The Daughters of Atlas

Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t amount to much. Shazam! was a surprise hit for the DC Extended Universe that received a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Although I welcomed a sequel, I had no idea what it could be about without Black Adam as the main villain. Despite being archenemies with the same set of powers, Dwayne Johnson continued to block any involvement with Shazam. I’m not saying it’s the Rock’s fault that the DCEU died, but his behind the scenes control didn’t help. Zachary Levi and Dwayne Johnson feuding off-screen is not the bitter rivalry I had in mind.

When Black Adam failed to change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe, the DCU was born with James Gunn as the new head of DC Studios. Until Superman: Legacy comes out, only time will tell if that was a good idea. Fury of the Gods became the first leftover DCEU project post-announcement. Shazam! definitely had an audience, but it wasn’t a major box-office success. Fury of the Gods not only bombed, it received far more mixed reviews from critics. Maybe it was close proximity with the equally polarizing Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but I just don’t understand all the hate for Fury of the Gods

25. Shazam! Fury of the Gods

The Shazam family

Shazam! Fury of the Gods has very little to do with the comic books that inspired it. Without Black Adam, the studio was forced to draw from actual Greek Mythology. Luckily I know just as much about Greek gods as I do DC superheroes. Although Wonder Woman established the old gods, it was still a little ridiculous to have main villains who never existed in the comics. Since the Wizard’s champion possesses the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury, the Daughters of Atlas seek to regain their power. They enter the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece looking for the Wizard’s broken staff. Their Greek warrior attire is original, but Wonder Woman was a clear point of reference. Rizwan Manji leads a tour despite also appearing in the first episode of Peacemaker as a janitor. The Daughters of Atlas reveal themselves to be Hespera and Kalypso.

Hespera is named after the Hesperides nymphs who are the “Daughters of the Evening.” In the movie, Hespera is the oldest sister and their leader with the Power of Elements. The British Helen Mirren is a respected older actress who commands the screen regardless of the role she’s given. Kalypso is named after Calypso, the nymph who sought to keep Odysseus on her island. In the movie, Kalypso is the more unpredictable middle sister with the Power of Chaos. The Asian Lucy Liu has proven herself to be an intimidating villain in the past. Together Hespera and Kalypso zombify innocent mortals and turn them to stone. The Daughters of Atlas return to the Realm of the Gods which resembles Mount Olympus. Despite seemingly dying in the first movie, Djimon Hounsou returns once again to play the Wizard Shazam. This time he’s given more of a personality and even a sense of humor. The Wizard is imprisoned for stealing the power of Atlas. He unwillingly mends the staff by saying his name “Shazam!” and the daughters use it against the champion.

Although they didn’t wait too long to make a sequel, the young cast may have already outgrown their roles. Billy Batson is worried about growing out of the foster system even though Asher Angel is already in his 20’s. As a result, Angel has significantly less screen time than his older counterpart. Billy continues to feel a lot more mature than his Shazam persona. Zachary Levi is still plenty of fun as the immature superhero, but he somehow feels more childish than he was before. His muscular physique is at least more natural than it was before. Billy’s biggest fear is drifting away from his family. He expresses his concern to a pediatrician who happens to have an Annabelle doll in his office. Shazam also compares himself to the Flash, Aquaman, and Batman, but Superman is never outright mentioned. Just like how the Daughters of Atlas never acknowledge the fact that Black Adam is flying around Kandaq with the power of the gods. Instead Fury of the Gods emphasizes the Shazamily that got a surprise introduction in the first movie.

Though their roles are technically reduced, Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews are given slightly more attention as the kid’s foster parents Rosa and Victor Vásquez. Victor acknowledges how many times lightning strikes the house and Rosa hopes Billy will accept her as a mother. Billy and his siblings continue to hide their superhero alter egos from them. As they all shout “Shazam!,” they’re given updated costumes with darker colors, longer white capes, and no hood. Despite their reputation as the “Philadelphia Fiasco,” the Shazamily rescue citizens on the Ben Franklin Bridge set to “Holding Out for a Hero.” I was wondering why one random woman Shazam rescues got so much attention, but it turns out it was director David F. Sandberg’s wife. Faithe Herman may not be as little as she was before, but Darla is just as innocent. She spends most of her time enjoying Skittles and believing in unicorns. In her Meagan Good superhero form, Darla uses her superspeed to rescue kittens. She names one of them Tawny after Captain Marvel’s tiger from the comics.

Ian Chen and Ross Butler are practically interchangeable since Eugene isn’t given much attention. Apart from his usual video game playing, superhero Eugene mostly uses his lightning powers and maps out the infinite doors in the Rock of Eternity. Their secret lair feels more like a clubhouse with kid friendly amenities added to it. D. J. Cotrona continues to use his super-strength while in Pedro’s superhero form, but it’s Jovan Armand who makes a bigger impression. Though Pedro is still a man of few words, he is revealed to be gay through his recent sports obsession. Something that was already obvious from a throwaway line in the first movie. Pedro does come out later in the movie, but thankfully they don’t dwell on it. Mary is an interesting case since her young adult form and adult form are now one and the same. Although Michelle Borth signed on for multiple sequels, Grace Fulton now plays both versions of Mary. Mary Marvel also retained her teenage body in the original comics until it was changed later on. The decision makes more sense since the already older Fulton is the more recognizable actress and she looks really hot in a miniskirt.

