Once upon a time, summer was ostensibly blockbuster season. Just as Academy Award Best Picture contenders are invariably saved for a winter release, the biggest films — in both budget and scope — were given summer releases to reach a wider audience and garner greater buzz. Ever since the splashy June premiere of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film “Jaws,” the hottest months of the year have also been the most entertaining, as studios pack their summer schedules with epic releases and people liberated from work and school swarm theaters.
This trend has been seeing a gradual decline over the past decade that was recently expedited by Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, 21st Century Fox and Lucasfilm. While the summer blockbuster season had previously been defrayed by an ever-expanding offering of tentpole films throughout the year, as well as a continued rise in streaming, it is Disney’s monopoly on the film industry that appears to be cutting the season short — for other studios.
According to box office statistics, four of the 10 most profitable movies released this summer belong to Disney, with that quartet positioned snugly at the top of the list. What is more insidious is the number of theater screens bought for each film: Disney easily scored over 4,000 screens for each of their films, purchases that often shut out smaller studios and prevent them from raking in comparable profits. Disney is literally squeezing its competition out of the theaters and strengthening its industry monopoly in the process.
This summer’s Disney domination appears to be only the beginning of a perilous drop into media homogeneity precipitated by the massive company’s preoccupation with keeping its products family-friendly and inoffensive — definitely not the desired modus operandi for the largest film studio in America. With the season now seemingly defined by Disney, it seems only fair to shed a little more light on the films that didn’t get their time in the sun.
Instead of “The Lion King” ... Try “The Farewell”
“The Lion King” was the biggest box office success of the summer, drawing in over $500 million in ticket sales alone — despite being a shot-for-bland-shot remake of the beloved 1991 original film of the same name. The film is a savanna-dry, dead-eyed reimagining of a movie not at all in need of a reboot, and it quickly became the poster child for Disney’s obsession with live-action remakes of its classic animated movies. It practically oozes studio notes, manufactured to strike the perfect nostalgic points without a single ounce of creativity, ingenuity or imagination.
“The Farewell,” on the other hand, is a bracingly personal story about a Chinese-American woman and her struggles with the cultural traditions that she finds more harmful than helpful. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the movie is incredibly specific to her experiences with her traditionalist family while still maintaining a universality that can charm even the most jaded watchers. While “The Lion King” was made to be universal, “The Farewell” finds its relatability through emotional, personal touches that make this film feel like a handcrafted gift from a beloved relative.
Instead of “Toy Story 4” ... Try “Booksmart”
The “Toy Story” trilogy was widely considered to be one of the best in film history, telling a compelling tale about life, friendship and family before neatly capping it off with a tearjerker finale. Unfortunately, no amount of satisfying closure could stop Disney from going after more profits and releasing a fourth installment that, though entertaining and fitfully emotional, proves diminishing returns are possible for even the most adored franchises. There is nothing wrong with the film, but it feels unnecessary and distractingly schizophrenic underneath the nostalgic gloss.
“Booksmart” is nostalgic for entirely different reasons. Yet another tale of high school excess in the tradition of “Superbad,” “Booksmart” stands apart due to the irresistible chemistry between its two leading ladies, its inventive filmmaking and its subtle inclusivity. The movie proves that treading familiar ground — geeks getting their time in the partying sun — can yield fresh results through genuine effort to tell a story from another perspective and make unique choices instead of sticking to an audience-pleasing formula.
Instead of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” ... Try “Midsommar”
While most of Marvel’s standalone films are outstandingly bland, the “Spider-Man” movies have a homemade, down-to-earth quality that makes them feel like indie projects instead of the work of a trillion dollar studio. “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is no different, finding a strong sense of humor and a heartfelt lesson about responsibility under the sixteen Avengers-related plot threads. Though the movie is far and away the best of Disney’s money-making quartet, it still feels very much like the vision of a corporation in spite of director Jon Watts’s earnest attempts to make it a lighthearted, goofy high school rom-com.
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Conversely, “Midsommar” feels entirely like the singular vision of Ari Aster, who traumatized audiences for a second summer in a row after last year’s jaw-dropping “Hereditary.” The film is by turns horrifying and hypnotic, drenching every nightmare-inducing scene in dazzling sunlight and bright flora. Instead of relying on conventional scares, “Midsommar” establishes a theme of isolation and unacknowledged grief that makes it one of the most emotionally visceral films of the year, as well as one of the goriest. In an industry where playing it safe is becoming the status quo, it is so refreshing to see a film that feels like a true, uncensored work of personal art.