street battle. Before Oksana dies, she takes a capsule and sprays Yelena with a mysterious red gas. Yelena seems to come out of a trance, and Yelena is soon reported as a deserter. It’s later revealed that this red gas is an antidote to Dreykov’s mind control. And that’s why he wants to get all of this antidote that exists in the world.

Somehow, Natasha has a stash of this antidote, so Dreykov sends a mysterious assassin named the Taskmaster after her to get this stash. The Taskmaster is completely covered in armor and doesn’t speak. Therefore, viewers will be guessing who’s really inside the armor. Is it a human being? A robot? Something else? The identity of the Taskmaster is eventually revealed in the last third of the movie.

Because Natasha currently feels all alone in the world, her emotions are raw when she has a tension-filled reunion with an adult Yelena (played Florence Pugh) when they see each other at that safehouse in Budapest. They have a big brawl that leads to an uneasy truce when they find out that they both want to get revenge on Dreykov because he separated their family. Natasha and Yelena also want to defeat Dreykov because they want to stop what’s going on in the Red Room.

Up until Natasha and Yelena reunited, Natasha assumed that Natasha had killed Dreykov in a building explosion that Natasha caused shortly before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. (S.H.I.E.L.D. is an acronym for the spy/counter-intelligence/superhero-affiliated agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.) But when Yelena asks Natasha if she actually saw Dreykov’s dead body, Natasha replies, “There was no body left to check.”

Dreykov’s daughter Antonia (played by Ryan Kiera), who was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, was also in the building when it exploded. And that’s why Dreykov has an extra-personal grudge against Natasha. A flashback scene shows that Natasha knew that Antonia was in the building when Natasha gave the go-ahead for the building to be detonated. The way Natasha describes it to Yelena, Antonia was “collateral damage.”

This cold and calculating side to Natasha is frequently displayed in the story to contrast with Yelena being hotheaded and impulsive. If Yelena is like fire, then Natasha is like ice. The personality differences between these two women can result in their frequent conflicts with each other. But other times, the contrasts between Yelena and Natasha can work to their benefit when they have to team up for a shared goal.

And even though these two women haven’t lived as sisters in 16 years, there’s still some leftover sibling rivalry. Yelena calls Natasha a “poser” because of the crouching stance that Black Widow is known for before she goes in on an attack. Yelena also mocks the way that Natasha whips her hair around during a fight, as if she’s doing a photo shoot. This “poser” insult becomes a recurring joke in the movie.

There’s also a tinge of jealousy in Yelena’s teasing of Natasha. At one point in the movie, Yelena says in an envious tone to Natasha: “We are both trained killers, except I’m not the one on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.”

In another part of the conversation, Yelena explains the differences between what she experienced in the Red Room and what Natasha experienced: “What you experienced was psychological conditioning. [With what I experienced], I’m talking about chemically altering brain functions—they’re two completely different things.” Yelena says what it feels like to have the chemical alterations to the brain: “You’re fully conscious but you don’t know which part is you.”

Natasha is the one who brings up the idea of going to the Red Room and killing Dreykov once and for all. Yelena replies, “That sounds like a shitload of work.” Natasha says with a smirk, “It could be fun though.”

And where have Alexei and Melina been since they last saw Natasha and Yelena? Alexei has been in a Russian gulag, where he has been fuming over all the glory and notoriety that Captain America has gotten all over the world. That’s because Alexei has a superhero alter ego named Red Guardian, whose superhero career was cut short when Dreykov betrayed Alexei and made sure that Alexei was sent to prison. Needless to say, Alexei is very bitter about it.

Melina has being working as a scientist, so those skills come in handy when Melina, Alexei, Natasha and Yelena eventually reunite. This “family reunion” is not a surprise, since it’s been in “Black Widow” trailers and is a big selling point for the movie. The initial awkwardness of the reunion—and some of the sarcastic wisecracks that ensue—bring much of the movie’s comic relief.

“Black Widow” has the expected high-energy chase and fight scenes, including a far-fetched sequence of Natasha and Yelena helping Alexei escape from prison. The movie’s visual effects are hit and miss. There’s a big action sequence that takes place in the snow that is one of the standouts. But there are a few scenes that involve explosions where the fire looks too fake.

Even though Black Widow is a superhero, she’s not immune to getting fire burns. And yet, there are too many moments where she’s right in the thick of explosions, and she doesn’t get the serious fire burns that someone would get in real life. Some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes have cinematography that’s drenched in psychedelic red, which viewers will either think looks great or annoying.

Alexei and Melina are kind of like the MCU version of “The Honeymooners” couple Ralph Kramden and Alice Kramden. Alexei is a lot of bluster and ego, while Melina is his “been there, done that” calmer counterpart. There’s a comedic scene where Alexei tries to impress his reunited family, by putting on his old Red Guardian costume, but due to his weight gain since he last wore it, he has a hard time fitting into the costume.

On a more serious note, there’s a scene with Alexei, Natasha and Yelena in a heliocopter where Alexei makes a crude comment to Yelena by asking her if she’s being so uptight because she’s menstruating. Yelena reminds Alexei that she doesn’t menstruate because her reproductive organs were removed in the Red Room. Yelena then gives a detailed description of what reproductive organs were removed, until a very uncomfortable Alexei tells them to stop talking about it. Yelena then says impishly that she was just about to talk about fallopian tubes.

Although this scene has a sarcastic tone to it, it’s a not-so-subtle commentary on the gender politics that are part of this movie’s storyline. The Red Room is an obvious metaphor for a toxic patriarchy where a male villain is responsible for literally ripping away reproductive rights. And throughout “Black Widow,” the women are the ones who make the best and bravest decisions. Alexei has his heroic moments too, but he’s often outsmarted and outshined by the women in his life.

And if weren’t obvious enough in the movie’s trailers, there’s no doubt when watching all of “Black Widow” that this movie is a launching pad for Yelena, who’s clearly going to be a big part of the MCU. Pugh tends to be a scene stealer in all of her movies, and “Black Widow” is no exception, since Yelena brings a lot of relatable strengths and flaws to this character. Johansson’s Natasha/Black Widow is the ice queen in charge, but some of her emotional ice is melted in effective scenes where she finds out the truth about her biological family and how she ended up in the Red Room.

Most of the actors depicting the characters who are supposed to have Russian accents aren’t actually Russian in real life. Johansson and Harbour are American, while Pugh, Weisz and Winstone are British. Ukrainian French actress Olga Kurylenko is in the movie, but she’s in a role that is supposed to be among the plot twists. Out of all the non-Russian actors who have Russian accents in the movie, most are good but not excellent at sounding Russian, except for Winstone who definitely needed more Russian dialect training.

Shortland’s direction of “Black Widow” strikes a mostly well-paced balance between action, drama and touches of comedy. The movie’s biggest flaws are in how little regard it has for viewers who might be new to the MCU and who will have no idea what the characters are talking about for a great deal of “Black Widow.” In other words, “Black Widow” is definitely not a stand-alone MCU movie. Just like a web that a black widow spider can weave, the movie’s a little too tangled up in other MCU storylines and is best enjoyed by people who’ve already seen most if not all the other MCU movies that have Black Widow.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Black Widow” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Soul,’ starring the voices of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Soul”

Directed by Pete Docter; co-directed by Kemp Powers

Culture Representation: The animated film “Soul” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white, with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring jazz musician has a purgatory-like experience where he fights to save his life while encountering a cynical soul that doesn’t want to be born in any body.

Culture Audience: “Soul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in philosophical stories about the meaning of life that are wrapped in a bright and shiny package of a Disney/Pixar animated movie.

Counselor Jerry (voiced by Richard Ayoade), Counselor Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga), 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Terry (voiced by Rachel House) and Counselor Jerry (voiced by Fortune Feimster) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

Pixar Animation Studios has long been the gold standard for groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing movie animation, with several Oscars and blockbuster films to prove it. Pixar launched in 1986, and was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Pixar released its first movie with an African American as the lead character. That movie is “Soul,” which does what Pixar does best: blend stunning visuals with sentimental, family-friendly messages. However, the movie isn’t quite the innovative cultural breakthrough that it’s hyped up to be.