Despite choosing to stay with her family, Mary begins to regret not going to college. Though she’s hungover in one scene, subplots like this are brought up and dropped just as quickly. Mary uses her wisdom more often to help the group with threats. At least they call attention to Shazam’s lack of Solomon-like wisdom. Since Freddy was a big scene stealer in the first movie, Jack Dylan Grazer is given a bigger arc in the sequel. Although he still doesn’t have a red cape, Adam Brody at least tries to maintain Captain Marvel Jr.’s Elvis hairstyle. Since Shazam and his family continue to have interchangeable names, Freddy tries to turn “Captain Every Power” into a solo superhero. He fights crime on his own, but the same bullies continue to pick on him at school despite the time he had lunch with Shazam and Superman. Freddy gains the attention of the beautiful new girl Anne. After her breakout debut performance in West Side Story, the Hispanic Rachel Zegler appeared in another major Hollywood movie. Freddy may be awkward, but I believe his chemistry with Anne. He trusts her so much that he reveals his superhero form to her.

Anne is not so surprisingly revealed to be the third Daughter of Atlas and the youngest sister of the three. Anthea is named after Antheia, one of the Charities who was also a goddess of swamps. In the movie, Anthea is less malevolent, but she’s still forced to use her power to reconstruct the world around her. It’s a neat kaleidoscopic effect similar to Doctor Strange. The darkest thing Kalypso does is force Freddy’s friendly teacher to fall to his death. Meanwhile, Hespera uses the staff to depower Freddy and kidnap him. The imprisoned Wizard uses a splinter from the staff to locate who broke it in the first place. He finds Billy in a dream he’s having about a faceless Wonder Woman. It’s a funny scene, but I could do without Hounsou’s face on the stand-in’s body. Shazam tries to fly to the rescue, but he’s too late. Hespera traps Philadelphia under a dome just like The Simpsons Movie. Mary reads about the Daughters of Atlas, but they get further answers from a sentient quill pen named “Steve.” The previously unseen magical library in the Rock of Eternity is pure Harry Potter. Along with the comic accurate flaming violin.

Freddy and the Wizard become an unlikely comedic duo when they’re thrown in prison together. Anthea proves her love for Freddy by showing them a way out. The funniest moment is Hespera reading the full message sent by the Shazamily to release Freddy. They discuss terms over Philly Cheesesteaks and Shazam mentions the Fast and Furious franchise. Which is awkward when you realize Mirren is in the franchise. It leads to a tag team fight where Pedro is depowered, but Hespera is taken prisoner. Though her goal was to get captured just to steal a Golden Apple. The mythological McGuffin is a seed for the Tree of Life that the daughters want to regrow their realm. Though there is tension when the more villainous Kalypso seeks to use the Apple to destroy Earth. The Shazamily catch up to Freddy and he gets his powers back, but they’re too late to stop Kalypso. Hespera and Anthea are betrayed when the former is stabbed and the latter is stripped of her immortality.

In the process, the kids reveal their secret identities to their foster parents. Right before their newly paid off house is destroyed by a dragon. The Power of Access releases the wooden blue flame dragon Ladon from Greek Mythology. Kalypso planting the Apple in Citizens Bank Park also unleashes minotaurs, banshees, cyclopes, and a manticore. Shazam doubts himself to the point of wanting the Wizard to take back his powers, but he’s confident he made the right decision. Rosa earns Billy’s affection by giving him further confidence. With a final “Shazam!” Billy confronts Kalypso and the dragon on his own. Philadelphia citizens begin to warm up to him including an older man on the streets who calls him Captain Marvel. It’s an unexpected callback, but Michael Gray was the original Billy Batson in the forgotten 1970’s Shazam! TV series. Though Freddy, Mary, Pedro, Eugene, and Darla are all depowered, their foster parents drive them around the city trying to help.

Freddy protects the depowered Anthea from the dragon and they share a kiss despite her being over 6,000 years old. The Wizard confirms that unicorns exist and they’re a lot more nightmarish than My Little Pony. Since unicorns are the only thing the monsters fear, Darla befriends them with the closest thing they have to the Nectar of the Gods. Through particularly blatant product placement, the family are allowed to ride the unicorns by feeding them Skittles as Darla yells “Taste the rainbow motherf***er!” While they take care of the monsters in the street, Shazam convinces the dying Hespera to shrink the dome so that he can fight Kalypso and the dragon inside the stadium. The climax is crazy and full of CGI, but it is more personal since Billy is the only one left with powers. The flames blacken his suit to the point he nearly resembles Black Adam. A final “Shazam!” lightning strike is enough to take out the dragon and Kalypso with it.

SPOILER ALERT! Billy also dies in the process of proving himself as the champion. He’s given a proper burial in the Realm of the Gods, unable to return since there are no gods left to resurrect him… until Wonder Woman suddenly shows up for real in a literal deus ex machina. I cheered the moment her badass theme started to play and we see Gal Gadot’s face. It would be an awesome reveal if the stupid TV spots didn’t spoil it before the movie came out. Since Shazam doesn’t have an official love interest, his crush on Diana will have to do. In the end, the family comes together, Freddy is dating Anthea, and the now earthbound Wizard reveals Billy’s superhero name to be… Shazam. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the mid-credits scene, but I have a hard time getting excited at Emila Harcourt and John Economos showing up. Steve Agee only had 3 seperate appearances so far, but this is Jennifer Holland’s 4th appearance in a row.

