My wife and I love Star Trek.
We have for a long time, in our separate lives, and it was strangely a new discovery for the both of us as we were surfing the Netflix and Prime catalogues seeking to scratch that interstellar itch.
She began expositing on the 2009 reboot, which we were searching for, but unwilling to pay for at the time, and I chimed in on my love for Star Trek: Generations, despite how "meh" it's aged over the years. My favorite of the TNG run was always First Contact (#8 in the classic run, and #2 with the TNG crew), but I was quite pleased with the 2009 reboot.
And so...we seem to be working through a bunch of Star Trek films, rewatching old loves of cinema, and poking fun at them through a modern lens. Some stack up better than others, standing the test of time through snappy writing, strong dialogue, and some kick-ass music. In fact, that's something the 2009 Star Trek had going for it, more so than many other films that came out at the same time.
It felt like something familiar and nostalgic, despite its shiny lens-flaring new model. This effect, for those of us listening intently, was no accident. Composer Michael Giacchinno sculpted the entire soundtrack as a rising action and resolution into the original TV series theme by Alexander Courage. And the theme is heard all over the place! If one isn't careful, one might assume it's being beaten over your head, but it never feels that way. Giacchino skillfully explores the musical theme in various styles to fit the action and setting; sometimes its reverent chordal structures, other times bombastic horns and strings, sometimes just a haunting choir. It is masterfully done.
And this immersive element, coupled with great cinematography, wonderful sound design, strong characters, and excellent story beats...makes you happily overlook the moments in the story where the YouTube-critic in us all would nit-pick the hell out of it. Yes, why wasn't Vulcan already evacuating? Yeah, how the heck does Earth not have ships or planetary defenses engaging Nero? Why do the Romulans look so weird?
Still. I'm down to watch it again, and I've listened to its musical score hundreds of times.
Which got me thinking.
Film was, for many, the natural evolution of the theater. And the theater was our first great lesson in IMMERSION.
Imagine, for a moment, entering a theater with a stage that protrudes into the audience. You settle into your seats and talk amongst yourselves, perusing the program that has just been handed to you. On its front, in brilliant stylized lettering, you find the words, "The Phantom Of The Opera". Scanning the cast, you find familiar names, and new ones; some leads, some barely mentioned - perhaps you skip to the back and read up on a few. Somewhere under the stage, in a pit below, an errant violin tunes its strings, poised to play; you listen a moment longer before turning back to the program in your lap. Beyond the title, you are presented with an act structure, and, if it's a musical, the song order and who sings it. You are given the entire story's structure, framing, and resolution in a tight little package at the onset - yet there's still such an electricity in the air. This is a LIVE performance.
The lights dim, and two actors take the stage as the curtain slowly rises, revealing a destroyed and dilapidated set. A fallen chandelier rests in the center of the stage, rubble and ruin surrounding it. The two actors, well-dressed businessmen, discuss an upcoming auction and of the terrible accident that ended this theater's life. The two actors leave as the room grows darker, all eyes on the chandelier. A chill wind rolls across the stage, distant thunder booming somewhere outside. And then, you hear it.
Wind swirls around the rubble, the rocks and stone moving and shifting back into place. Lanterns and torchlight flicker to life surrounding the stage, a brilliance returning to the space. And then, the chandelier...RISES, as light flows across its crystalline visage. The stage turns back in time, drawing you in to the time before, transporting you to this story. The music, the visuals, the sounds, the smells, everything draws you to this singular moment.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what they call an Overture.
The Death Of The Overture
An Overture is not unheard of in film. In fact, under the synonym "Opening Titles", was utilized by a multitude of film, especially those in the 90s. It was a clear and effective way to draw in your audience.
The first, and probably most iconic, overture that springs to mind...is Superman.
And who better to usher in the 1978 classic than the immortal John Williams. The guy is a masterclass in the Overture.
But what is the musical purpose of an Overture?
Well, in a stage production, it would fall into one of two categories: A Medley - showing off segments of all of the musical cues and leitmotifs you're about to experience in broader forms; or an Opening Number - a lead-in to the first big showstopping number. In film...that still happens. Star Wars is a great example of the "Opening Number" - we get the iconic theme, the text crawl, and we're into the opening scene and off running. Here, though, we are instead treated to a Medley of sorts; an extended version of the hero's theme with elements intertwined that highlight other cues in the film.
Two others fall into this framework. One, more like Superman, with a reverence and patience to its Overture, and the other with a sharp cue that pulls us directly into the opening scene, and both have beautifully stood the test of time in my memory. Let me share them with you.