“Soul” (directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers) follows a lot of the same thematic tropes that are in a lot of Pixar movies: Someone has to cope with death and/or find a way back home. In order to reach that goal, the protagonist encounters someone who usually has an opposite personality. For any variety of reasons, the two opposite personalities are stuck together on a journey. And they spend most of the story bickering and/or trying to learn how to work together.

In “Soul,” the main protagonist is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged, aspiring jazz pianist in New York City who hasn’t been able to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional musician. Instead, to pay his bills, Joe has become a teacher of band music at a public middle school called M.S. 70, where almost all of the students in his class are less-than-talented at playing music. Joe isn’t particularly happy with how his life has turned out, but he hasn’t lost his passion for playing jazz. It’s a passion that almost no one else shares in his life.

Joe tells his students about the life-changing experience he had as a boy when his father took him to a nightclub to see jazz performed live for the first time. It was the first time that Joe understood the joy of turning a passion into something that can be shared with others. Joe describes to his students how he felt when he saw the jazz musicians expressing themselves in their performance: “I wanted to learn how to talk like that. That’s when I knew I was born to play.”

Joe then says to a student, “Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?” Connie (voiced by Cora Champommier) deadpans in response: “I’m 12.” This won’t be the last time Connie will be in the movie, since she represents whether or not Joe has made an impact on any of his students.

Joe, who is an only child, is somewhat of a disappointment to his widowed mother Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), who owns a custom tailor shop. Libba has grown tired of seeing Joe in a series of dead-end, part-time jobs that don’t pay very well. Joe’s father was also an aspiring musician, but he gave up his music dreams because of the financial obligations of raising a family. Joe is a bachelor with no children, so it’s been easier for him to not feel as much pressure to get a full-time job that pays well.

One day, M.S. 70’s Principal Arroyo (voiced by Jeannie Tirado) tells Joe that the school would like to offer him a full-time job as the band teacher. However, Joe isn’t all that excited about the offer, because it means that he’ll have less time to pursue what he really wants to be: a professional musician playing in a real band. Privately, he thinks about whether or not he should accept the offer.

When Joe tells Libba about this job offer, she thinks he’s crazy not to take the offer right away. Libba reminds Joe that a full-time job comes with insurance benefits and a retirement plan, which are things that she thinks Joe needs to have now that he’s reached a certain age. Joe reluctantly agrees to take the school’s full-time job offer.

But then, something unexpected happens that changes his life when he gets a chance to become a professional musician. A former student of his named Lamont “Curley” Baker (voiced by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, also known as Questlove) calls Joe and tells him that he’s now a drummer for the Dorothea Williams Quartet, a famous group that is in the city for a tour performance. Curley thanks Joe for his mentorship and excitedly mentions to Joe that the band’s regular pianist suddenly “skipped town” and can’t be found.

Curley says that Joe would be the perfect replacement for this pianist for the band’s show that will take place that evening at the Half Note, a popular jazz nightclub. Curley invites Joe to go to the nightclub for an audition. Curley says that if Dorothea Williams likes what she hears from Joe, then Joe could become the permanent pianist for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Needless to say, Joe is ecstatic but also nervous.

Dorothea (voiced by Angela Bassett) is a hard-to-please taskmaster. And she’s not impressed that Joe has been working as a school teacher, because she thinks it means he isn’t talented enough to be a professional musician. But once Dorothea hears Joe play, she changes her mind and says he can perform with the band that night. She keeps cool about it and doesn’t want to lavish too much praise on Joe.

Joe is so excited about this big break that he calls people on his phone to tell them the good news, while he’s walking down various streets. Joe is so distracted that he doesn’t notice several things that could get him injured. He narrowly misses getting hit by a car when he walks into traffic. He avoids getting hurt by construction work happening on a street where he walks.

But a misfortune that Joe literally falls into is a deep and open manhole that he doesn’t notice while he’s talking on the phone. Joe wakes up in a purgatory-like environment where he finds out that he “died” from this fall. His soul and other souls (which look like ghostly blue blobs) are headed to a place called the Great Beyond, which is implied to be heaven.

However, Joe doesn’t want to accept this fate, and he runs away and tries to hide. What he really wants to do is go back to Earth, have his soul reunited with his body, and recover from his injuries in time to make it to the Dorothea Williams Quartet performance. He believes that this performance is his only shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Joe tries to hide in the purgatory, but he’s quickly discovered by spirit-like entities called counselors that look like two-dimensional, bisected figures. Several of the counselors (with male and female voices) are named Counselor Jerry. Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade voice the two Counselor Jerry characters that have the most interaction with Joe. Braga’s Counselor Jerry character is empathetic and patient. Ayoade’s Counselor Jerry character is wisecracking and neurotic. Other actors who are the voices of Counselor Jerry characters include Fortune Feimster, Wes Studi and Zenobia Shroff.

Joe finds out that he hasn’t died yet, but his body is in a “holding pattern,” and he’s in a place called the Great Before, also known as the You Seminar. It’s a place where each soul is numbered and assigned a unique personality before being sent to Earth to inhabit a body. In addition to personality traits, each soul must have a “spark,” in order to be ready to be sent to Earth. In the You Seminar, each soul is assigned a mentor to inspire that spark. (The word “spark” in the movie is another way of saying a person’s biggest passion in life.)

Joe already knows what his spark is (playing music), but through a series of events, he ends up becoming the mentor for a soul whose name/number is 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is an especially difficult soul because she doesn’t want to be live in anybody on Earth and she wants to stay where she is. She’s very stubborn and likes to cause a lot of mischief. (Technically, 22 could be interpreted as having no gender, but since a woman was chosen to voice the character, 22 will be referred to as “she” and “her” in this review.)

Joe finds out that 22 has had several mentors who tried and failed to help 22 find her spark. The mentors include Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette, Nicolaus Copernicus and Muhammad Ali. There’s a brief montage sequence that shows how 22 aggravated and disappointed all of her famous mentors. And 22 is so insufferable, cynical and bratty that even Mother Teresa ran out of patience with her.

And so, the rest of the movie is about these two souls who have different agendas and have to find a way to work together. One soul desperately wants to go back to Earth to reunite with his body, while the other soul desperately does not want to go to Earth to avoid inhabiting any body. There’s also a running joke in the film about a very nitpicky, uptight spirit named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who works as an accountant in the purgatory and notices that a soul (Joe) is missing from the expected Great Beyond population. Terry goes on the hunt to find this missing soul.

“Soul” has a lot of metaphors not just about life after death but also about life on Earth. There’s a subplot about “lost souls” on Earth. And during Joe and 22’s time together, they encounter a soul who’s an aging hippie type named Moonwind (played by Graham Norton), who is the captain of a ship of souls.

What works very well in “Soul,” as is the case of almost every Pixar film, is how the film looks overall. When Joe describes the elation he felt the first time he discovered his passion for music, the screen lights up with an engaging vibrancy of sights and sounds. There are also some almost-psychedelic representations of what the You Seminar looks like that give “Soul” an immersive quality. The human characters look very lifelike. And it all adds up to a very memorable animated film.

“Soul” is not without flaws, however. The movie has a few plot holes that aren’t really explained. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where 22 tells Joe that souls without a body do not have the use of human senses, which is why 22 doesn’t know what it’s like to smell, taste or touch. However, it’s never explained why 22 (and other souls without bodies) have the senses of sight and hearing. Why bother saying that souls in this story cannot have human senses, when the souls can obviously see and hear?

Docter won an Oscar for the 2015 Pixar film “Inside Out,” another existential movie with a plot revolving around the concept that people are unique because of personalities and interests. “Soul” has lot of philosophies about what makes someone human and what a human being’s purpose is in life. Both movies can be enjoyed by people of different generations. However, the storyline of “Soul” is riskier and potentially more alienating.

“Soul” is not a religious movie, but it’s literally a spiritual movie. Its plot and characters are based on spiritual beliefs that when people die, their souls go to another place that can’t be seen by living humans, or souls could be stuck on Earth as “ghosts.” Therefore, what happens in “Soul” won’t have as much of an emotional impact on atheists or other people who believe that death is final and who think that there is no such thing as a soul that can leave a body.