Amanda Waller continues to act like Nick Fury by recruiting Shazam for the Justice… Society. It’s an awkward scene filled with unnecessary jokes and forced references to The Authority and The Avengers. Apparently the scene was supposed to feature actual members of the Justice Society, but Dwayne Johnson once again stepped in to ruin it. At least the post-credits scene is closer to Shazam! Even though it features Mark Strong’s return as Doctor Sivana and the very slow caterpillar Mister Mind in prison once again doing nothing for over 2 years. I don’t think either scene will go anywhere if James Gunn reboots it. So I do understand some of the criticism for Fury of the Gods. It is unfocused and middle of the road compared to other superhero movies, but it’s not trying to be anything else. Wonder Woman 1984 is significantly more unfocused and a lot harder to get through. All Shazam! Fury of the Gods needed to do was be lighthearted fun, and I like to think my family got exactly what we were looking for.

26. Shazam! Fury of the Gods

The daughters of Atlas

Preceded by: Shazam!

Tell them the Man in Black Sent You

Black Adam did not change the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe. Although the DC Extended Universe has become aimless at this point, there was still an attempt to keep it connected. Black Adam is a supervillain origin story that no one asked for except Dwayne Johnson. Teth-Adam was the original ancient Egyptian champion of the wizard Shazam who made his debut in the 1945 Fawcett comic The Marvel Family #1. Black Adam spent most of his tenure as the archenemy of Captain Marvel before inevitably becoming more of an antihero. Although I’ve grown tired of comic book villains being treated like heroes in their own movie, Johnson has been attached to the role of Black Adam for over 8 years.

The DCEU productions of Shazam! and Black Adam are intrinsically linked together. Although I mentioned the early 2006 development of Shazam! in that review, I left out Dwayne Johnson being approached to play Captain Marvel himself. Thankfully Johnson and the fans realized Black Adam was the better character for him. He was officially cast in 2014, but Warner Bros. started to have second thoughts in 2017. Unfortunately, the Rock’s ego was too big for him to stay the villain or supporting character. It’s practically The Scorpion King or Hobbs & Shaw all over again. A Joker movie makes sense, but no one knew who Black Adam was aside from hardcore fans. Although Black Adam has no reason to exist, it’s an entertaining waste of time…

23. Black Adam

Black Adam in Kahndaq

Black Adam was one of 4 DC projects intended for release in 2022. The Batman, Black Adam, The Flash, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom were all promised in a seriously dated “The World Needs Heroes” teaser. Aside from problems with the Pandemic, troubled productions continue to be the biggest problem. Dwayne Johnson had the utmost confidence in Black Adam. Although Captain Marvel has had many appearances before his own film, Black Adam has only had limited cartoon appearances. His most prominent role was in the 25 minute animated short Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam. Apart from a CGI cameo with Johnson’s likeness in Shazam!, Black Adam was further teased in DC League of Super-Pets. Johnson already voiced Krypto, but I expected a reference to his upcoming role. Since the Rock is a physically imposing superstar, it was only a matter of time before he starred in a superhero movie.

Although star power wasn’t enough to save Black Adam from bad reviews and practically bombing at the box-office. I was just as unenthusiastic to see it as my parents, but we still saw Black Adam in theaters like most DCEU movies. Luckily the unnecessary R rating was toned down to PG-13 before its release. Johnson personally chose Jaume Collet-Serra to direct after previously collaborating on Jungle Cruise. Although Johnson is part Samoan and Collet-Serra is Spanish, the cast is predominantly Middle Eastern. Black Adam takes place in the fictional Egyptian country Kahndaq. The exposition heavy opening is practically intistiguisable from 300, but frequent slow motion action is their biggest attempt to maintain continuity with Zack Snyder. In the year 2,600 BC, King Ahk-Ton enslaves his people and forces them to search for Eternium. The only substance powerful enough to create the demonic Crown of Sabbac. A child stands up to Ahk-Ton and his courage gains the attention of the Council of Wizards.

Djimon Hounsou is the only actor from Shazam! who makes an appearance in the film. They never even acknowledge Billy Batson’s existence. Like the comics, Shazam gives the boy the stamina of Shu, the speed of Horus, the strength of Amon, the wisdom of Zehuti, the power of Aten, and the courage of Mehen. Teth-Adam is given all the same powers of super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and lightning by saying the magic word “Shazam!” Dwayne Johnson bares a striking resemblance to Black Adam, but he couldn’t even bother to wear a black wig with a widow’s peak or the pointy ears that he has in the comics. His costume is similar to Shazam, but the black color scheme leaves the golden lightning bolt looking more weathered. Black Adam may be the lead, but he doesn’t always have the spotlight. The movie is mostly influenced by the 52 comic storyline.

In present day Kahndaq, the country is occupied by the criminal organization Intergang. Although they have futuristic weapons and hover bikes, there’s no direct connection to the New Gods. A group of freedom fighters search for the Crown of Sabbac and end up releasing Teth-Adam after 5,000 years. The lovely Sarah Shahi plays archeologist Adrianna Tomaz. Though the name hasn’t aged as well as it should have, Tomaz is the alter ego of Isis in the comics. Before she was the female counterpart of Black Adam, The Secrets of Isis was the first TV show starring a female superhero. Although she could’ve been a love interest, Adrianna is simply the voice of reason who reads the spell that awakens Teth-Adam. Lesser known comedian Mohammed Amer plays her electrician brother Karim who isn’t in the comics, but serves as the less than funny comic relief. After being miscast as Jafar, Marwan Kenzari plays yet another pathetic villain who leaves little impression. Ishmael Gregor is the militant leader of Intergang who betrays his friends to get the Crown.