Listening to these again, even after all this time, is truly an arresting experience. It quiets me. Reminds me of the sheer power and beauty of the aesthetic. Just shut up and LISTEN to that. Put your damn phone down, and listen; be drawn into this world.
And this wasn't a rare thing. I'm not that old, and yet I've watched this trend evolve, change, and steadily die. Films nowadays hold little reverence for their music, despite soundtracks being lauded. Musicians are given little time to construct a great score, and I wonder sometimes what it must be like in this modern age of speed and satisfaction to know that your audience can't seem to give you the time of day for the next few minutes so you can flex something beautiful.
And yet, we still crave it. I wonder if this immersive novelty is one of many reasons that has ensnared me with the art of cooperative storytelling. Why so many of my campaigns have evolved to support and explore deep social, emotional encounters as opposed to fast action. How so many crave the rich lore that surrounds them and beg for just another moment inside their imaginary world.
The Overture At The Table
We as gamers and masters draw each other into our collective imaginations; it is no small part of what makes this powerful hobby so rewarding. To join together in collective reverence and immersion, all in pursuit of creating a more satisfying and rewarding experience, is one of the greatest feats a table can achieve.
But that respect for each other, and your game master, is paramount.
We can set up a practiced intro crawl, different voices to set the mood, cool music to set the tone, but we need the PLAYERS to come along for the journey. And if you are a player that struggles with this; if you find yourself bored or distracted, itching for that phone or that desktop or that next round of Fall Guys...I challenge you to slow down.
I challenge you:
Walk into that theater. Sit down. Allow yourself to be drawn slowly into something magical. And when that first cue hits, ride it all the way down the rabbit hole. You might be surprised what you'll find when you allow yourself to really feel something special.
Now pick up your sword and your favorite Drink Me. The musicians are tuning their instruments...the show's about to start.
See you at the table.
PS: One more for the road. ;)
I miss my childhood.
Not just the ample time, easy access to food, friends, and conversation, or the constant knowledge that I was (luckily) loved and cared for. No, these feelings don't even come close to that overwhelming, nostalgic, feeling evoked through play.
I was always a gamer, and our family would play early and often. Board games, you know, are a huge facet of my family's life, but for my brothers and I, the most powerful past time was playing video games together.
Gathered around the dull glow of our old monitor in a dark basement, our eyes transfixed by the image of an intergalactic bounty hunter absolutely wrecking a literal brain with teeth and legs, we watch in awe as our eldest brother, Eric, plays through the climax of Super Metroid. After months of saved games, each of us trying to push a little farther than the other, eager to show and share our techniques and discovered secrets, happily competing for the lead in story acquisition - we were here: Eric was on the final boss. And though we would play on our own, we enjoyed watching each other play, entranced by seeing them retread our steps or find new ways to progress. It was this friendly competition for story and progress that served as the most formative years of my life. It is why I akin playing a video game to reading a good book; you're living the story in front of you.
And in today's world, you can easily look up countless videos of the gameplay we experienced and re-live a modicum of our excitement, but at that time, in the 90s... That was ours. No Twitch stream; no YouTube commentary; no blog post afterward. Just the memory.
No Business Being That Good
I'm going to talk to you about Donkey Kong Country.
A game released on the Super Nintendo in 1994 by Rare Entertainment, "DKC" was a side-scrolling platform game that was one of the first home console games to feature pre-rendered graphics, achieved through the compression of 3D models into sprites. The game is a reboot to the classic Donkey Kong franchise, and expands upon a simple story with new characters, over 40 levels, a main villain, and a whole family of Kongs.
You play the game with Donkey Kong and his much faster nephew, Diddy Kong. You tend to run around each level with both characters, one not controlled by the player following behind like a shaded ghost. When you take damage (or when you voluntarily hit a button), you switch between characters, the former being them getting knocked off the screen and the latter of them switching positions. With the two characters, and two controllers, you could actually play cooperatively or race each other.
Now when I say that there was an expanded plot... King K. Rool stole all of Kong's bananas. You have to get them back. Go.
Not a lot of deep thinking here. That's still more complex than "DK stole a princess and must now be defeated by a stout Italian plumber."
Where DKC shines is where many games of its time shine; its mechanics, execution, and music.