There’s a reincarnation subplot to the “Soul” that isn’t as funny as it could have been, mainly because one of the characters is reincarnated as a cat. There have already been plenty of movies that have over-used the gimmick of a non-human animal that can talk and think like a human. The world has more than enough “talking animals” movies.

As for “Soul” being touted as a racial breakthrough in Pixar animation, the movie falls short of many expectations that Joe’s life as an African American musician would be in the movie more than it actually is. This part of Joe’s identity is only shown as “bookends,” in service of a story that’s really about how Joe can help redeem 22, so that she will want to become a fully formed person with a “spark.”

In fact, Joe’s quest to go back to becoming a living, breathing human being often takes a back seat to 22 and her shenanigans. Joe doesn’t become completely sidelined, since he’s still the main character who’s in almost every scene of the movie. But there are many moments in “Soul” where it feels like the filmmakers deliberately made 22 the scene stealer, while Joe passively reacts to whatever 22 does or wants.

These creative decisions are a bit problematic when Disney and Pixar seem to have a self-congratulatory attitude in promoting “Soul” as the first Pixar movie to celebrate African American culture. Well, it’s not exactly a celebration. It’s more of a polite acknowledgement, because for most of the movie, Joe isn’t even in his own body.

It should be noted that “Soul” was written by Docter (who is white), Powers (who is African American) and Mike Jones (who is white). The vast majority of people on the “Soul” creative team are also white, including producer Dana Murray and chief composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jonathan “Jon” Batiste,” who is African American, did the jazz compositions for “Soul,” but not the overall music score. The music of “Soul” is perfectly fine, but it just seems a bit “off” that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to hire any of the numerous qualified African Americans to be the chief composers for this movie about an African American musician. Make of that what you will, but that’s why people say that representation matters.

And it seems like such a waste for “Soul” to not feature the singing talents of Foxx, who plays a musician but not a singer in this movie. (Foxx is a piano player in real life too.) He does a very good job in the role, as do the other “Soul” cast members. However, Joe is at times written as a sidekick to 22, when 22 should be the sidekick throughout the entire time that Joe and 22 are together. It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of “Soul” that the Joe character reclaims the spot as the central focus of the story.

“Soul” certainly meets Pixar’s high standards of a visually compelling film that tackles heavy emotional issues in an entertaining way. The movie has a lot of musing about the meaning of life and positive messages about self-acceptance. These themes in “Soul” are, for the most part, handled well for a movie whose target audience includes a lot of kids who are too young to have deep, philosophical debates. Just don’t expect “Soul” to have major representation of African American culture in the way that Pixar’s “Coco” celebrated Mexican culture.

Disney+ premiered “Soul” on December 25, 2020. The movies was released in cinemas in countries where Disney+ is not available.

Review: ‘Mulan’ (2020), starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Ron Yuan, Gong Li and Jet Li

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yifei Liu in “Mulan” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Mulan” (2020)

Directed by Niki Caro

Culture Representation: Taking place in ancient China, the fantasy film remake “Mulan” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, the military and royalty.

Culture Clash: A young woman with superhuman athletic powers disguises herself as a man, in order to fight in China’s Imperial Army, and she experiences sexism as a woman and dangerous conflicts while in combat.

Culture Audience: “Mulan” will primarily appeal people looking for family-friendly movies with a message of female empowerment, but fans of the original “Mulan” might be disappointed by the remake’s lack of humor.

Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li in “Mulan” (Photo courtesy of Film Frame/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Disney’s re-imagining of its numerous classic animated films has continued with the 2020 live-action version of “Mulan,” which is a very different take on the original 1998 animated “Mulan.” The 2020 version of “Mulan” should be commended for not doing an exact story replica of the original movie, which was the biggest criticism of Disney’s 2019 remake of “The Lion King” that basically did a more technologically updated animated copy of the 1994 classic “Lion King.” Does the remake of “Mulan” have anything groundbreaking? No, but that’s okay if you want to see an escapist film with a positive message about self-confidence and not letting bigotry get in the way of being who are and pursuing your dreams.

The 2020 version “Mulan” (directed by Niki Caro) took some creative risks by retooling the story into a serious action film instead of being a musical with comedic elements, which was the format of the original “Mulan.” But by changing the film’s tone, this “Mulan” remake ends up being a lot more generic than the original version, because the original “Mulan” depicted the characters as having much more distinct personalities. Although the “Mulan” remake is not a depressing movie, there’s very little humor to be found in the story. Much of the charm of the original “Mulan” came from the humorous characters (especially the miniature dragon Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy) and how they interacted with Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen in the original film) in her journey to becoming a warrior.

There are no musical numbers, wisecracking sidekicks or talking animals in the 2020 version of “Mulan.” However, the basic story is essentially the same: A young woman named Mulan in ancient China seems fated to follow a traditional life of being a wife and mother. But something happens that changes the course of her destiny: China is attacked by invaders and goes to war, so Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists in the army so that her father (who has health problems) won’t have to fight in the war. (In the original “Mulan,” the Huns were the war villains; in the remake, the Rourans are the northern invaders.)

In the remake of “Mulan,” this heroine and her family have known about her “superpowers” or “chi” since she was a child, whereas in the original “Mulan,” it took a while for a fumbling and awkward Mulan to become skilled in combat fighting. Because this metamorphosis is removed from the remake, Mulan (played by Yifei Liu) essentially starts off as a superhero, who has to hide her “chi” powers in order to not be vilified as a witch. (In the original “Mulan,” the family surname was Fa, while the family surname is Hua in the remake.)

In the “Mulan” remake, Mulan has a younger sister named Xiu, who’s about four or five years younger than Mulan. Xiu’s only purpose in the movie is to show that Mulan now has a younger female who looks up to her from an early age, whereas in the original movie, Mulan was an only child. (In the “Mulan” remake, Crystal Rao plays the young Mulan, Elena Askin plays the young Xiu, and Xana Tang plays the adult Xiu.) A scene near the beginning of the film shows Mulan, at around the age of 11 or 12, dazzling Xiu with her graceful nimbleness and athletic abilities.

It’s also established early on in the movie that Mulan inherited her chi from her stern but loving father Zhou (played by Tzi Ma), a military veteran who wears a leg brace from an injury he got during a war. (In the original movie, Zhou’s health problems were from natural causes of old age.) Just like in the original movie, the “Mulan” remake has Mulan’s mother Wuwei (played by Rosalind Chao) as essentially a passive supporting character, because Mulan’s father is the parent who has more influence on Mulan.

The patriarchal sexism that Mulan battles against is still the main underlying conflict of the story, while the war is the obvious external conflict. In the movie, Zhou tells Mulan when she’s a child: “Your chi is strong. But chi is for warriors, not daughters … Soon, you’ll be a young woman, and it’s time to hide your gift away, to silence its voice. I say this to protect you. That is my job. Your job is to bring honor to the family. Can you do that?”

In this Chinese society, girls and women are told that they bring honor to the family by finding the right husbands to marry. In the original “Mulan,” there was a feisty and humorous grandmother who was desperate to see Mulan get married. As is the Chinese tradition, Mulan had to see a matchmaker to assess her qualities as a future wife and to discuss possible suitors who would be a good match for her.

There’s no grandmother in the “Mulan” remake. Instead, there’s an uptight, judgmental and humorless matchmaker (played by Pei Pei Chang) who tells Mulan that a good wife must be “quiet, composed, graceful, elegant, poised, polite, silent and invisible.” At first, the matchmaker gives Mulan her approval, by saying that Mulan has all of these qualities. But then, a wayward spider ends up on the table during the meeting, thereby causing a mishap that leads to Mulan’s extraordinary athletic ability becoming exposed.

The matchmaker is horrified that Mulan isn’t a demure and weak young woman, and so she humiliates Mulan by declaring to the family in full view of people in the town square that Mulan has brought dishonor to her family. Soon after this debacle, representatives from China’s Imperial Army come to the area to declare that each family must volunteer an adult male to serve in the war.

Zhou volunteers, since he is the only adult male in the family, but Mulan is worried that because of his leg disability, he won’t be able to survive the war. When she expresses her concerns to her father, Zhoe shows his patriarchal ego when he lectures Mulan: “It is my job to bring honor to this family. You are the daughter. Learn your place!”