Teth-Adam arrives cloaked in a tattered black cape. Intergang members are violently electrocuted and blown up, but an Eternium rocket is the only thing powerful enough to weaken him. Since action scenes are set to songs like “Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones or “Power” by Kanye West, there’s no reason to take anything too seriously. Black Adam may not have a Marvel equivalent, but it does have a lot in common with Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Bodhi Sabongui plays Adrianna’s totally radical skateboarding son Amon who teaches Teth-Adam to be more 21st Century. He even gives him a catchphrase that becomes a recurring gag. Along with constantly walking through walls. Although Johnson doesn’t bother to change his voice, his stoic performance is fun to watch. Unlike Freddy Freeman, Amon is a far more annoying fan of real life DC superheroes. Amon is from the comics just like his mom, but Osiris is just as absent as Isis.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Flash are acknowledged, but it’s confusing that they only use comic book images. Amon wants Teth-Adam to be Kahndaq’s superhero, but the latter loves to remind the audience that he’s no hero. Even though most DCEU superheroes have killed people, someone needs to resist his methods. Without Shazam or the Justice League, the Justice Society make their cinematic debut. The Justice Society of America have a long and complicated history, but the Golden Age superhero team predates the Silver Age Justice League by 2 decades. When DC established the multiverse, the Justice League became part of “Earth-One” and the Justice Society became part of “Earth-Two.” When the Crisis on Infinite Earths merged the world’s together, a new generation of Justice Society members took the place of the World War II era heroes.

It may seem difficult to adapt, but the Justice Society have had more live-action appearances than the Justice League. They first appeared in the 2 part Smallville special “Absolute Justice,” a 1942 set episode of Legends of Tomorrow, and their biggest appearance yet in Stargirl. Stargirl is easily the best use of the expansive team since Black Adam is limited to 2 older heroes and 2 younger heroes. The Justice Society consists of: Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Atom Smasher, and Cyclone. Hawkman was first introduced as Carter Hall in the 1940 Flash Comics #1. Hall was an archeologist reincarnation of the ancient Egyptian Prince Khufu. A Silver Age version of Hawkman named Katar Hol was introduced in the 1961 The Brave and the Bold #34. Hol was an alien police officer from the planet Thanagar.

Though Hawkman has a confusing history, he is the most recognizable hero in the movie. Hawkman has been portrayed by Michael Shanks on Smallville and Falk Hentschel on Legends of Tomorrow. Both versions manage to pull off the goofy Nth Metal wing helmet, wings, and mace that Hawkman is known for. Aldis Hodge is very much miscast as a race swapped version of Carter Hall. It made a lot more sense for him to voice John Stewart in the animated Green Lantern: Beware My Power. Hawkman isn’t a smooth black guy and his moral code makes him unlikable the more they try to justify Black Adam killing criminals. Although Hawkman uses Nth Metal weapons, his gold and maroon wingsuit doesn’t look as good as the TV versions. Hall is a billionaire like Bruce Wayne who leads the Justice Society and operates from his mansion. His Hawk Cruiser is almost exactly the same as the X-Jet.

The DCEU continues to treat Amanda Waller like Nick Fury even though that was never her role in the comics. Viola Davis appears entirely on a computer screen to tell Hall to arrest Teth-Adam. So he calls in the rest of his team. Doctor Fate was first introduced in the 1940 More Fun Comics #55. Kent Nelson was another archeologist who became Doctor Fate after awakening the spirit of Nabu. Unlike most superheroes, Fate’s mystical power is only granted when possessed by the Helmet of Fate. The darker side of Doctor Fate has been portrayed a number of times in other media, but Black Adam misses the point of the character with how frequently he removes his helmet. Even though Pierce Brosnan brings a ton of gravitas in his old age. Kent Nelson is an old friend of Hawkman haunted by his fate in the future. Fate’s mystical powers include flight and replication. The Doctor Fate costume may be CGI, but its gold & blue color scheme is accurate to the comics. Although his helmet is mostly expressionless.

Atom Smasher is the exact opposite of Atom since his only power is growth. Albert Rothstein was first named Nuklon in the 1983 The All-Star Squadron #25 before using the name Atom Smasher in the 1996 Kingdom Come #2. Netflix heartthrob Noah Centineo is either trying to replicate Ant-Man or Spider-Man. Whatever he’s trying to do, his bumbling quips don’t work. Although not enough to warrant Hawkman’s presistant dislike of him. The red & blue Atom Smasher costume covers his entire body with a Deadpool mask. His growing is like Ant-Man, but the CGI is a lot less convincing. Like the comics, Al looks up to the original Atom Al Pratt. In the movie he’s an uncle for some reason played by Henry Winkler in a literal phoned in cameo. Although it would’ve made sense to have Hawkgirl or Stargirl on the team, the obscure Cyclone is the final female member of the team. Maxine Hunkel was the granddaughter of the original Red Tornado Ma Hunkel who didn’t get the name Cyclone until the 2007 Justice Society of America #1.