To this day, DKC stands the test of time in its mechanical flow. Moves are millisecond responsive (and they have to be, the game can be downright hard), puzzles are ingenious, it's FUN to play, the environments are slick and interesting, and the game's lessons are intrinsic and consistent. I really miss that last one the most; a good game of this era TEACHES you how to play...through playing. No random text boxes here.
It has no business being this good. Before we go any further, give this a listen:
I can see it. Every button press, the background, the beautiful graphics, and every feeling woven into exploring this new landscape, finding secrets and short-cuts, and trying my best not be eaten by a shark. Though we were Nintendo Power kids, I wasn't one to use maps or guides in the first play through - I think I wanted to experience the game without bias.
Which is so hard to achieve nowadays. Reviews are abound, and games cost a lot, and there's a NAUTICAL TON of them that are poorly made, so we don't want to waste our money. I get it.
I miss the blind trust, in a way. The belief that the game was worth investing in, so I was willing to find value in the struggle. Too often I think people get angry before they even give something a chance. It was my young belief that there was always a diamond hidden somewhere; I just have to find it.
The Second Go Made Me Cry
The first video game soundtrack I ever purchased was Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest. All puns aside, the game was great, but I had the soundtrack long before I even played the game. Heck, I never owned the game; I rented it three times, and not once beat it.
But playing it marked the only other time I paused the game to legit listen to the music. The first time I did this was while playing The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past to listen to the Dark World Theme, cuz I'm a monster and I needed to study to something.
THIS time around, though, it was different. And it was this track.
Maybe I was just feeling a lot that day, maybe I was just that locked in, who knows, but that level's music was ARRESTING. I paused the game and closed my eyes and listened to it four times through at least. When I opened my eyes, I felt better...and found myself crying. Quietly, simply, crying.
Now this isn't some groundbreaking piece of superior storytelling. I'm not emotionally connected to the characters on the screen, I'm not synergizing with their personal plight of retrieving bananas from a crocodile in a pirate hat, and I'm not just so invested in their personal quest that I was OVERWHELMED with feeling. The game is silly - that's not the point here.
So why THIS, why then, would I feel something so powerful?
A Connection To My Brothers
Especially to my eldest brother, Eric, who shares many of my side interests.
I think back on a specific memory; a turning point in my life.
As a family, we had a tradition. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas, we would go to the movies, as often there was some big film we all wanted to see. One year it was Batman, another year The Lion King (still one of my favorites). This year it was Apollo 13 (gifted music by the late James Horner). It was an excellent film, I remember, but then the credits rolled.
When credits roll, often that's when the audience evacuates. The story's over, why stay? I began gathering my things, following my parents and siblings out the door to fight for the restroom and be on our way. Then I looked around for Eric and didn't see him. I overheard my mother say something to the effect of, "he wants to stay and watch the credits." Intrigued, and still hero-worshipping my older brother, I ducked back inside to sit next to him and watch the credits too! And when I did, I heard this:
If you want to experience wonder, awe, beauty, and love in a piece of music, there it was. I urge you to listen to this piece in a dark room, quietly. Let it wash over you. Become open to the experience, and let the rest of the world melt away for a moment.
I miss this reverence. I miss composers that had the balls to write something only for those of us that are going to stick around.
There's no mid-credit sequence. No post-credit stinger. Just names scrolling and this masterpiece playing. I felt it in my soul, and it changed me forever.
After that time, I would consume the instrumental scores and soundtracks of every film that graced my eyes. I would listen intently to the instrumentation, electronic and symphonic, and study well the intentions of the composer to convey emotion, tension, characterization; the subtle moments between major and minor iterations, unresolved cadences, and the hidden layers of a film found in its music.
Sitting in that dark, empty room, in complete silence next to my brother...just listening...was the catalyst for the trajectory of my life. It awakened something in me. And moving forward, that extra layer of listening, has impacted how I enjoy stories and how I tell them.
It is why I write music for my campaigns. Why I spend countless hours mixing down a 25-minute medley of battle music. Why I put on sounds as people enter the "room" to invoke a certain mood or emotion.
To many, I'm sure it's just some background sounds, and to me, it matters.
Bringing It Back Around Slowly
Music moves me. It always has.
And, to be perfectly honest, in recent years and recent games and recent films, it has failed to do so. Soundtracks aren't what they used to be; they're lazier, boring, and chock-full of idiot pop music that doesn't fit. And now I sound like a crotchety old fart (get off my I-V-VI-IV lawn!).
But tell me you haven't noticed.