The original “Mulan” had a somewhat iconic scene of Mulan cutting off a lot of her hair in order to disguise herself as a man. There’s no such hair-cutting scene in the “Mulan” remake, which is the movie’s subtle but feminist way of saying that this version of Mulan isn’t going to cut her hair for anyone. Instead, the movie abruptly shows Mulan with her hair in a bun, and she’s already disguised in her armor and taking her father’s lucky sword before she leaves home without her family’s knowledge or consent. The family figures out what happens when they find out that Mulan and the sword have disappeared.

Since the remake doesn’t have any scenes of Mulan fumbling her way through learning combat skills as a new soldier, her discomfort mainly comes from trying to hide her superpowers and her real gender, as well adjusting to being in an all-male environment for the first time in her life. In the original “Mulan,” Mulan used the name Ping as her male alias, whereas her male alias in the “Mulan” remake is Jin.

Mulan/Jin is immediately picked on by a soldier named Honghui (played by Yoson An), who wants to be the alpha male of the new recruits. Honghui’s bullying tactics are a way to test people on their physical and emotional strength. And because he’s singled out Mulan in their first encounter, it’s the obvious cue that he’s going to be Mulan’s love interest when he founds out her real gender. (It’s not a spoiler that Mulan’s true identity is eventually revealed, since it’s in the movie’s trailer and it’s a well-known part of the movie’s plot.) However, people looking for a romantic love story won’t find it in this movie.

Mulan/Jin and Honghui eventually become part of a tight-knit clique of other soldiers that includes macho Yao (played by Chen Tang); romantic Ling (played by Jimmy Wong); mild-mannered Po (played by Doua Moua); and goofy Cricket (played Jun Yu), who’s sometimes the butt of the group’s jokes. Other members of the Imperial Army are Commander Tung (played by Donnie Yen) and Sergeant Qiang (played by Ron Yuan). Commander Tung tells the soldiers that stealing, desertion and consorting with women are punishable by death, while dishonesty is punishable by expulsion.

The “Mulan” remake has definitely more of a female focus than the original, not just because it does away with Mulan having a male sidekick but also how it portrays the movie’s villains. The head of the Rouran invaders is Böri Khan (played by Jason Scott Lee), who gets a lot less screen time than his (literal) wing woman Xianniang (played by Gong Li), a powerful “witch” who can shapeshift into a hawk.

The purpose of Xianniang (a character that wasn’t in the original “Mulan” movie) is to show a parallel between her experiences of being an outcast in China because she’s a powerful woman and the similar experiences that Mulan could go through if it’s revealed that she’s a woman with superpowers. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is when Xianniang and Mulan cross paths as enemies, but Mulan finds out that they have more in common with each other than Mulan would like to admit.

Mulan thinks Xianniang is foolish for aligning herself with a “coward” like Böri Khan. But Mulan is also in service of men who are in charge, so is Mulan’s situation all that different? The decisions made by the men in charge of the Imperial Army, including the Emperor (played by Jet Li), ultimately decide whether or not Mulan will be accepted for who she is or if she’ll be vilified and cast out from society. The outcome is extremely predictable, but this is a fantasy film that’s not trying to pretend to be historically accurate.

The screenplay for the 2020 remake of “Mulan” was written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, and was inspired by the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan.” Some people might say that the “Mulan” remake is more “feminist” than the original “Mulan,” because Mulan is aware of her superpowers from an earlier age, she doesn’t have a “Prince Charming” type of romance, and because the movie has the addition of the powerful female character Xianniang. The filmmakers of the “Mulan” remake seem to understand that feminism isn’t about male-bashing but about people of any gender not being discriminated against because of their gender.

The real world doesn’t always work in a fair and unbiased way, but the message of the movie that’s very realistic is that people can’t overcome gender discrimination obstacles by themselves. In order for real change to be made, enough people (include the right people in power) must make those changes. And if a woman can fight in an army of men, there’s no reason for her to not be able to rescue them too.

Visually, the “Mulan” remake is not a masterpiece, but it gets the job done well in all the right places. The main way that the movie lags is how the personalities of the characters are watered-down from the original “Mulan” movie. All of the actors in the movie do the best with what they’ve been given, but there doesn’t seem to be much depth to any of the predictable characters of the film, except for tormented soul Xianniang.

It’s implied that Xianniang pledged allegiance to Böri Khan because he was the only person who offered her a sense of belonging and family after she became an outcast. He uses her insecurities about being alone in the world to continue to manipulate her emotionally and maintain her loyalty. The “Mulan” remake obviously wanted a more serious tone than the original “Mulan,” so the movie could have benefited from a deeper exploration of this complicated alliance between Böri Khan and Xianniang.

The “Mulan” remake delivers exactly what you would expect from this type of Disney film. The inspirational story, engaging visuals and well-choreographed action sequences are good enough to make this a crowd-pleasing movie for the intended audience. However, many scenes in the remake of “Mulan” look derivative of better-made war movies that have been filmed in a much more majestic way. And if you’re looking for a movie worthy of several Oscar nominations, then this “Mulan” remake is not that movie.

Disney+ will premiere “Mulan” on September 4, 2020. From September 4 to December 3, 2020, the movie has an additional, one-time fee that allows Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. to see the movie on demand for an unlimited time during the Disney+ subscription. As of December 4, 2020, Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. do not have to pay this additional fee to see the movie. Information on additional fees for “Mulan” might vary in countries where Disney+ is available.

Review: ‘Black Is King,’ starring Beyoncé

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Beyoncé in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

“Black Is King” 

Directed by Beyoncé, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jake Nava

Culture Representation: This visual album of Beyoncé’s original songs for the 2019 “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack features a predominantly black cast (with a few white people, Asians and Latinos) primarily representing life in Africa in a musical format.

Culture Clash:  Many of the songs’ lyrics and the movie’s narration are about pushing back against fear, bigotry and self-doubt.

Culture Audience: Beyoncé fans are the obvious target audience for this movie, but “Black Is King” should also appeal to people who like to see visually stunning musical numbers set to contemporary R&B music.

Beyoncé (center) in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

People already know that Beyoncé is capable of making a collection of memorable an impactful music videos, so it’s not too much a surprise that she has done it again with “Black Is King,” a visually intoxicating and emotionally empowering movie that celebrates self-confidence and Afro-centric culture.

Whereas Beyoncé’s visual collection for her critically acclaimed 2016 album “Lemonade” was her feminist response to issues going on in her personal life at the time, “Black Is King” is more of a rousing anthem directed at generations of people, especially those whose ethnic roots are in Africa. There are no conversations in “Black Is King,” but the messages are loud and clear.

Because “Black Is King” is a visual representation of Beyoncé’s 2019 soundtrack album “The Lion King: The Gift,” the songs themselves (and some of the music videos) were made available a year before the full “Black Is King” movie was released. But seeing all of these songs together as musical numbers in “Black Is King” puts the soundtrack in a whole new light.

“Black Is King” is not a traditional movie, since there is no real plot. Rather, it’s an atmospheric journey of eye-catching sights, sounds and philosophical thoughts. The choreography? Spectacular. The hair and makeup? Gorgeous.  The costumes? Unforgettable.

Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele portrays Beyoncé’s fictional son Little Simba throughout “Black Is King.” At the end of the film, this dedication appears on screen: “Dedicated to my son Sir Carter. And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.”

The movie has narration that includes lines from the 2019 “The Lion King” movie, which had Beyoncé as the voice of warrior lioness Nala. But the most intriguing narration comes from a script whose credited writers are Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow, featuring poetry by Warsan Shire.

James Earl Jones provides the opening voice narration as he intones in “Balance (Mufasa Interlude)”: “Everything that you see exists together in a delicate balance. You need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling creatures to the leaping antelope. We are all connected in the circle of life.”

Beyoncé also voices several messages of Afro-centric pride, including “Black is the color of my true love’s skin” and “Let black be synonymous with glory” and “Black is king. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.”

There are also calls of empowerment, such as “Life is a set of choices. Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it.” And she also speaks about the importance of representation: “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist.”

