Mary Poppins Returns

For a nostalgia junkie like me, this premise was catnip, with a potential for disaster. The original “Mary Poppins” is one of the pivotal films of my childhood.  It was the one movie that I distinctly remember my grandmother taking me to. I also recall listening to the soundtrack with my friend Kathy Callen and singing the words from the songs, because in those days there was no home video, we relived the movie through the music. So I wanted to revisit the characters and the setting of the movie, but there is always trepidation when a sequel comes along, especially when it if fifty plus years later. As things worked out, we are all in good hands. Rob Marshall has made a career out of bringing musicals to the screen and this original story with new songs fills our expectations in a number of ways.

The first thing the movie gets right is the tone of the story. There is some melancholy over a Mother who has passed, a family on the brink of financial ruin, and some grown ups who have forgotten what it is to be imaginative. Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up and face some adult problems, and Mary Poppins is really there for them. Michael’s children are doing their best to be mature in the face of their family upheavals, but it is taking a massive toll on their childhood. When Mary Poppins drops out of the sky and into their lives, they are not being given a chance to grow up, but rather, to enjoy a childhood they might lose. OK, that’s the serious part and it fades into the background quickly to give the main focus of the film full range. This movie is a visual confection, designed to entertain us with old fashioned story telling and traditional film making. An occasional boost from computer technology is present, but you never get the idea that this is a series of ones and zeros being manipulated to show us something that can’t possibly be there. I know that the London Clock Tower was not used an actual location, but because so much of the film relies on studio backstreets and real sets, the magic sells much more readily. Kites and Umbrellas are real, so it’s OK that the Dance Hall is a digital fabrication.

There is a nice chunk of the story told in animation, and it was such a pleasure to see traditional two dimensional line drawings and cartoon characters. Shamus the Coachman and Clyde the Horse are refreshingly old fashioned characters that look like they could have been part of the original film. They also lack the irony that so many comic moments in a contemporary film comedy would require. If we had just had the animation section of the movie, this would be a delight. Mary and Jack, dance and cavort with penguins and a variety of other critters in a show piece dance number that is all flash and fun. The cotton candy the children are indulging in while watching is exactly what I felt like I was consuming. Something sweet, light and airy, and it was utterly delicious. If there are critics of this film ( and I know there will be), I suspect one of their complaints will be how this movie mines the beats of the first film, in much the way “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” copied the original. There is an extended animated sequence as noted, there is also a visit to an eccentric relative of Mary Poppins to try to address a problem and a light-hearted comic sequence ensues. We don’t have chimney sweeps, but we do get lamplighters who also wear dark vestments and dance on high with props, in ths case, bicycles rather than brooms. Instead of the suffragette that the original Mrs. Banks was, Jane is some kind of labor organizer. Thankfully, just as in the original, we are spared that as backstory and it is simply a characteristic to add color to the character.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a suitable performer for this film, he has talent and charisma enough to hold the screen when it is his. I was very much surprised to notice that this talented, Tony Award winning, Academy Award Nominated songwriter, contributed only his voice to the songs featured in the film. If I have any reservations about the movie it is that the songs are serviceable and nice but not memorable. There is nothing equivalent to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Feed the Birds” or”Supercalifragalisticexpealidocious”.  Maybe with subsequent viewings, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “A Cover is not the Book” could in fact be hum-able and repeated, but it is a little too early to tell.

The not so secret weapon of this movie is Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. Whatever vocal skills she has, and they are considerable, she could hardly match Julie Andrews, so she doesn’t really need to try. She adds a different characteristic to the film. Mary’s flintiness falls away on a regular basis and she enthusiastically engages in the nonsense songs as joyfully as the children or Jack, the character played by Miranda. She sings beautifully and she dances with vigor and she looks the part the whole time. Mary Poppins is not the emotional center of the film, she is the initiator and reflector of the emotions that are being felt by others and Blunt is quietly and forcefully in control, even when she acts out. I thought she was fantastic in “A Quiet Place” earlier this year, this is a completely different performance but it is just as noteworthy. She may end up competing with herself in the Awards season.

The movie is also filled with other performers who manage to get a little extra into the movie. Meryl Streep doesn’t really need to be here but she worked with Marshall before and she is in this just long enough and not any more. Angela Lansbury and Julie Walters also add a bit of English charm to the story. Walters is amusing and Lansbury is just the right light touch at the end of the movie. Colin Firth has only a couple of scenes where he twirls his mustache and tries to look like Walt Disney himself.  The most amazing element in the supporting cast however is Dick Van Dyke, playing the older version of a different character from the first film. He has one scene and the ninety three year old, dances and sings like it was still 1964. He has a thousand watt smile that is the perfect cherry on the top of this dessert.

If you are a cynic, a hipster, or someone who thinks films need to promote a social justice agenda, there is not really anything here for you. However, if you are a child at heart, or the parent of children, or you want to feel like a child again, then this is right where you want to be. This is a holiday entertainment that will please families and leave you with a song in your heart, although the lyrics might not be there as well.