Everyone and their grandma can sing you the Avengers theme, but no other music is memorable enough to mention. I only took notice of Thor because of Ragnarok (and the awesome tones of Mark Mothersbaugh), and I can barely think on Captain America's theme, Captain Marvel's forgettable, Black Panther's boss (WAKANDA FOREVER), and the rest feel...distant. Yet I can sing for you note for note the entire score of 2009's Star Trek (a subject for next time).
It is strange to finally reach a point in my life where I can non-ironically say that they don't make them like they used to, and yet there's more to this than I can put into words at the moment. For now, the easy observation is that I miss the wonder that music played in my films and my games. As it is my lens, there might have been a plethora more that I missed, and many more today that can be argued...but for all this I cannot shake the striking disappointment I have in entertainment.
Disney is a money-grubbing conglomerate that will butcher its own musical backbone for a quick buck.
Composers take less and less risks each year.
The time of the fanfare, opening titles, and end credits as tracks is a rarity, rather than a staple.
And yet, the 8-bit and 80s synth wave markets are booming in certain niches. Because the rest of us still clinging to that child fishing for a diamond are eager for something special.
Never stop digging. More to say next time (maybe it'll have a point).
See you at the table.
So my wife had to get her eyes dilated at the doctor today. No biggie, everything's fine, but it prompted her to experiment with her vision at a distance and threw on a random film on Netflix. What she picked is called Extraction. A film from 2015 starring Bruce Willis ("starring" is a little generous), Kellan Lutz (from Twilight), and Gina Carano (from so many films now).
And the experience was...irascible.
Context Is Key - What Is Extraction
Extraction is a film from 2015 (not to be confused with the superior Chris Hemsworth film from 2020 of the same name) about a spy (3 weeks from retirement of course) captured by a terrorist organization and how his son, Harry, teams up with an old flame from the CIA, Victoria, to find him. There's a little double cross, a few lazy car chases, some strange choices in cinematography, an entirely misaligned musical score, and a complete misuse in the majority of the cast. ...Especially Carano.
It's one thing to be a disappointing film. There are many that fulfill that category. But this one stuck with me in a deep way - a pain of missed opportunities and a wasted potential for, especially at this point, a well-established actress and powerful presence like Carano.
To understand where I'm going and how this all feeds into the GM's Corner, we need to take a look at a little film called Haywire.
MMA Champion and actress Gina Carano in 2011's Haywire.
Where Haywire (2011) Shines
Haywire is a low-budget action film with tight cinematography, great choreography that feels real, and a raw approach to an otherwise simple story. This is another film featuring trained agents in a military-type scenario and a female agent fighting against those that would entrap or frame her. The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is confident, visceral, and wholly satisfying, but there's one scene in particular that illustrates my point the best.
Mallory (Carano) and another character (played by the ever-suave Michael Fassbender) are moving through a hotel acting all cute and newlywed-like as they head back to their room. It's kind of adorable, even. But once the door closes, it's all business. The facade falls, and they're agents on a mission.
Fassbender throws the first punch, knocking Mallory down. The fight is intense, devoid of music, with long takes pushed out so you can see every punch, kick, grapple, and throw in all its glory. You forget immediately that this is a man and woman. These are two highly trained combatants trying their best to incapacitate, and probably, kill each other. At no point in the fight is a punch pulled or mercy given - it is a no-holds-barred drag out display of pure fighting ability. It reveals two extremely important things. 1) Mallory isn't invincible, in this fight and many more to follow. She gets BEAT UP in this movie. 2) Mallory is always capable. She gets knocked down, but gets right back up and adapts to her opponents, terrain, and dozens of other active factors; you can see the turning of the tide over the course of each fight, and it's a turn of skill, not plot armor. She uses her surroundings to startling effect, demonstrating an intelligence in battle and survivability. This is not a character who will let you win just because the script deems it so.
Where Extraction Misses The Opportunity Completely
I can think of two distinct moments where both my wife and I shouted at the screen. The director has fundamentally missed the mark in every possible way when handling the character.
SCENE ONE - Carano isn't allowed to fight
Setup: Victoria takes Harry to an old female friend/contact and they go to a club to locate a perp. The perp is a sleaze in every meaning, so Victoria makes out with her friend to get his attention. Perp calls her over and she convinces him to head to a private room.
Women can show off whatever they like however they wish. Their body, their choice. I'm not complaining about that.
No. I'm complaining about what follows, and it fails on so many levels I got physically angry at my television.