It wouldn’t be a Beyoncé visual album without cameos. They include members of her immediate family: husband Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter); their children Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi; and Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles Lawson. “Brown Skin Girl,” with Saint Jhn and Wizkid featuring Blue Ivy Carter, celebrates inner and outer beauty and includes visual appearances by Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and Kelly Rowland, who is one of the original members of Destiny’s Child with Beyoncé. Jay-Z, Knowles Lawson and Rowland can also be seen in “Mood 4 Eva.”

And several artists on the audio soundtrack can be seen in “Black Is King,” including Jessie Reyez (“Scar)”; Nija, Busiswa, Yemi Alade, Tierra Whack and Moonchild Sanelly (“My Power” ); Shatta Wale (“Already”); Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi (“Keys to the Kingdom”); and Salatiel and Pharrell Williams (“Water”).  Meanwhile, Beyoncé hands over the spotlight to Lord Afrixana, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi, who perform “Don’t Jealous Me.”

Noticeably absent from “Black Is King” are Kendrick Lamar, Major Lazer and Childish Gambino (also known as Donald Glover, the voice of adult Simba in 2019’s “The Lion King”), who are featured artists on the audio soundtrack’s songs but don’t make visual appearances in the “Black Is King” movie. Lamar can be heard on the duet track “Nile,” while Major Lazer is featured on “Already.” Childish Gambino/Glover is a featured artist on “Mood 4 Eva.”

Speaking of “Mood 4 Eva,” it’s one of the highlights of “Black Is King” and it has explosion of beauty that’s both raw and luxurious. (And there’s also a scene of Beyoncé and Jay-Z holding hands that’s reminiscent of their famous 2018 “Apeshit” video that was filmed in the Louvre Museum.) “Don’t Jealous Me,” another standout segment, conjures up African tribal imageries that includes giant yellow python around the neck of certain people, including Beyoncé. “Water” is pure glam, with Beyoncé in outfits ranging from a stunning magenta gown to flared ’70s-styled denim with Rapunzel-length hair.

Although “The Lion King” takes place in Africa, and “Black Is King” is very Afro-centric, “Black Is King” was actually filmed around the world: Africa, New York, Los Angeles, London and Belgium. However, the movie prominently several African actors in the story segments, including Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odede, Stephen Ojo and Mary Twala.

Not everyone likes Beyoncé’s music. Not everyone likes the 2019 movie version of “The Lion King.” However, “Black Is King” is a perfect example of why Beyoncé is a superb entertainer who’s a major influence on pop culture while speaking out on issues that are important to her.

Disney+ premiered “Black Is King” in July 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Artemis Fowl,’ starring Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad, Tamara Smart, Nonso Anozie, Colin Farrell and Judi Dench

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in “Artemis Fowl” (Photo by Nicola Dove/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Artemis Fowl”

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland and a magical underground world, the fantasy adventure “Artemis Fowl” has a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black and Asian) who portray humans, fairies, dwarves and goblins.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old boy named Artemis Fowl , who must save his kidnapped father from an evil fairy, kidnaps a good fairy as bait for the ransom, setting off a battle between fairies and humans.

Culture Audience: “Artemis Fowl” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Artemis Fowl” book series who won’t mind watching a movie adaptation that is inferior to the books’ storytelling.

Judi Dench in “Artemis Fowl” (Photo by courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The “Harry Potter” books and films have set the bar pretty high for what can be achieved in making young-adult fantasy novels into movies. By comparison, “Artemis Fowl” is a mediocre mess of a film that clearly spent a lot of time on visual effects but not enough time in doing justice to the kind of storytelling that author Eoin Colfer has in his “Artemis Fowl” books. Almost everything that happens in the “Artemis Fowl” movie can be predicted by people in their sleep.

The long-delayed “Artemis Fowl” movie was supposed to be released in theaters, but instead was released directly to the Disney+ streaming service, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (who’s hit-and-miss artistically when it comes to his big-budget films), “Artemis Fowl” isn’t the worst fantasy film that someone can ever see, but it’s a disappointing movie, considering the level of talent involved. Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl wrote the clunky “Artemis Fowl” screenplay, which is supposed to be an origin story, but the movie is highly unlikely to get a sequel.

The story takes place in Ireland, in an alternate modern reality where humans live above ground, while fairies and other creatures live in a below-ground place called Haven City. The movie begins with the news media in a frenzy because several priceless artifacts from around the world have been stolen. The chief suspect is a reclusive businessman/art dealer named Artemis Fowl Sr. (played by Colin Farrell), who lives in a mansion called Fowl Manor and who has mysteriously disappeared.

However, a suspected accomplice has been arrested: an oversized, thieving dwarf named Mulch Diggums (played by Josh Gad), who’s self-conscious over the fact that he’s much taller and bigger than the average dwarf. Mulch is taken to the MI6 Red Fort Interrogation Unit in Thames Estuary, London, where he begins to tell the story of Artemis Fowl Jr. (played by Ferdia Shaw), a precocious 12-year-old loner who’s frequently left to his own devices because his father goes away for long periods of time on secretive trips.

The Artemis Fowl father and son have a close relationship, but Artemis Jr. feels hurt and left out that his father won’t tell him where he’s going on these trips and exactly when he’ll be back. (Artemis Jr.’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the story.) Artemis Jr. has a friend/mentor/bodyguard named Domovoi Butler (played by Nonzo Anozie), who tells people that he hates to be called a butler. Domovoi has a relationship with Artemis Jr. that’s similar to the “Batman” story relationship between Alfred the butler and Bruce Wayne/Batman.

As Mulch tells it, Artemis Jr. doesn’t like school very much. He’s considered “different” and has found it difficult to make friends. There’s somewhat of an unnecessary scene where Artemis Jr. is talking to a school counselor, and then Artemis storms out because he thinks the counselor doesn’t understand him and the session is a waste of time.

Considering that Artemis Jr. spends the rest of the movie fighting battles like an adult, going to school isn’t a priority to him. It also didn’t make sense to show him at school in this movie because a kid like Artemis Fowl would probably be homeschooled, considering his father’s secretive and reclusive life. Why bother with nosy teachers and students?

At any rate, Artemis Jr. soon gets a phone call from the evil fairy who’s kidnapped his father. Let that sink in for a few seconds and try not to laugh at how dumb that plot sounds. We’ll have to assume they have caller ID blocking in Haven City.

The evil fairy tells Artemis Jr. that his father will be killed unless the fairy (an unnamed androgynous creature who’s in disguise with the creature’s face obscured) gets the ransom: a magical object called the Aculos, which has the power to open portals across the universe. The evil fairy tells Artemis Sr. that he’s been kidnapped as revenge for causing the deaths of some other fairies.

Artemis Jr. then comes up with a somewhat convoluted plan to get the good fairies of Haven City to help him find the Aculos. How? By kidnapping a fairy named Holly Short (played  by Lara McDonnell), an enforcement officer who’s supposed to be 84 years old in fairy years, but she looks close to the age of Artemis Jr. (All of the fairies are human-sized.)

The good fairies, led by gravel-voiced Commander Root (played by Judi Dench, in yet another no-nonsense, unsmiling role), then descend upon Fowl Manor to rescue Holly. The fairies have the magical power of creating a force field around a certain area, where everyone in the force field can be temporarily frozen and have their memories erased.

This power is demonstrated in a scene where a giant troll crashes a wedding reception in Italy and attempts to kidnap a child and the good fairies come to the rescue. It’s an example of how this unfocused movie literally jumps all over the place.

But apparently, having magical powers isn’t enough for the fairies, because they also have a massive technology center at Haven City, complete with huge video monitors and computers. How very Earth-like. Except it’s not, because their chief technology officer is a fairy centaur named Foaly (played by Nikesh Patel).

And who else has teamed up with Artemis Jr. and Domovoi to help them fight off this large army of fairies? Domovoi’s 12-year-old niece Juliet Butler (played by Tamara Smart), who’s got martial-arts combat skills. The three allies are outnumbered, but they have some tech gadgets and guns for their battles—although the guns don’t seem to actually kill anyone, because Disney can’t have a movie with 12-year-old kids on a murder spree.