Cyclone is essentially a human tornado with genius level intellect injected by nanobots. Though she has a green costume and red hair, Quintessa Swindell is another race swapped actress playing a natural redhead. I don’t really care since Cyclone and Atom Smasher barely leave an impression no matter how many times they flirt with each other. The Justice Society is mostly around to give Black Adam something to punch. They fight off and on several times before deciding to work together. Though Hawkman continues to be hostile towards Teth-Adam. Amon hides the crown that Intergang is after. When Amon is kidnapped, Teth-Adam, Adrianna, and the Justice Society find him at their Eternium infused base. Turns out Ishmael is the descendant of Ahk-Ton who wishes to rule Kahndaq in present day.

Before he has the chance to wear the Crown of Sabbac, Teth-Adam kills Ishmael with an explosive force that knocks out Amon. Although it feels arbitrary, Teth-Adam willingly gives up his power after explaining his true origin. SPOILER ALERT! The real champion of Kahndaq was actually Teth-Adam’s son Hurut. Johnson’s head is superimposed onto a skinnier body with Young Rock actor Uli Latukefu as the superhero Hurut. Teth-Adam becomes Black Adam when his son dies giving his power to his father. The vengeful Teth-Adam was imprisoned by the Wizards after using his power to destroy Ahk-Ton’s kingdom. When Teth-Adam says “Shazam!” again, he’s taken to a Task Force X black site where he’s kept in suspended animation unable to speak. After her R rated appearances in The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, Jennifer Holland has a brief cameo as Emilia Harcourt without her husband’s involvement.

Just like Suicide Squad, the last minute villain is more villainous than the “antihero” in the starring role. There’s nothing more evil than a literal demon given powers in Hell by a council of demons. It would be disturbing if Sabbac wasn’t an over-the-top demon with awful CGI. Not to mention the cliché use of a skybeam. That’s the second time Kenzari became red in a film’s messy climax. Adrianna and Karim are busy fighting skeleton zombies after Amon tells Kahndaq to take back the country. The Justice Society hold off Sabbac, but Doctor Fate releases Teth-Adam before choosing to accept his fate. Black Adam returns with a bold new costume that includes a black cape. The villain may be lame, but Teth-Adam perfecting his catchphrase “Tell them the man in black sent you” is pretty badass. Hawkman accepts Teth-Adam’s brand of justice and Atom Smasher hints at their comic book friendship by suggesting a team up.

The iconic 52 #45 cover is recreated when Black Adam sits on his throne before destroying it. He only gets the name Black Adam after the credits when Amon suggests something less old fashioned. The mid-credits scene was clearly the movie’s biggest selling point. When Waller threatens Black Adam, she sends someone from another planet to challenge him. I got excited the moment Superman stepped out of the shadows with the classic John Williams theme. Despite numerous faceless cameos, Johnson finally managed to get Henry Cavill back in a more colorful suit. Promising a bright future for Cavill as the Man of Steel… before he was immediately let go. Now we’ll never know who would win in a fight against Superman and Black Adam. Dwayne Johnson’s confidence that Black Adam would change the DCEU didn’t pay off since he should’ve been Shazam’s main antagonist from the beginning.

24. Black Adam

Black Adam sits on his throne

Spin-Off of: Shazam!

Capture Every Moment 🎥

The Fabelmans is the most personal film of Steven Spielberg’s career. Although Spielberg’s childhood is reflected in so much of his work, it would be 23 years before he committed to telling his life story. Albeit with the fictional family name Fabelman. The Fabelmans was a passion project that brought together Spielberg’s most frequent collaborators. With Tony Kushner as a writer, Kristie Macosko Krieger as a producer, and Janusz Kamiński as cinematographer. It was prolific composer John Williams’ 29th collaboration with Spielberg. His score is intimate enough to capture the magic of filmmaking. Though The Fabelmans sadly didn’t win a single Oscar, I’m happy the movie and Spielberg at least won a deserving Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director. Along with his production company Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg was also reunited with his very first film studio Universal Pictures. As someone who has loved movies their entire life, I can relate to The Fabelmans on a personal level. We experience Spielberg’s upbringing through the eyes of Sammy Fabelman.

Although The Greatest Show on Earth is one of the weaker Best Picture winners, it was the spectacular train crash that inspired his love of filmmaking. Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord capture’s Sammy’s imagination in the palm of his hands, but it’s Gabriel LaBelle who captures the nervous teenager behind the camera. Like Spielberg, Sammy shoots a variety of home movies with his family and friends on an 8mm camera. Movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance inspire a Western film and his father’s service inspire his passion for World War II pictures. Though they didn’t live to see it, Spielberg used the film to reconcile with his parents and grow closer to his three younger sisters. Michelle Williams gives a free spirited Oscar worthy performance as Sammy’s pianist mother Mitzi. As the family moves across the country, she experiences depression, buys a monkey, and develops a strained relationship with her son. Paul Dano is just as complex as Sammy’s computer engineer father Burt who sees filmmaking as a hobby.

Since their divorce was a major influence on Spielberg’s career, we see just how much it impacts their family. Natalie and Lisa have their moments, but it’s Julia Butters as Reggie who has the biggest say in her brother’s life. Her inspiration Anne Spielberg was originally meant to be a co-writer on the film. Since the Fabelmans are very Jewish, we see them celebrate Hanukkah and experience anti-Semitism in their California home. Though I was only uncomfortable when Sammy started to date a Catholic girl. Seth Rogen is a surprisingly fitting close friend of the family who ends up breaking them up. Though it’s actually Judd Hirsch who earned an Oscar nomination over 40 years later for his brief performance as Sammy’s grunkle Boris who gives him a passionate speech about the highs and lows of making art. Sammy’s films are powerful enough to effect even his worst enemy, but he still needs to get his foot in the door. Director David Lynch has an unexpected cameo as another famous director who gives Sammy the hilariously blunt advice he needs to become one of the greatest directors of all time. The Fabelmans is truly a master filmmaker rediscovering his passion.