Victoria gets taken back to the penthouse suite in close quarters with their perp, and two other guards. At this point, I expect things to go south, but I'm not worried about her. And I'm not worried because of two things. 1) She's a CIA operative with specialized hand-to-hand combat training. She's been an agent longer than our male protagonist (who isn't an agent yet, has just been training for it). I expect her to handle herself pretty well here, because she should know what she's doing. 2) She's Gina-freaking-Carano, and I've seen her take out a staggering number of people in a wide assortment of mediums. And I'm not trying to typecast here; she's playing someone who can fight - I'm looking forward to the fight.
Meanwhile, Harry gets a tip that there's an assassin on his tail. He corners the guy in a bathroom and Victoria's cover is immediately blown before she can get any info. Victoria starts getting beat on by three men, thrown around the room in shots where you can't see anything, and Harry confronts the assassin in a "martial arts" brawl. This is where the problems start piling up.
We get to see Harry go brawling in a bathroom with an assassin (reminiscent of the superior bathroom brawl featuring Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill from Mission Impossible: Fallout), complete with cracking glass, burst pipes, and drenched fists...juxtaposed with Victoria getting choked and kicked on the floor. In fact, there are long takes of this testosterone-filled fight and then short takes of the female lead getting beat on. No disarming techniques, no creative grapples, no takedowns, no showcase of ANY of Carano's talents. NONE of the things I've come to expect and enjoy with seeing her on screen - she actually looks bored while being beat up.
The tide doesn't turn for her until Harry, the non-operative male protagonist, stops a punch and joins the fight. She had to be rescued by him, and that pisses me right off.
Why is it that female agents always seem to get into these difficult scuffles and need to be rescued, and the males just have to brawl it out? (I have always hated this trope)
And female violence, in many mediums, tends to have an air of femininity to it - in a bad way. Like instead of treating the female combatant as a threat, the violence toward them is pivoted to accentuate their gender somehow. Like they're treated as a "silly girl" and toyed with first, before being a target to be eliminated. They're thrown around, the face is avoided, they're choked and held down; they're somehow a woman first, threat second. Meanwhile, the men get to engage in big physical fights and be the capable combatant.
Even the way it's shot is strange. Harry gets wide angle shots that showcase his physicality, while Victoria gets close shots of her face, her body, and her dress. Do you see the difference yet?
The brawl continues to the dance floor with an awkward cut, and they approach the thugs side by side. Harry gets to punch some more, and FINALLY Victoria kicks someone (but she's fighting in a dress that doesn't allow a lot of movement - a fact that the CHARACTER directly opposed in dialogue, but was shut down), then gets grabbed from behind at gunpoint.
Now about this fool with the gun. He doesn't keep it on her; no, he waves the thing around like an idiot. I'm not a MMA fighter, but I do practice martial arts enough to see specific beats where a disarm can happen, and AGAIN, I was waiting for Carano - who is way more skilled than I will ever be (and a combat-trained agent would be) - to take one of those beats and wreck this fool. She never does. And it looks like she wants to.
In fact, Carano looks really uncomfortable in most of these scenes. Like, somehow, this state is very "unnatural" for her (he writes, knowingly staring into the Void). She stands there like a petrified flower in a cocktail dress - scared and confused. She is then dragged off and into a car, where she proceeds to do very little to change her circumstances other than alert Harry how to follow them (still smart, just not "physically capable").
Why am I mad?
Harry's not an agent. He's a man. Victoria IS an agent. She is a woman. Harry is free to play hero, Victoria is dragged off like a damsel, and NOT ONCE tries to fix that problem with her combat skills. Critic says: But she was stuffed in a car, Adamus, what is she supposed to do? Answer: the male protagonist was also stuffed into a car with four armed guards earlier in the film...and he fought his way out. Why can't she - the trained and tested operative with two guards? Their frame and role in the story is defined by their gender, not their skill set. How refreshing would it have been if not only had Victoria held her own (a fact that runs in line with her skill set), and Harry brawled his way through, but his lack of training gets him caught? OR both get to shine with both of their styles, but the INTELLIGENT villain outsmarts them by undermining their flaws, instead of victory being a contrivance?
There's a better story here, and Carano can tell it. Instead, she's sidelined for Lutz to shine, if for no other reason than "he's the main character." Hollywood. Stop writing people as bad at the job they're supposed to be good at just so the main character can be better. Write them all as good at their job, and elevate the stakes to match them. That's how you make memorable stories (another deep breath).
Scene Two - Why is Victoria even here?