Mulch’s narration comes and goes in the story, which includes a scene of Mulch in a prison cell full of goblins who are hostile to him. It’s an example of a poorly written scene that seems to have no purpose other than to show Mulch in an uncomfortable situation and the visual effects of when he uses his magical ability to over-expand his mouth.

All of the actors do a serviceable job in their roles, although McDonnell frequently outshines her co-stars in her scenes. There are a few lines that might give people a chuckle, such as when a gruff Commander Root barks to subordinates, “Get the four-leaf clover out of here!” The way she slightly pauses before she says “four-leaf clover” makes it clear she could have said another “f” word, and then it would definitely not be a Disney movie,

The visual effects and production design of “Artemis Fowl” are good-enough, but they won’t be nominated for any major awards. Because there is so little character development in the movie, the action scenes are really what bring the most appeal to the film. Kids under the age of 10 might enjoy “Artemis Fowl,” but people with more discerning taste in fantasy films won’t find “Artemis Fowl” very impressive. “Artemis Fowl” might just make people want to watch an old “Harry Potter” movie instead.

Disney+ premiered “Artemis Fowl” on June 12, 2020.

Review: ‘In the Footsteps of Elephant,’ starring Mark Linfield, Mike Holding, Martyn Colbeck, Mike Chase, Clinton Edwards, Anna Songhurst and Graham McColloch

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mike Holding in a scene from “In the Footsteps of Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“In the Footsteps of Elephant” (2020)

Directed by Vanessa Berlowitz and Tom Stephens

Culture Representation: This documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Elephant,” which has a predominantly white film crew (with some black members) chronicling the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River.

Culture Clash: The film crew often has to deal with bad weather, technical limitations and the possibility of being attacked by some of the wild animals they encounter.

Culture Audience: “In the Footsteps of Elephant” will primarily to people who have an interest in how nature documentaries are made.

Martyn Colbeck in a scene from “In the Footsteps of Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Before seeing this movie, it’s essential to first watch the Disneynature documentary “Elephant.” That’s because “In the Footsteps of Elephant,” a feature-length documentary about the making of “Elephant,” has a lot of spoiler information that will reveals the outcome of the suspenseful moments in “Elephant.” Narrated by actor Jeremy Sisto (who was not part of the on-location film crew), “In the Footsteps of Elephant” is a worthy companion piece to “Elephant.” If “Elephant” had been released on home video, instead of being exclusive to the Disney+ streaming service, “In the Footsteps of Elephant” would be the equivalent of the “behind-the-scenes” extras part of a home-video release.

“Elephant” documents the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River and back again. It’s a 1,000-mile round-trip journey that can take up to eight months. So it comes as no surprise that filming of all it was a very difficult challenge. In addition to dealing with bad weather, which sometimes delayed production and caused vehicles to be stuck in the mud, the film crew often had to figure out several logistical problems, in terms of how and where to position the cameras.

Ultimately, the crew used three different ways to film “Elephant”—by vehicle, by drone and by helicopter. The filmmakers had custom-built transportation called “swamp trucks” for the shoot. And sometimes, such as when the drones had to film over the massive and powerful Victoria Falls, they were in danger of damaging their equipment.

Although “Elephant” was directed by Mark Linfield, this documentary shows that he wasn’t the biggest, extroverted personality in the crew. That title goes cinematographer Mark Holding, who has more than 20 years of experiencing filming in the Okavango Delta. He did much of the main prepping in pre-production with Linfield, so the director would know what to expect.

Holding might remind some people a little bit of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin because of their physical similarities, although Holding isn’t quite as over-the-top with his enthusiasm as Irwin was known to be. Holding says half-jokingly that he prefers being around wild animals than most people. In the documentary, Holding comments that flying over the Okavango Delta is “absolutely the way to see it. It’s absolutely spectacular to see.”

As a director, Linfield seems to have maintained a calm and measured presence on the set. In interviews, he appears slightly annoyed but not rattled when unexpected delays happen because of the stormy or other bad weather. That’s because Linfield is an expert in filming wildlife and nature documentaries—all of his directorial credits have been so far have been filming Disneynature documentaries, starting with 2009’s “Earth.” Linfield is also married to Vanessa Berlowitz, who co-directed “In the Footsteps of Elephant” with Tom Stephens.

Another key member of the crew was biologist Mike Chase, who is described in the documentary as someone who’s been tracking elephants for more than 10 years. Chase is also the founder/director of an organization called Elephants Without Borders, which is a sanctuary for abandoned or abused elephants, and advocates against elephant poaching. (At the end of the documentary, there’s some adorable footage of Chase and other members of the Elephants Without Borders team feeding some orphaned elephants.)

Chase, who says his family has lived in Botswana for five generations, comments on elephants and his passion for rescuing and protecting them: “I’ve always been mesmerized by them … I think people around the world all too often think there are a lot of people saving the elephants—and there aren’t, really. So, to be part of a privileged few committed to safeguarding the future of elephants, I derive a great amount of enjoyment from that.” Later in the movie, he tears up and gets emotional when he says that elephants will probably become extinct at the rate that they are being killed.

Clinton Edwards, a field guide, provides a lot of the documentary’s humor. He’s easily the “class clown” of the group, by cracking jokes and making light of tough situations. There’s also a funny scene where he falls asleep when he’s supposed to be keeping a lookout for lions. His snoring alarms a fellow crew member at first because it sounds like a lion’s snore.

Camping and filming in the middle of the territory of wild animals obviously put the crew at risk. The documentary includes two of the scary moments caught on camera. In one scene, dive assistant Mathieu Van Goethem had a close encounter with a crocodile while diving underwater. The crocodile was hidden and almost blindsided Goethem, who quickly got out of the water before the crocodile could attack. He and a fellow diver then joked that they deserved to get paid more, calling it “danger pay.”

Another terrifying experience, which lasted much longer, was when field assistant Danielle “Dani” Spitzer and another crew member, were stuck in a jeep while being caught in the middle of a lion hunting prey. The lion kept hiding, so they didn’t know when it would be save to move the car. (Because of the way that cameras had to be fitted to the vehicles for outdoor filming, the vehicles often had their doors removed, leaving the film crews vulnerable in the wild.)

Luckily, no one was injured by animals on the film shoot. (Or if they were, this documentary certainly didn’t show it or mention it.) Spitzer says after going through this close call that the hardest part of it was the car causing limited vision, so the lion couldn’t be seen properly. “It felt like you were in a box,” Spitzer comments.

The “Elephant” documentary focuses on three members of the herd: Shani, a 40-year-old elephant; Jomo, who is Shani’s 1-year-old son; and Gaia, Shani’s 50-year-old sister who is the queen of the herd. However, production assistant Tania “TJ” Jenkins talks about some relationships in the herd that aren’t shown in “Elephant.”

Jenkins says about the herd, “They have the same dynamics we do. The aunties fight, the sisters fight, and the teenagers scream and fight. The young boys show off and mock charge. You can really identify with them.”

Martyn Colbeck, one of the cinematographers, says that witnessing a baby elephant getting stuck in quicksand-like mud was the “most emotionally challenging” part of the film shoot for him, and how this “stuck in the mud” incident ended was something he’d never seen in all of his years of filming in the wild. Colbeck noted that it’s often very hard for animal documentary filmmakers not to feel the urge to interfere when an animal’s life is in danger, because the filmmakers are there document nature take its course, as if the cameras and humans weren’t there, not alter the outcome.

Another memorable part of the documentary includes the crew’s visit with the EcoExist Project directors (and life partners) Dr. Anna Songhurst and Dr. Graham McCollough, whose mission is for humans to peacefully co-exist with wild animals. The couple’s work includes tracking the paths of elephants and developing “elephant crossings” to make room for elephants so humans wouldn’t get in the way.

During the visit, a rare occurrence happened and was caught on camera—hundreds of elephants walked through the elephant crossing zones during the day. (These massive treks usually happen at night.) It’s one of the best parts of the movie.

It’s easy to see why everyone who had an up-close view of the elephants couldn’t help but watch in a state of awe. “In the Footsteps of Elephant” will give viewers more appreciation for the technical and creative achievements of the “Elephant” documentary, not to mention new or growing admiration for the magnificent creatures that are elephants.