The Fabelmans

Burt and Mitzi Fabelman take Sammy to see his first movie

Where’s Arnie?

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a lot for any young man to take in. Though Johnny Depp proved himself as a dramatic lead, the movie belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. At 19 years old, DiCaprio received his first of many Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. He probably would’ve won if not for Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Like Rain Man, Gilbert Grape is the primary caregiver of his mentally disabled brother Arnie. Playing someone with autism is a tricky thing to get right, but DiCaprio captures the highs and lows of the disorder. Arnie can be a handful, but he loves to climb trees and the local water tower.

DiCaprio may have gotten all the attention, but Depp’s role shouldn’t be understated. Gilbert is very relatable since everyone expects him to take care of the family. Laura Harrington and Mary Kate Schellhardt play his sister Amy and Ellen who take different approaches to caring for Arnie and their mother. Arnie isn’t the only one with special needs since their mama Bonnie is morbidly obese and hasn’t left the house in years. Darlene Cates wasn’t a professional actress, but you can tell the role was personal for her. Peter Hedges wrote the book and screenplay about a small town in Iowa where everyone knows each other.

Gilbert works hard at a small mom & pop shop that’s slowly losing business to a bigger store. John C. Reilly plays a handyman friend of the family and Crispin Glover plays the weird local mortician. Mary Steenburgen is surprisingly hot as a married mother of two trying to hide an affair with Gilbert. Kevin Tighe plays her husband who’s put in a very uncomfortable position. Juliette Lewis plays the much younger Becky who manages to open up Gilbert despite his reservations about his family. With Arnie’s birthday approaching, Gilbert questions his life and learns to appreciate what he has. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an emotionally thoughtful character study.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Gilbert comforts Arnie

Cadillac of the Skies

Empire of the Sun explores World War II through the eyes of an innocent child. Steven Spielberg manages to bring together his love of coming-of-age stories with his fascination of WWII. Though epic filmmaker David Lean was originally set to direct, it was too personal for Spielberg not to direct himself. Empire of the Sun was equally personal for author J. G. Ballard who based the story on his own experience living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. I’m not too familiar with that side of the war, but Spielberg has a way of making any topic easy to understand. The cinematography captures the wonder of Shanghai and the John Williams score finds hope in a hopeless situation.

Empire of the Sun was nominated for 5 Oscars, but like The Color Purple, it didn’t win a single one. Most people will remember a very young Christian Bale in his first major film role. Though he was only 12 at the time, Bale believably captures the loss of innocence. Empire of the Sun is PG, but this is no children’s film. Jamie is a spoiled English boy with a lovely singing voice who enjoys riding his bike, questions his faith, and mistreats his Chinese servants. His deep love of planes is the only thing he manages to hold onto when he’s separated from his parents and sent to live in a Japanese internment camp. Jim brings hope to imprisoned English and American citizens while even earning respect from Japanese pilots.

John Malkovich is uncharacteristically caring as the American Basie who takes Jim under his wing. Joe Pantoliano is a bit less accepting as his second-in-command Frank. What really surprised me was seeing young comedian Ben Stiller as one of the soldiers. Nigel Havers plays a doctor at the camp who tries to keep Jim grounded. Though events like Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War are mentioned, Jim witnesses the bombing of Nagasaki from a distance. The scene includes Miranda Richardson as one of the many malnourished POW’s. By the time the war ends, Jim is an entirely different person. Empire of the Sun soars as high as Spielberg’s most acclaimed WWII projects.

Empire of the Sun

Jim touches a fighter plane

A Girl Worth Fighting For

Mulan II brought a lot less honor to the Disney heroine. Since I love Mulan as much as the best Disney Renaissance films, I guess I ignored the problems of the direct-to-video sequel. I distinctly remember my brother and I watching Mulan II for the first time on the Disney Channel. Critics were rarely kind to Disney sequels, but 0% on Rotten Tomatoes is a bad sign. The animation captures the Chinese water colors of the original, but it is brighter with some over exaggerated movement. Almost the entire cast returns with Ming-Na Wen, BD Wong, George Takei, and the late Pat Morita doing the best with the material they’re given. Although I was happy to see Mulan and Shang become an official couple with a marriage proposal. It’s also nice to see Mulan treated as an equal without having to dress like a man. Local girls look up to Mulan and faun over Captain Shang. Like Return of Jafar, the scene stealing Disney sidekick is replaced by a soundalike.

The caucasian Mark Moseley is a decent Eddie Murphy voice double, but Mushu doesn’t even feel like the same character. Let’s just say Murphy made the right choice to reprise his role in a different animated sequel that same year. Since Mulan and Shang are as different as yin & yang, Mushu practically becomes the villain who tries to break them up just to save his guardian job. Sure Mushu could be selfish, but at least his heart used to be in the right place. Cri-Kee calls him out and so does Mulan when she learns the truth. Mulan and Shang are appointed by the Emperor to escort his three princess daughters to an arranged marriage with the Qui Gong kingdom. Mulan II is flawed, but one redeeming quality is the forbidden romance between the princesses and Mulan’s three closest comrades. Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po are just as enjoyable as they were before. They’re respectively paired with Princess Ting-Ting, Mei, and Su. Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, and Lauren Tom are all proven Asian voice actresses who bring plenty of personality to their duty bound princesses.