After getting punched once in the car and therefore knocked out (with no bruise to tarnish her face), Victoria is strung up with ONE hand tied to a pipe. One. And she's standing on the ground with both feet. In a large, empty room (prime real estate for a good ole' fashioned fight scene).
Carano is a built individual; her physical prowess is poised for display. I have seen her hoist herself up EASILY with one arm; the lady has body control, excellent strength and power, and a keen understanding of leverage and choke holds. So I'm still holding on to hope that I'm going to see something cool.
She is unconscious for the majority of the last Act. When she does come to, she's alone in the room, and it cuts back to Lutz being stupid. By now I expect it to cut back to her breaking free, but no, she just hangs out some more. When a guard arrives, she instead uses her feminine wiles to "seduce" him to come closer to her (why does this EVER work in film?), and THEN does a decent take-down and breaks free (which she could have done before, and already have re-entered the story). I AM glad she got herself out, no rescuing here...however, as a director, this dude did NOT understand what Carano is capable of. She can do so much more than what she was directed to do.
And when she DOES fight someone...it's a nameless thug (not the jerk that knocked her out - no, that guy fights a different thug; great, a brawl between two people we don't know or care about). This "fight" is done in badly lit shots, with weird cuts, and strange close-ups, so you never get to SEE her fight. She can fight. Let her fight!
What This Has To Do With Tabletop RPGs
Surely, my rant can continue for many pages more, but I assure you I had a point, and it is rooted in this idea:
If you want to play a damsel - a fainting flower who danes to be rescued and won like a prize - go for it.
If you want to play a warrior - someone skilled in hand-to-hand combat and who revels in the ring - go for it.
If you're a dude and you want to play a gal, have at it.
If you're a lady and you want to play the meanest boy in town, more power to you.
If you want to play a gender-fluid wood elf sharpshooter, be my guest.
And, as your Director...I mean, GM...I will NEVER adjust your role in the game based on your GENDER. Women can be warriors, men can be damsels, and heroes (and villains) come in all shapes and sizes.
And it is my job to give you opportunities to shine and show off. If you have cultivated your character to be a serious, half-orc grappler, then I will make sure that you have opportunities to GRAPPLE. I WANT you to show off. I WANT you to succeed in your concept.
That doesn't mean you auto-win a scenario, but if you've built someone who should naturally be good at this skill, then I'm going to cultivate scenarios that allow you to show yourself to be good at your skill. I need to give you the wide angle shots, pass you the patience to show (don't tell), and watch you turn the tide as a warrior who reassesses her situation and adapts to new data.
Because that's what fighting is.
And if you built a sharpshooter, then I better damn well make sure you have some opportunities to shoot stuff. If you built a fainting noble, then by golly I'll make sure you have opportunities to react in kind! Whatever your slice of fun, whatever your build, whatever your core concept, it is a GM's duty to provide you with a time and possibility to BE that thing.
This isn't to say there won't be moments of challenge, nor will I spell it out for you in meticulous detail what is possible, but all of this ties discretely into our REST model.
I will Respect your character concept as it aligns with the setting, and I will Respect your Gender in whatever form it takes. I will practice Empathy in your vision as you embark on this journey. I will seek to provide Satisfying encounters where you can shine and show off. And I will build Trust through these encounters, even as they change and evolve.
You are all Gina Carano.
I will let you fight.
See you at the table.
A Little Background
Before I dive into this, I think you need to know a few things up front.
The new Lion King film is not a BAD film. In fact, it is technically inspired. It is jawdroppingly gorgeous, and amazing to look at. And for a film, it does fine. Just fine. It doesn't ruin my childhood, insult my soul, or cause me to fly into a car-flipping rage. It's FINE.
It could have been so much more, and there's A LOT holding it back, and quite a lot of that...quite frankly could have been fixed easily, especially given Disney's resources AND that they have a direct line to the source material (it's THEIRS).
So, a little background for where I'm coming from.
I LOVE the original Lion King film. It is my all-time favorite animated Disney film (Mulan and Hunchback make a close second). And it's so much more than just the amazing artistic animation; the musical score is inspired, beautiful, and endlessly fascinating (the extra music album produced, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, is also some amazing work); the themes of the film are tight, and there's not a scene I skip when I replay it (in the theatrical version, at least). Everything about it is polished, emotional, artistic, and meaningful. Every scene has a purpose, and it's all executed with precision.
This, on the other hand, has some pretty stand-out problems for me. Let's break them down.