Moana

 

Back in 1991, I took my two small children, 3 and 5 at the time, to see “Beauty and the Beast“. It was one of my favorite memories of their childhood and my fatherhood. They loved the movie and my oldest was so passionately involved that she cried out to warn Belle and the Beast when the villagers are led by Gaston in an attack on the castle. Three years ago, I saw “Frozen” and I imagined that little girls would love it much as my kids had responded to the ’91 film, and it seems they did. My youngest daughter, 26 at the time was unimpressed, and while I thought it was a fine film, it did not have the same impact on me as the early film did. Today I saw a movie that reminded me so much of that late November 1991 experience, I wished I had two small children to share it with. Nostalgia, not being what it once was, leaves me to respond to this movie mostly on my own. “Moana” is great.

Pins a got as a Premiere Stubbs Card Holder at The AMC Theater Today

I don’t think I even saw a teaser for the movie before we went today. I’d listened to a podcast or two where it had been discussed, and since I mostly avoid reading reviews until after I have seen a movie, this was really more surprise than I had anticipated. The look of the animation is marvelous. The characters are designed to accurately depict south sea island people and the characters of “Moana”, her father and grandmother but especially “Maui” are spectacularly authentic and beautiful. The opening sequence with Moana as a toddler, being called to the ocean is charming as all get out. Even the animated water tentacle that reminded me so much of the early CGI work in “The Abyss” had personality to it. The island home is lush and the people, songs and way of life are the sorts of things that drab landlubbers are going to dream of when they imagine escaping to a deserted island and retiring to the good life.

There are some of the same patterns of defiance, growth and independence by a young girl that I saw in the story of Belle 25 years ago. There is also a character song like in so many of these films, where the heroine sings of her dreams and obligations and the burden that she feels. So it might seem that the story is conventional Disney Princess territory. I think that’s going to be a cliche that gets used anytime a young girl is the featured character in a Disney story and I think it’s a little unfair. “Moana” is very different, especially in one of the most important ways. Unlike Ariel, Belle, Mulan, Rapunzel and the rest, there is no love story here. Romance is not part of this equation, unless you count the love that Moana has for her island home and people. This is a very straightforward quest film with high adventure and a lot of humor built in, but there is no subplot about marriage or choosing the one you feel the most for. The writers of the story seem to have drawn heavily from Polynesian mythology, but almost certainly there are the usual Disney variations to keep the story on track and simplify the points being made. I thought it was a unique perspective and made the peoples of the area so interesting to me. There were some similar themes in “Whale Rider” from 2002.

Auli’i Cravalho is a nice discovery as the voice of “Moana”. I loved the line readings she gives as she practices the speech she plans on giving to Maui when she tracks him down. The greatest treasure in the film however is the presence of a man who might have at one time been a punchline in the film business, but today stands astride the movie world as a major star and an ambassador of goodwill from film makers everywhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has charisma oozing out of his whole body, and it fills the screen here, even though he does not appear on the screen and only his voice is used to act his character. The animators do their job to make Maui fun and interesting. He is a bit of a goat to begin with, but a very confident demi-god and able to ignore his own transgression, up to a point. His performance of the Lin-Manuel Miranda song, “You’re Welcome”, is right up there with “Gaston” and “Prince Ali” as odes to characters that are self inflated and hysterical at the same time. The use of tribal tattoos on his body to tell his backstory and his faults is a brilliant story telling trick that works very well for an animated feature. It’s one of the many things that reminded me of that soon to be live action film, just as the film makers in Beauty and the Beast found a way to make the story sing with the anthropomorphic furniture, the drawing on Maui’s body let us know more about the character without having to leave the main plot.

There are at least two very entertaining sequences where Maui and Moana have to work together to overcome adversaries. The Kakamora warrior attack will remind you of every Mad Max film. The chase across the ocean looks like something right out of “Fury Road”. While I was less impressed with the fight against Tamatoa, the jewel encrusted crab monster, it still had a number of clever bits to it and again, it shows the creativity of the film from a number of different points. There were times in which I felt I was watching something a little more strange than is expected from a Disney film. The Ocean voyage was sometimes reminiscent of a Japanese Anime film. There were some meta jokes about the whole “Princess” concept, and the focus on the two main characters was much more involved than the usual pack of side kicks and comic relief.

moana_ver4

 

This has been a particularly good year for animated features.

For once , Pixar is unlikely to be the favorite at Oscar Time. I might still give the edge to “Kubo and the Two Strings”, but “Moana” is a worthy entry and I thought it was very much more fulfilling than even some of the most financially successful animated films this year. If you have kids, take them and make it a special holiday excursion. Get them some popcorn, go Christmas shopping afterwards, and laugh with them over the jokes in this movie. I think you will be making a memory for them which will be something they can treasure decades from now. I wish I had grand kids that I could have taken to see this movie, but if you go because of anything I wrote here, it will be a little bit like I was there, taking you to see it. Merry Christmas memories to you.