Yao may be rough on the outside, but Mei quickly falls in love and marvels at his strength. The adorable Su brings plenty of food to win Chien-Po’s heart. Although she matches his description from the first movie, Ling now wants a girl like the refined Ting-Ting who laughs at his jokes. Despite breaking up thanks to Mushu, Mulan is forced to lose her true love during a Mongol attack. The scene is surprisingly emotional, but Shang survives similar to how Aragon survived his fall in The Two Towers. Mulan nearly unites the kingdoms herself, but Mushu mostly redeems himself by calling off the arranged marriages. Although Mulan is the only Disney Princess who didn’t kiss her Prince in the first movie, they finally share a kiss and get married in the end. Songs are limited like the original, but “Lesson Number One” at least benefits from Lea Salonga. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is the only returning song, but it is a more comedic redux. “(I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls” is a genuinely catchy anthem for the liberated princesses. For all its faults, Mulan II isn’t the worst they could come up with.

16. Mulan II

Mulan and Shang entertain the children

Preceded by: Mulan

All for One and One for All

Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers is the first (and so far only) adaptation I’ve seen of the classic 1844 Alexandre Dumas novel. There have been many movies based on The Three Musketeers, but it helps that Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy are the stars. Although they’ve been featured in many movies, The Three Musketeers is technically their first feature length film. It was also sadly the final Mickey Mouse related film with traditional animation. It’s not a Disney sequel, but it is underrated compared to other direct-to-video productions. My brother and I actually watched The Three Musketeers a lot growing. Even though I’m still not familiar with the original story. The idea for a Three Musketeers movie starring the iconic Disney trio is as old as the 80’s. At one point it would’ve been theatrical and included José Carioca in the cast.

Instead The Three Musketeers is a comedic retelling narrated by the French singing turtle Troubadour. He reads a comic where the original Three Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis inspire Mickey and friends to one day become Musketeers. Instead they’re janitors who get into all sorts of wacky antics with Pluto by their side. Despite Mickey being too small, Donald being too cowardly, and Goofy being a dufus, they’re appointed as Musketeers by the Captain of the guard. Of course the dastardly villain is Captain Pete who wants to be King of France. The Beagle Boys are his henchmen who plan on kidnapping the Princess. Minnie Mouse is the lovesick Princess who falls madly in love with Mickey. Daisy Duck is her lady in waiting who reluctantly falls for Donald. Although Goofy has never had an official love interest, he falls for Clarabelle Cow who works for Pete before being redeemed.

The swashbuckling action is fun and surprisingly violent for Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Together they learn the true meaning of “All for one and one for all.” The music is a fun combination of original lyrics and classical songs. There’s the signature “All for One and One for All” in the style of “Can-Can,” the romantic “Love So Lovely” in the style of The Nutcracker, the catchy villain song “Petey’s King of France” in the style of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” “Sweet Wings of Love” in the style of “The Blue Danube,” “Chains of Love” in the style of Carmen, and the powerful “This is the End” in the style of Beethoven. There’s a hilarious opera themed running gag and the climax uses songs from The Pirates of Penzance. Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers is the best way Disney could bring another classic story to life.

Mickey, Donald, Goofy The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers

Hakuna Matata

The Lion King 1½ is The Lion King from a funnier perspective. Although Disney considered making The Lion King III, Timon & Pumbaa really do get all the attention. They already have their own self titled animated series. If The Lion King is Hamlet and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride is Romeo & Juliet, then it only makes sense for The Lion King 1½ to be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Although the Tom Stoppard play wasn’t written by William Shakespeare, it is essentially Hamlet from the perspective of his childhood friends. The title The Lion King 1½ refers to the movie being set between events of the first movie. Not only was it the first feature under the DisneyToon Studios banner, The Lion King 1½ is genuinely one of the best direct-to-video Disney movies. I distinctly remember when my brother and I rented it on DVD since we unfortunately watched it at the same time as the Oscars. Like Simba’s Pride, the animation is given the royal treatment and almost the entire cast returns once again. This time Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella are promoted to main characters.

The Lion King 1½ uses a hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 framing device with Timon & Pumba rewinding and fast forwarding through the first movie. Timon is given slightly more attention with his origin as the black sheep of the meerkats. Marge Simpson herself Julie Kavner voices another protective mother who loves her special little guy. Jerry Stiller voices his less patient Uncle Max. Since they were absent from Simba’s Pride, the hyenas are promoted to main villains. Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings all return as Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed. Despite not knowing who the monkey was in the first movie, Rafiki inspires Timon to live by Hakuna Matata. When Timon meets Pumbaa, they slowly become the best of friends. Since I obviously know The Lion King by heart, it was fun to see the Disney sidekicks unknowingly affect famous scenes. Turns out the bowing animals during “Circle of Life” were actually fainting from Pumbaa’s gas. The animals falling over each other during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” were knocked down by Timon. They try to find a new home at Pride Rock, the elephant graveyard, Scar’s lair, and the ravine before finding their own place.