Spoilers, I guess. ;)
1) The Musical Score
To understand how pissed I am about the score in this viewing, all you have to do is read what Zimmer had planned for this rendition.
"In revisiting the score for “The Lion King,” Zimmer realized the original themes and music were the “emotional spine of the story.” He brought back many who worked on the original film, including Lebo M, orchestrator Bruce Fowler, conductor Nick Glennie-Smith, arranger Mark Mancina, plus several singers from the choir including Carmen Twillie (who performed “Circle of Life” in the 1994 movie)."
Alright! So we've got many of the original players, plus the amazing iconic vocal renditions of Lebo M, and the original composer, Hans Zimmer, all in the mix. This is going to be epic!
And it could have been. Except for a few glaring problems:
1) Your Lead can't sing. Well, maybe he CAN, but his style and range is very different than what the arrangement of the song requires. The youth that plays Simba struggles with higher registers, and during I Just Can't Wait To Be King, in key moments of belting it out...the kid goes to FALSETTO. IN THE FINAL CUT OF THE FILM. His volume drops to nothing, and it is very, very obvious. Notes aren't held to any kind of length (so no breath support), and any riffing you've got is used to HIDE this fact (badly) instead of acting as an augmentation to the original. Nala, on the other hand, overpowers and outshines his ability immediately. They need to be equal, folks. These are your LEADS. And older Simba (Donald Glover)...is doing his best. An otherwise excellent artist and I think a great speaking choice for Simba, comes off a little strange in Hakuna Matata, where he riffs before it feels appropriate. If you can carry the song, riff away, but don't riff to hide the fact that you can't carry the song. And before you think me rude to recommend vocal coaching to a musical artist...every musical artist gets vocal coaching throughout their career. As one continues to augment and extend their craft, they train to do so. Disney, you've got billions of dollars...you couldn't afford a vocal coach worth their salt? Or maybe, they were directed to sing that way, and if so, I very much disagree with their decisions, especially when it came to child Simba. Can You Feel The Love Tonight? ...was very good (despite being during THE DAY), and refreshing to hear the leads sing the whole song together, but I think it's Glover's style, directed or not, that felt off somehow.
2) Seth Rogen cannot sing it seems. When he does, it's played for laughs, but it is no less painful to see and hear. It's tragic, too, because Rogen is otherwise WONDERFUL as Pumbaa, but with Timon belting out excellent tracks beside him, it's even more glaring. The animated Pumbaa can sing (stylized, but he hits the notes he has); this one should too.
3) Be Prepared...barely exists. What happened to a great villain song? Scar speaks over drums for a bit, they skip 2/3 of the song, and it's over. WTH?
4) The score cues are rushed - let me explain. All the beats are there: themes, swelling score, iconic instrumental sections along with new composed work...but it never takes its time. It never revels in the themes it creates. Remember, this is supposed to be the "emotional spine," yet it seems like it's barely there, despite there being tons of music in the film. Take the iconic Stampede scene for example: in the animated original, the rumbling grows slowly (just like this one), we get a freaking dolly zoom on Simba as strings rise and a dissonant choir looms at the edges of our eardrums, creating tension to the scene, then Simba starts running and we get rhythmic singers moving along, working their magic. New version? Forget that rise of tension, let's just slam the rhythmic theme right down on top of the little cub. Everyone knows this theme. We'll bank on the memory; we don't have to "build tension;" how silly!
And that's all over the place. Themes show up in places they were never there before, or aren't really appropriate/take away from the scene they're in, or show up too early - which sends the message of "rushing" through the songs and setpieces; don't mind us, just prancing through hitting our check boxes on our money list!
5) Oh Hai random Beyonce. Following one of my FAVORITE scenes in the film, Simba begins charging back to pride rock. Now, this is another iconic segment of travel with rousing rhythmic choirs, Zimmer's awesome score - it's short, but truly great, with lots of energy and momentum. In this new film, we get the beginning transient notes of this original theme, and I hear the splendid tones of Lebo M start to creep in...and I get excited. I studied the music of this whole film, and Lebo M is amazing, so I'm thinking, "Ooooo, maybe we'll get a cool Lebo M jam session over Zimmer's instrumental section and we'll get some cool layering, because, ya' know, it's okay to be new as long as you're honoring the orig-- Is that a freaking pop song!?" And sure enough, there's a random-ass pop song in my Lion King movie. They killed Be Prepared and gave Beyonce her own random-ass song (and boy is it jarring to hear - the styles aren't COMPLETELY misaligned, but it certainly doesn't feel good). Hey, I get it, she's playing adult Nala and she does really, really well...but her random song doesn't fit here. Put it in the credits, Disney. The hell?