Disney+ premiered “In the Footsteps of Elephant” on April 3, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Elephant’ (2020), narrated by Meghan Markle, also known as Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Elephant” (2020)

Directed by Mark Linfield

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles the journey of a herd of elephants in southern Africa, as they travel across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River.

Culture Clash: The elephants must navigate their way through several potentially deadly dangers, including predatory lions and crocodiles.

Culture Audience: “Elephant” is a family-friendly film that will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about nature and animals.

A scene from “Elephant” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

There’s a certain level of quality that people have come to expect from Disneynature, the nature/animal documentary production arm of Walt Disney Studios. Disneynature films usually chronicle a family of wild animals, focusing on a few family members that have distinct personalities or have leadership positions in the group. And there’s always an adorable “kid” animal who gets a lot of the screen time.

“Elephant” follows this formula too, but it’s a formula that works especially well for animals as intelligent and fascinating as elephants. “Elephant” also has the benefit of being filmed in diverse terrains of southern Africa, which result in the kind of stunning cinematography that’s also become a characteristic of Disneynature films.

Narrated by Meghan Markle (also known as Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex), “Elephant” chronicles the 1,000-mile round-trip journey of a herd of elephants, as they travel from across the Kalahari Desert, from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River and back again. The elephants’ habitual migration, which has been going on for untold centuries, is prompted by whichever areas have the most water after flooding. It’s a journey filled with plenty of adventure and danger, which make this documentary more fascinating than a lot of scripted movies. The narration is good enough, even though it’s sometimes delivered in a hokey tone of voice.

“Elephant,” directed by Mark Linfield, keeps the story simple by focusing on only three of the elephants in the herd (they’re the only three elephants who are named in the film): Shani, a 40-year-old elephant; Jomo, who is Shani’s 1-year-old son; and Gaia, Shani’s 50-year-old sister who is the queen of the herd. Everyone in the herd is related in some way to Gaia, who makes the decisions on when and where the herd will migrate. As is the case with most elephant herds, it’s a female-majority group, with the only males being children or young adults. (Adult male elephants usually don’t travel in herds that have children.)

Beyond the basics of food, water and shelter, the key to elephants’ survival is for them to travel in a herd. This documentary shows that elephants, unlike many other wild animals, are very loyal to each other and will rarely leave their children behind unless forced to do so. And the three elephants who are the focus of the film have distinct personalities.

Gaia is the wise matriarch who makes careful and thoughtful decisions in leading the herd. As her respectful younger sister, Shani has the role of second-in-command who learns by observing what Gaia does. Jomo is an energetic and sometimes mischievous kid, who likes to play hide-and-seek or tag with his fellow kid elephants or sometimes other animals(such as warthogs) that the herd encounters along the way.

The documentary’s writing and narration can be a little melodramatic, with lines such as, “Like blood through arteries, the water sustains all life here” or “Social life is like oxygen for these elephants, and they embrace it face-first.” However, there’s also some humor in the documentary too, including a fart joke when one of the elephants is shown passing gas. Meghan asks in the tone of a mother catching her kids in the act, “Oh, who did that?”

The movie also uses a technique multiple times in the movie to simulate an elephant’s memory, by showing a close-up of an elephant’s eye (usually Gaia’s) and then cutting to a dazzling montage of images of life that an elephant experiences and sees in this part of Africa. And although many people might be aware that elephants use their trunks like a human would use a hand, seeing it in action in this documentary is sure to impress. Because elephants are herbivores, sensitive viewers won’t have to worry about seeing elephants preying on other animals to eat.

However, it wouldn’t be a Disneynature documentary without at least one life-or-death experience. There are definitely some heart-pounding moments in the film, especially when the elephants encounter a hungry pride of lions. The documentary also shows what happens when the elephants encounter buffalos and crocodiles. There’s also a very suspenseful moment when a baby elephant gets stuck in quicksand-like mud and is in danger of suffocating to death.

“Elephant” will also educate people on what types of plant life are preferred by elephants in this region. Elephants love mopane, but so do mopane worms, so these worms (as small as they are, compared to elephants) are competitive food rivals for elephants. Also important to the elephants’ survival are baobab trees, which have the ability to store more water than most other trees, and are welcome sustenance after long treks in the desert.

The documentary also shows how emotionally sensitive elephants are when it comes to family. When the herd encounters a set of elephant skeletons, they touch the skeletons in such a way that it evokes mournful respect. And when they walk one by one past the skeletons, it resembles a funeral procession.

One of the most visually stunning parts of the documentary is when the herd arrives at Victoria Falls. The waterfall scenes are enough reason to see this movie on the biggest screen possible. There are also some scenes captured during the sunset that are absolutely beautiful.

Watching “Elephant” will probably inspire more than a few people to want to take an African safari, even though the reality of being in this environment is a lot more dangerous than it looks in this movie. (Disney+ has a behind-the-scenes documentary about making this movie called “In the Footsteps of Elephant,” which is highly recommended viewing, only after you’ve seen “Elephant,” since “In the Footsteps of Elephant” reveals several spoilers.) “Elephant” represents some of the best of what Disneynature has to offer, and the movie accomplishes the goal of both entertaining and educating people of all ages.

Disney+ premiered “Elephant” on April 3, 2020.

Review: ‘Diving With Dolphins,’ starring Roger Horrocks, Didier Noirot, Tad Luckey, Joe Mobley, Laura Engelby, Angela Zillener and Paul Atkins

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Roger Horrocks in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Diving With Dolphins”

Directed by Keith Scholey

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef,” with an all-white crew of filmmakers who worked in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida to make the documentary.

Culture Clash: The film crew sometimes had to battle the weather and unpredictable nature of ocean life.

Culture Audience: “Diving With Dolphins” will appeal mostly to people interested in documentaries about ocean animals, but it’s not essential viewing for people who see the “Dolphin Reef” documentary.

Didier Noirot in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Diving With Dolphins” is a “making of” documentary about the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef.” And just like “Dolphin Reef,” the movie gives almost as much screen time to humpback whales as it does to dolphins. People who’ve seen “Dolphin Reef” don’t really need to see “Diving With Dolphins” because it seems more like a series of outtakes strung together by narration rather than a documentary with a fascinating storyline.

Directed by Keith Scholey (who co-directed “Dolphin Reef”) and narrated by Celine Cousteau (granddaughter of Jacque Cousteau) has a lot of the same gorgeous cinematography that “Dolphin Reef” has, but the movie doesn’t really give much insight into the filmmakers’ personalities. It’s kind of a tedious repeat of “get to a location, set up cameras, shoot some film, and then go to the next location.”

The documentary takes place in three main areas: French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida. There are also separate shoots for the dolphins and the humpback whales. “Dolphin Reef” focuses on two bottlenose dolphins bottlenose dolphin mother named Kumu her 3-year-old son Echo), as well as two humpback whales (a mother named Moraya and her newborn female calf Fluke.

The people on the film crew include cinematographers Roger Horrocks, Paul Atkins, Didier Noirot and Jamie McPherson. They are accompanied by scientists Angela Zillener, Laura Engelby and Joe Mobley. And there are some skippers shown in the movie, such as Tad Luckey (whose Luckey Strike boat is in a lot of the humpback whale footage), Carl Ellington and Paris Basson, who’s a jet ski skipper.

Horrock has a clear preference for dolphins, which he’s been filming for decades. He says, “Dolphins are the probably most charismatic mammals that you can get in the ocean. They have a mammalian conscious, so we feel a kinship to them.” Horrock believes that dolphins are the “most welcome” animals he’s ever filmed and adds, “filming dolphins is the most physical because they’re constantly on the move.”

Meanwhile, Noirot, who used to be part of Jacque Cousteau’s crew, is described as someone who’s has more than 30 years of experience of ocean filming. He’s shown in the humpback whale film shoots. Noirot comments, “Hawaii is a good location to film humpback whales because of the whale population. You’re sure to see whales [and] crystal-clear water.”

Most of the filming was underwater, and the scenes that were film outside the water was done mainly by bot, by jet ski and by helicopter. Underwater, a scooter was used with a torpedo-like propeller to get some of the fast-moving shots. But there was a lot of down time during the film shoots, since it took several weeks to get close enough to a humpback whale and a calf to film for the movie.