Zazu has a few lines, but Mufasa and Scar don’t speak. Young Simba understandably had to be recast by the time they find him. We see more of their parenting and even a disgusting snail slurping scene with teenage Simba. By this point Matthew Broderick returns to voice the older Simba. When Nala arrives, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is made even more comedic with Timon & Pumbaa failing to stop their romance. Everything else plays out the same, but Timon learns a lesson about friendship. During the climax, Timon digs a tunnel that leads the hyenas directly to Scar. When the movie ends, we get several unexpected silhouette cameos from Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and other Disney characters. The soundtrack is a bit more commercial with songs like “Grazing in the Grass,” The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and “Jungle Boogie.” “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof is particularly out of nowhere. Excerpts are heard from the original soundtrack, but obviously “Hakuna Matata” is heard in its entirety (as a sing-along). Elton John and Tim Rice return to write “That’s All I Need,” but it’s nowhere near as catchy as the opening meerkat anthem “Diggah Tunnah.” The Lion King 1½ ain’t no passing craze.

15. The Lion King 1½

Timon and Pumba charge

Intertwined with: The Lion King & Followed by: The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride

Experiment 626

Stitch! The Movie is the fastest direct-to-video Disney sequel to date. It only took one year for Disney to figure out how to continue the franchise. Since Lilo & Stitch is my favorite movie from the Post-Renaissance, I was immediately on board with a sequel. Despite rudely dropping Lilo from the title, Stitch! The Movie serves as a backdoor pilot for Lilo & Stitch: The Series. Unlike most Disney Channel shows, my brother and I actually watched all 65 episodes of the animated series. Even with TV quality animation, almost the entire original voice cast returns for the sequel. Jumba and Pleakley now live with Lilo, Stitch, and Nani in their Hawaiian home rebuilt with alien technology.

Lilo helps Stitch find cousins to call his own, Nani explores her relationship with David, and Pleakley continues to wear drag. Stitch! The Movie is the perfect setup for a series since Jumba unveils a pod containing the other 625 experiments. Although Stitch is Experiment 626, I never considered that there were more. The “big dummy” Gantu returns to Earth to kidnap Jumba and bring the experiments to his former evil partner Dr. Hämsterviel. The diminutive hamster-like villain is a great main antagonist for the sequel and its series.

We’re also introduced to the hilarious 625, who has all of Stitch’s powers and can speak, but is also a coward who only makes sandwiches. The primary experiment is 221, a mischievous electrical experiment that Lilo affectionately names Sparky. Cobra Bubbles is called in to help and the Grand Councilwoman is also informed of the loose experiments. The movie jumps back and forth between Earth and space, but the rest of the 623 experiments are spread across Hawaii. Lilo & Stitch are tasked with finding and rehabilitating everyone of them. The catchy end credits song “Aloha, E Komo Mai” ended up being the opening song for the series. Stitch! The Movie is something every Lilo & Stitch fan should appreciate.

Stitch! The Movie

Stitch protects Experiment 221

Preceded by: Lilo & Stitch & Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch & Followed by: Leroy & Stitch

Team Atlantis

Atlantis: Milo’s Return is the first direct-to-video Disney sequel based on a Post-Renaissance movie. It was only 2 years after Atlantis: The Lost Empire, but it wasn’t the sequel they had in mind. Atlantis is one of the more underrated Disney movies, but it wasn’t successful enough to start a franchise. Instead Disney repurposed another failed animated series. Although the lines are blurred with additional animation, Milo’s Return consists of three episodes from the unproduced Team Atlantis

Kraken – The first episode centers around the legend of the kraken. The movie is framed with Milo and Kida being reuniting with Team Atlantis and going on adventures. They’re joined by some kind of pet sidekick lava lizard. The newly appointed Queen Kida exploring the outside world is fun to watch. Connecting the Kraken to their civilization makes sense, but the episode is more like a ghost story connected to a mysterious Norwegian town. Unlike the Leviathan, the kraken is a real creature that the team fights with submarines.

Spirit of the West – The next episode centers around a Western legend. Seeing Team Atlantis in the old west is certainly different, but they do manage to connect it with Atlantis. This time they fight coyote spirits and a greedy shop owner. When they find a Native American spirit guide, they discover an ancient Atlantean ruin.

Spear of Destiny – The last episode centers around Norse legend. The winter setting presents further challenges for Team Atlantis, but that’s the least of their worries. A lot of Norse legend is incorporated with Whitmore’s competitor believing himself to be Odin and unleashing Ragnarök with a crystal Atlantean staff. Kida is more actively involved since Odin believes her to be Valkyrie. The movie ends on a high note with Atlantis finally being raised to the surface.

In conclusion, Atlantis: Milo’s Return makes the most of a promising premise. I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed a Team Atlantis show centered around different legends. I know my brother showed me Milo’s Return when I was younger, but I have a hard time remembering it. The Mike Mignola animation may be TV quality, but almost the entire voice cast returns. Kida, Vinnie, Audrey, Mole, Sweet, and Packard all have their moments because of it. This was sadly Florence Stanley’s final voice role and Steven Barr had to replace Jim Varney as Cookie. James Arnold Taylor is a suitable replacement for Milo since Michael J. Fox couldn’t return. Despite their best effort, Atlantis: Milo’s Return would’ve made a better TV series.

14. Atlantis Milo's Return

Team Atlantis

Preceded by: Atlantis: The Lost Empire