6) If you're going to add music, add Shadowland. For those of you who have heard the aforementioned Rhythm Of The Pride Lands, there's an amazing track called "Lea Halalela (Holy Land)", which was later adapted to the Broadway musical under the title, Shadowland, and is sung by Nala. It is a showstopper of a song; it acts as a transition point for her, as she weighs finding help to save her people and abandoning them to the terrors of Scar, and she may not return - it's a valuable exploration. But naw, let's give Beyonce a new LP that has little bearing on the overarching story. Sounds great.
2) Rafiki is awesome. Yet his most important lesson isn't in the film.
"Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or...learn from it!"
Remember that? Yep. Not in the film. The lesson's not even there paraphrased. Never mind Rafiki. It's not like he's important or anything.
3) A Lack Of Emotion
Emotion. There is little of it.
I get it. They're lions. The animators worked REALLY FREAKING HARD to make these animals look real, and they TOTALLY DO OMG...but, when they talk and emote, it's very strange. It's hard to get the characters to actually express things. It all feels flat and hollow, and that's true with *some* of the voice acting too. Characters just rattle off lines like they're crossing off a grocery list - where's the love? Where's the care?
Simba, begging for his father to get up after the stampede...is delivered TOO FAST. C'mon Favreau, you've done movies before, this is a scene where you take your time. It's important. Duh. Even as an older Simba begs the clouds not to leave him again, it feels empty.
Favreau rushes through the scenes and beats from the original, but pads the stuff they changed or added, and that means the pace is all off, too. Everything feels rushed, and yet the movie is longer than the original. Big emotional beats carry little weight - Mufasa's death, Simba's lesson, Nala's leaving (very poignant in the Broadway show), Simba's ascension (like, seriously, you just flash cut to the end of the film mid-roar?) - not because they're poorly done (cinematography-wise), but because they don't take the time needed to FEEL. There's no class; no real understanding of what made the original so great, despite a seasoned director at the helm.
Characters have no personality. Facial expressions have been sacrificed in favor of "photo-realism." Impressive, yes, but tells little in terms of narrative. HUGE moments of the story (the stampede scene and all that transpires, one of the most iconic and traumatic and expertly crafted sequences in film and animation)...are bland and distant. And so much of the cast...sounds tired. Even James-Earl Jones; though he should be VERY familiar with these lines. What the hell?
Maybe I'll settle into it, and for kids today, it's serviceable...but when the 1994 version is STILL a better story and presentation with better music, better performances, and better messages, why "upgrade" to this soulless cinematic experience that lacks...heart?
This is clearly a cash-grab. Soulless, useless, and shameless.
4) So What Did I Like?
1) There's a lot more emphasis placed on Sarabi being a badass, and I love it. There's an implied "war" with the hyenas, which makes Shenzi a rival general, not Scar. As it stands, Shenzi is clearly the pack leader of the hyenas, not a flunkie to Scar, and the switch had a lot of potential. Maybe Shenzi and Sarabi get to have a show-down, as they would be appropriate opposites? Naw, Nala fights her. Glad she got to do more, though, the potential was wasted.
2) There's also a stated and implied love triangle where Scar holds Sarabi in high respect, but she chose Mufasa as a mate over him, which adds depth and complexity to the three's relationship, as well as weight and power to Sarabi's continued defiance after Mufasa is dead. There isn't a lot of exploration of this theme, but it's there I guess.
3) The Lion Sleeps Tonight was a lot of fun, and they added in the other "prey" animals as side characters hanging with Timon and Pumbaa, which was genuinely fun, and their interactions with Simba got some genuine chuckles out of me.
4) The musical additions - save Beyonce - are good. Lovely, even. More Lebo M please. That said, the music is somehow...muted throughout the film. The producers quote as the emotional spine. ...This film has NO SPINE.
5) The hyenas are wonderful, though emoting, again, is difficult. Ed being able to talk had a lot of potential, too, but that character isn't in the film much.
6) It is a technical marvel. ...and yet the CG is somehow lazy. Because it's a shot-for-shot remake of something that didn't need to be remade.
When a random kid walks out of the theater, shrugs her shoulders and says unprovoked that "It was rushed and I didn't connect with the characters," you have a problem, Disney.
You have the resources.
Do it right.
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See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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