Although scientist Zillener says that the crew got to know amore than 200 dolphins during the film shoot and that “to understand the animals, you have to be one of them,” there’s no effort made to single out any of the other animals (besides the four main stars) by describing their personalities in “Diving With Dolphins.” The movie would have benefited from more anecdotes about some of the animals who had standout personalities. In the movie, all of the animals appear to be generic. In “Dolphin Reef,” the some of animal personalities of the “supporting characters” seem to be crafted through creative editing.

The narration of “Diving With Dolphins” also tends to take on dramatic, hyperbolic tones, such as the description of the humpback whale courtship competition to become a female humpback’s chief protector: “It’s the most spectacular battle in nature.” Given all the wild animals in the world, that statement seems a bit too broad and subjective for a nature documentary.

One of the strengths of “Diving With Dolphins” is that it calls attention to the coral-reef crisis that desperately needs protection from human plundering and pollution that can cause climate change. The ocean is the foundation of almost every animal’s food chain, so it’s alarming that so much of the essential coral reef is disappearing due to climate change.  “Diving With Dolphins” mentions that in the three years it took to make this documentary, one-third of the film locations’ coral reef died. (More on this subject can be found in the excellent 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”)

“Diving With Dolphins” places a lot of emphasis on tiger sharks toward the end of the film, by saying tiger sharks are “misunderstood” and have an “overblown reputation as frightening and deadly predators.”  One of the reasons why French Polynesia was chosen as a location to film was because it’s one of the few countries that have laws protecting sharks, which are necessary for the food chain.

And cinematographer Atkins, who has more than 30 years of experience filming in the ocean, calls sharks “extraordinarily beautiful and graceful.” Atkins shows through a demonstration while being surrounded by tiger sharks, that giving them a gentle nudge on the face should do the trick in preventing them from attacking you. (It’s a lot easier said than done, and there should’ve been a caveat that only professionals with animal experience should try this tactic.)

Overall, “Diving With Dolphins” is kind of a scattered film that doesn’t reveal anything surprising about the making of “Dolphin Reef.” And the movie is much more than about diving with dolphins, since the filmmakers’ interactions with humpback whales and tiger sharks also take up a great deal of screen time.

Disney+ premiered “Diving With Dolphins” on April 3, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolphin Reef,’ narrated by Natalie Portman

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Dolphin Reef” 

Directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles some of the coral-reef life in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida, with an emphasis on dolphins and humpback whales.

Culture Clash: The dolphins and humpback whales are in danger of being killed by orcas.

Culture Audience: “Dolphin Reef” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about ocean animals.

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Dolphin Reef” is a beautifully filmed and unevenly edited documentary about coral-reef life in oceans. Viewers should know in advance that the movie isn’t just about dolphins. Humpback whales get almost as much as screen time in the movie as the dolphins, but since dolphins are “cuter,” that might be why dolphins are made the selling point in the movie’s title. The documentary is a pretty good lesson on the ocean’s ecosystem, but it also serves as a warning that much of the ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct by the end of the 21stcentury if environmental protections aren’t implemented.

Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, “Dolphin Reef” focuses on a bottlenose dolphin mother and child, as well as a humpback whale mother and child. (They’re the only animals in the movie that have names.) Kumu is the dolphin mother of 3-year-old son Echo, a mischievous, playful child with a short attention span. Echo has reached a point in his life when he has to learn to be independent from his mother, but he lets other things easily distract him. Echo becomes fascinated with Moraya, a 40-foot humpback whale and her newborn female calf Fluke. The dolphins and the whales sometimes cross paths with each other, as they mingle with other ocean life and try to dodge the deadly jaws of orcas.

Without question, the best thing about “Dolphin Reef” is the gorgeous, immersive cinematography, which is usually the case with Disneynature documentaries. (And the atmosphere of “Dolphin Reef” might look kind of like a real-life version of the Pixar animation classic “Finding Nemo,” but without animals talking like humans, of course.) The vibrancy of the colors and animal life in the documentary’s coral reefs will give viewers the feeling of experiencing the beauty and dangers of the ocean firsthand.

However, unlike Disneynature films, which tends to focus on only one kind of animal, the story in “Dolphin Reef” isn’t as focused and could have benefited from tighter editing. Soon after viewers are introduced to dolphins Kumu and Echo, it veers into an educational narrative about other ocean life. The corals are the foundation, and they are kept from overgrowing by the ocean’s “gardeners”—the animals that feed on the corals. The gardeners are food for meat-eating ocean “predators” (such as dolphins, humpback whales and sharks), who are in turn eaten by “superpredators,” such as orcas.

The movie explains that Moraya the humpback whale has arrived from a cold polar location to give birth in warmer, tropical climate of the Pacific Ocean. A good deal of the documentary then shows how her whale calls attract the attention of male humpback whales, who sing and dance and then compete to become her protector. One only whale can emerge victorious.

There’s also a lot of screen time given to some of the memorable ocean residents who come in contact with the dolphins and whales. Razorfish are popular dining options for dolphins, which look for food by using a highly sophisticated sonar called echo location. It’s a skill that takes dolphins years to develop. Even though razorfish can hide in the sand, they can be detected if a dolphin has a highly attuned echo location.

Other fish who get a spotlight in the movie are humphead parrotfish, which are described as “the single most important protectors of the reef,” since they are essentially the “garbage collectors” of the ocean. In turn, the humphead parrotfish, whose enormous teeth can start to rot if not cleaned enough, are groomed smaller fish and other animals, in a ritual that goes back eons. If you ever wanted to know that humphead parrotfish excrement looks like sand, and they excrete about five tons a year, then you have this documentary to thank.

Cuttlefish are cast as the mysterious “villains” to smaller creatures, since cuttlefish have the ability to disguise themselves by changing the appearance of its scales. Cuttlefish can also transfix its prey by making its scales glow in the dark. It sounds like the kind of villain that you’d see in a Disney cartoon movie.

Also part of this ocean community are peacock mantis shrimp (notable for their obsessive grooming), crabs and sting rays. The editing of “Dolphin Reef” is clearly inspired by “Finding Nemo,” since these different ocean animals are sometimes made to look like they have cartoonish personalities, such as when the camera focuses on a wide-eyed fish that looks around and ducks when predators get into a fight. That footage might not actually be of the fish reacting to the fight, but it’s edited to look that way.

There’s even a “Finding Nemo” moment in the movie when Echo gets separated from his mother, is stuck with a friendly turtle in a very deep crevice. There’s a race against time for the Echo and the turtle to try to find an opening in the crevice, so they can rise to the ocean surface to breathe in much-needed oxygen. Moraya and her daughter Fluke also have a scary moment when they’re surrounded by orcas. Viewers can watch the the movie to find out what happened in both situations.

“Dolphin Reef” (directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill) gives the impression that it was filmed mainly in the Pacific Ocean (including French Polynesian islands and in Hawaii), but Disneynature’s behind-the-scenes documentary “Diving With Dolphins” shows that filming of the movie spread all the way to the Atlantic Ocean coast of Florida. Therefore, there’s a lot of editing that looks manipulated to appear that things are happening in the same general location, when in fact they are not.

Portman’s narration is much like a the conversational tone of an elementary school teacher when she has to say lines describing the Polynesian islands’ as providing a “backdrop of an amazing story, with characters as fantastical as a fairy tale, but as real as you and me.” And she has a dramatically ominous tone when she says of the ocean: “This world operates under a different set of rules.”

Because the movie spreads the storyline across two types of ocean mammals—dolphins and humpback whales—as well as various “supporting characters” of ocean life, a more accurate title for the movie would be “Coral Reef,” even though it’s not as eye-catching as “Dolphin Reef.” Although dolphins and humpback whales are very different in many ways, they both have striking similarities, since they are each very intelligent, group-oriented animals that have distinctive languages and show affection through touching.

“Dolphin Reef” is not the best Disneynature documentary, but it can be enjoyed by people looking for a family-friendly film that gives some eye-popping views of ocean life.

Disney+ premiered “Dolphin Reef” on April 3, 2020.