When Disney released their mixed live-action/photorealistic CG version of The Jungle Book back in 2016, I was blown away by how good the visual effects (by my former employers, MPC and New Zealand’s Weta Digital) were. It was a perfect blend. It cut back on some of the songs, but when there were (The Bare Necessities and I Wan’na Be Like You, it was done in such a way that it never ventured into uncanny valley.

With the Lion King, there is precisely one live element – and that’s right at the start of the film, a landscape with the rising sun. From that point, the entire environment, lighting, cinematography, creatures, etc. are entirely computer-generated (albeit using a substantial number of MPC employees – we’ve not got to the point where computers are able to visualise and generate their own images – yet).

And it is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen – at least after The Jungle Book. I still marvel how well all the elements – from the ground, stones, rocks, grass are rendered. You can barely tell the difference between it and live-action. And the animals are extraordinarily well modelled and animated. All in all, it’s like watching a David Attenborough documentary – except here the animals talk.

And here lies the problem. As for the talking creatures, they work pretty well. It’s when it comes to singing some of the signature tunes that things get a little weird. Unlike The Jungle Book, the characters don’t fit the songs being sung. The voice work is extraordinary. If you’re listening to the OST without the images, it works really well. But when combined the images, the jaunty character work feels as if I’m watching an over-extended version of a Comparethemeerkat.com TV advert. Even Timon and Pumba don’t entirely work as singing creatures – and they’re the comic relief.

There is, however, one moment which DOES work. “Can you feel the love tonight?” starts off with Timon talk-singing, with Simba and Nala singing/communicating with internal thoughts. It’s genuinely a beautiful moment that works far better than any of the other songs in the film.

There are some very powerful moments in the film that the photorealism double downs on the emotional level. One moment is, of course, when Simba finds his dad lying on the ground, dead. It as sad in the 2D animated version – but rendered using 3D modelling and photoreal texturing.. it’s heartbreaking. Another is the moment in which Rafiki catches up with Simba and leads him to the watering hole where Simba has a spiritual encounter with his father.

Overall, The Lion King is a beautiful, beautiful film. I’m immensely proud of my former employers and colleagues that worked on it. I have no doubt in my mind that it’ll pick up Best Visual Effects (and maybe Best Animated Film) during the 2020 Oscars.

I think I still prefer The Jungle Book over The Lion King. The problem that I have is how well photorealism plays in future animated Disney movies. I think it can only go so far. It has limitations. That we can produce animated films to this level of photorealism is impressive enough. But I think this kind of technique is best used in conjunction with live-action such as The Jungle Book, Avatar and their forthcoming sequels (something I am absolutely looking forward to).

What’s to differentiate between Apple TV+ and other streaming services, other than the content and a lower price? Unfortunately, very little. One of the biggest frustrations I have with all of the current streaming services is the complete lack of additional features and audio commentaries.

Apple had a chance to make their Apple TV+ streaming service truly unique by introducing special features and audio commentaries to their original content, but this just has not happened. Yet. Until they do, Apple TV+ is just another platform offering limited original content.

iTunes Extras has been the only service available to most (dependent on the film studio) film purchases on iTunes to provide special features. It’s the main reason I’ve stuck with iTunes as a purchase platform. It is the closest I can get to physical media features on a digital platform. I can play films on my Apple TV 4K, iPad Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max or 2018 MacBook Pro. It’s both portable and can be played on the big screen TV. I still prefer physical media for most things, but as I’ve mentioned many times here and elsewhere, it’s a rapidly losing battle.

On the TV programs front, iTunes has been a poor show. None of the titles available are in 4K, and very few carry any extras – mainly because iTunes Extras is a format reserved for films. Breaking Bad is currently the ONLY title I own that has special features and audio commentaries – and I can only play the audio commentaries by disabling Dolby Surround.

