“Star Trek Beyond”

Captain’s logs,

Trailers suck! “Star Trek Beyond,” for example, had an underwhelming trailer that looked more like a fan-made music video. Good news, the movie’s way better!

“Beyond” takes place two years after “Into Darkness,” and Kirk (Chris Pine) is now contemplating leaving the Enterprise, Spock (Zachary Quinto) is also contemplating leaving the Enterprise, and Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Bones (Karl Urban), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) are all comfortable in their positions.

They take a side mission to assist an ally in need and are attacked by a diabolical alien named Krall (Idris Elba), who destroys their ship, forcing them to crash on his home planet. With little resources and an unlikely ally named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the crew struggle to find a way off the planet.

“Star Trek Beyond” redeems the series of all the cliches, objectification issues, and throwbacks that made “Into Darkness” an underwhelming experience. We’re now back to philosophy on life, death, and science like the series, and intermittent action like the 2009 reboot. It’s the best of both worlds.

The opening scenes with Kirk negotiating with an alien species are both slapstick and engaging, establishing the film’s fun tone. The fun tone further strengthens through the characters.

The second act of the movie takes a buddy comedy approach to “Star Trek” with the crew split into two’s. We have Kirk and Chekov impressing each other with wit, Spock and Bones bickering (and also understanding each other), and Scotty and Jaylah forming a bond over rap music (which, they call classical). Sulu and Uhura are paired together and imprisoned, so not much fun there.

The action is frenetic and masterfully directed, thanks to Justin Lin (the “Fast & Furious franchise), but it doesn’t have Abrams’s suspense factor. Speaking of underwhelming, it’s disappointing that an expressionistic and versatile actor such as Idris Elba is cast as a cliched villain we’ve seen in several “Star Trek” and comic book movies.

Elba works fine with what he has, but he’s not as menacing on screen as Nero (Eric Bana in 2009’s “Star Trek”) or Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch in “Star Trek Into Darkness”). I can forgive that since this movie is more about the crew, their bond, and their logic.

“Star Trek Beyond” is a pleasant surprise and even with a new director and screenwriter, and without Chekov (RIP Anton), the series will still live long and prosper.

Grade: A-

 

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“The Jungle Book”

The producers of Jon Favreau’s (“Iron Man” 1 & 2) “Jungle Book” re-imagining should fire their trailer editor because they undersold this movie. I assure you this version isn’t lackluster, my friends!

So, we all know the story of “The Jungle Book”, right? If not, I’ll sum it up. There’s a kid named Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) who’s raised by a panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and a pair of wolves, Raksha and Akeela (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito). They want him to adapt to the ways of animal culture, but it’s inevitable he won’t because, well, he’s a human!

This is where the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) comes in. He believes Mowgli is a threat and will stop at nothing to kill him, but with the help of his animal family and a bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), Mowgli must face Shere Khan in a fiery climax.

Favreau’s interpretation of “The Jungle Book” is the best live-action version to date. The 1994 live-action version with Jason Scott Lee as a twenty-something Mowgli was fine, but it was missing the magic of the 1967 classic cartoon. Favreau restores the magic that made the original a fun and charming movie, thanks to old-fashioned studio logos, beautiful shots, and an innovative closing credits sequence.

Yes, we get to hear the classic songs like “Bear Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” (who spells “wanna” like that?”), and they are just as charming as the original. This movie is also visually stunning and thrilling!

The intensity comes mostly from Shere Khan. He is an evil and merciless creature, and Idris Elba provides haunting voice work here. Everyone else delivers exceptional voice performances, but the standout is Bill Murray as Baloo. He’s hilarious, sassy, and classic Bill Murray in the form of a beloved bear.

Christopher Walken also steals a scene as King Louie – a menacing and charismatic orangutan who breaks out in a musical number. Scarlett Johansson is well-cast as Kaa, a lethal snake that’s used as a exposition tool. That’s the problem with both of these scenes – they don’t serve a purpose to the plot.

We’re here for Mowgli’s adventure and self-discovery; not a rushed subplot involving a mobster-like ape or a quick meeting with a seductive snake.

In addition to those two scenes, there’s also a heavily unbalanced tone. Favreau has a hard time deciding if he wants to keep a scene charming like the classic cartoon, or gritty like a DC movie.

Sure, those are a few shortcomings, but the movie is still a fun spectacle! There are talks of Favreau making a sequel and I’m looking forward to seeing these beloved characters return to sing again. Hopefully with a more balanced tone, though.

Grade: B+

“Zootopia”

The trailer for “Zootopia” made it look as if the only standout moment was that now-famous sloth scene. The trailer editors should be fired because there’s way more to “Zootopia” than satirical DMV commentary.

It’s a world run by animals and our protagonist is the first rabbit cop, Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin). Tired of being assigned to parking duty, she steps up and investigates a missing otter case with the help of a con artist fox named Nick (a terrific Jason Bateman). And like in all cop mysteries, the case is bigger than they expected.

“Zootopia” is the biggest surprise so far this year because going in, I didn’t expect this to be Disney version of Film Noir. I didn’t expect a five-minute-long “Breaking Bad” parody. I especially didn’t expect meta and fast-paced jokes reminiscent of “The Simpsons'” golden age (makes sense since co-director Rich Moore directed some of the best episodes).

We’re treated to wonderful voicework from Bateman, Goodwin, and Idris Elba as the stern police chief cape buffalo, who delivers some of the film’s best lines (keep your ears open for the monologue about real life). The script is also well-rounded in world building, as we see how an animal-run society functions.

Predators are ten percent of the population and have the most authoritative positions while smaller animals (like rabbits) are looked at as underdogs. Foxes are treated cruelly due to their savage reputation. This makes Nick and Judy a terrific buddy cop pair. They’re the outcasts out to prove to Zootopia that the outcast animals can succeed.

There’s social commentary present that is by no means preachy or heavy-handed. Between a scene where Judy addresses being called cute as inappropriate and scenes involving Judy’s discouraging parents, it’s a good lesson for younger audience members.. That’s if they can make it that far without being bothered by the jump scares.

Moore and co-director Byron Howard are also behind other recent Disney greats such as “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen”. Those two were also meta, grandiose, and surprisingly dark like “Zootopia”. “Zootopia” is more on par with “Wreck-It Ralph” in terms of style, but still as magical as the latter.

Grade: A