Apple TV+ content IS available in 4K. Whether this will push existing TV studios to consider releasing their purchasable content on iTunes in 4K, I just don’t know. I doubt Apple will let you purchase episodes or whole series of Apple TV+ shows since it’s in their interest to keep you as a subscriber. But that then brings me back to the special features and audio commentaries.

Netflix, oddly, puts many special features about their shows on YouTube. Not on their own platform. Amazon is equally rubbish at this, and also put special features on their YouTube channel too. Amazon have been the only streamer to put an audio commentary on their service, but only for one title, and for one season.

No. Unless Disney+ pulls its fingers out and puts special features and audio commentaries on their platform as well as releasing new content and offering their back catalogue, Apple TV+ isn’t going to be unique in the market place at all.

Other problems with Apple TV+ have been the super annoying Up Next bar during end credits. I can’t dismiss it – but it does vanish after a while – but it still obscures credits. And the Apple TV+ user interface doesn’t tell me the frequency of new episodes of a current season. I had to look up when new episodes for For All Mankind came out having watched the first three episodes this weekend.

For All Mankind, BTW, is a decent show but somewhat let down by its visual effects. I’ve seen Method Studios and Pixomondo do better. But the storytelling is compelling enough to stick around for now. Other titles have received very mixed reviews. I have a free year’s trial with Apple TV+ thanks to upgrading to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, so only time will tell if I’ll be paying for it next year (even if it’s ¬£4.99/month).

In other news, I cannot tell you how much frustration MacOS Catalina and iOS 13 have caused me over the past few weeks. This is some seriously buggy piece of crap from Apple, and by far the worst quality releases that have come from them in years. If Apple doesn’t buck their ideas up, I’ll be moving back to Dell and Windows late next year.

The end of an era?

Star Wars was the first film I ever saw at the cinema. I’m too young to remember EXACTLY when I saw it (it was released in 1977 when I was just one year old, so no chance of catching it when it first came out) – but it must have been during one of the semi-frequent cinema re-releases. I do remember going to see Empire Strikes Back in the cinema with mum (and I was scared stiff of Yoda at first!), and Return of the Jedi with both my mum and dad. I loved every minute of it. Star Wars was a wonderful universe, full of imagination and strange creatures. And we could enjoy it as a family.

So Star Wars, for me, is rather special. The forthcoming release of Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker will be quite special in that it ends the 9 films run featuring the Skywalkers. We’ve witnessed the rise of Anakin Skywalker and his transformation into Darth Vader. We’ve seen his son and daughter find each other after being separated at birth and fight the Empire. We’ve seen Leia’s son kill his dad, while Luke abandoned teaching after the terrible tragedy which saw his nephew turn to the dark side.

And it all ends here:

Mind you, while it will be sad to say goodbye to the Skywalker family, we’ll always have Disney+ to look forward to. No idea as to the availability in the UK, but it will carry the first-ever Star Wars TV series: The Mandolorian. Plus there will also be other TV series set in the Star Wars universe to follow. Disney recognises the importance of Star Wars as a brand, so they’re not going to just let it sit there and gather dust – unlike what they’ve done with The Muppets (which is a big shame).

I’ve bought hook, line and sinker into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ever since Iron Man was first released back in 2008. And Disney has done exceedingly well with their $4 billion acquisition. Recent profits have suggested they’ve made over $18 billion over the past 11 years.

I’ve generally enjoyed all the films – and watched most of them at the cinema – but time and work usually gets in the way of getting the best cinema experience, so I’ve seen a few at home. I, unfortunately, missed out on Avengers: Endgame – the much-anticipated sequel to Avengers: Infinity Wars which I did see in the cinema. I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers like the plague, and Disney/Marvel has yet to re-release the film in UK cinemas before the UK digital home release on the 19th August (alleged date). It is, of course, available on US digital home release. Disney, an avid tax credits collector when filming in the UK, puts us Brits in second place as they usually do.

I was up in Edinburgh when Marvel was filming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

So it’s kind of made things like the SDCC (San Diego Comic-Con) announcements a massive no-no in terms of news. While I appreciate that distribution windows are set to maximise bums on seats and profits (see my interview with Jane Goldman about this), trying to avoid spoilers in a country with a different release schedule is a massive pain in the arse! Disney can and should do better.

But at least Marvel has released Captain Marvel which helps fill in a few gaps between Avengers: Infinity Wars and Avengers: Endgame. It also introduces us to a young Nick Fury who, up until the events in this film, had never encountered an extraterrestrial before.

Captain Marvel is a fun film – much in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy or even the recent Thor: Ragnarok. And you can’t be mad at a film in which does something very unusual with a lovable feline during the end battle. It’s also a sad film. Stan Lee passed away during editing, so Marvel’s usual opening logo features images of Stan during his regular cameos and some behind the scenes stuff before fading to black with the words centred in the middle of the screen:

THANK YOU STAN

Indeed, thank you, Stan. And thank you, Steve Ditko. And thank you Jack Kirby and all the others that worked with Stan to produce some of the finest characters and storylines in comics history. Without Stan Lee, we wouldn’t have these movies. And speaking more of Stan, he’s here in cameo form albeit during a period in which he was starting to become seriously unwell – sitting on a train and reading the script to Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (in which he has a small, but important role). It’s a lovely nod to both Stan – and indeed Kevin.

Brie Larson makes a marvellous Captain Marvel, and with a sequel announced (it’s been very difficult to ignore SDCC announcements), the universe is in good hands.

What I don’t understand is why so many people – mainly men – that were so bitter towards Captain Marvel (to the extent that Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator) had to step in and remove a substantial number of bitter reviews. I’m definitely seeing a trend in fandom where toxic elements are trying very hard to spoil things for all.

Disney continues to throw money at their live-action adaptations of all their classic animated films, and Aladdin is the latest. Unfortunately, judging from this special preview, they might have mucked things up a little.

Now, it’s important to note just how terrible trailers and “special previews” can be. It’s really difficult to gauge how good a film is going to be unless you actually go and see it. Having worked in VFX where it was often all hands to the pumps during trailer time to get work completed so it can be used, I can wholeheartedly sympathise with those working on this film. But alas, Will Smith’s genie just feels .. dead. And blue. Like a dead smurf.

As an example of deceptive trailers, back in 2014, the live action version of Paddington suffered horribly when he first made an appearance on the internet. He looked terrible. He looked.. creepy. Memes were generated in abundance. But people (including myself) absolutely loved the film. I’d even go and say that it’s some of Framestore’s finest work. The second film too is wonderful. I’d never thought I’d say that, but it’s true. Go see Paddington and Paddington 2 (available on Prime Video).

Blue people in film & TV #10323 РTobias Funké, Arrested Development

For those of us that remember, ILM did a marvellous job with The Mask, taking Jim Carrey’s character and bending and twisting him into all sorts of madcap characters. Then “Son of the Mask” came along, and it is, without doubt, the worst visual effects I have ever seen in a movie. One can only hope that with Aladdin, ILM have erred on the side of Jim Carrey rather than the sequel.

Blue people in film & TV #23213 – Papa Smurf

The rest of the VFX in the Aladdin special preview feels “meh”, like it could have been done by any vendor. Jafarr seems strangely far less malevolent than he was in the original animated film too. Nothing to me in this special preview or the trailer before that makes me think they have done anything special with this other than to plonk live action people amongst animation of a different type. Seems a massive waste of money to me.

The only two live-action Disney remakes that I have been impressed with so far have been:

In the end, however, does it make any difference? This is just a family film aimed at younger kids. And younger kids will watch anything. In fact, Disney could have saved substantial amounts of money and have had the entire film shot with glove puppets, or brightly covered twigs. The kids don’t care. As long as it’s bright, moves around a lot and makes noise, they’re entertained. They’re the ones not going to write up reviews of the film.