A success, to be blunt
By: Matt Brunson
While millions of moviegoers both young and old continue to find 1964’s Mary Poppins a motion picture that’s practically perfect in every way, the dirty secret for those not completely invested in its nostalgic pull is that it’s ofttimes arid and unwieldy. It’s packed with delightful songs and electrifying interludes, but it’s also frequently lumbering when it should be lithe, and its 140-minute length requires us to spend too much time with the rather drab Banks parents. As for Julie Andrews, she excels in her Oscar-winning turn as the title nanny, but the part doesn’t allow her much variation or variety — she’s actually much more enchanting and alive in the following year’s smash musical The Sound of Music.
Ergo, one’s enjoyment of the 54-years-later sequel Mary Poppins Returns (three out of four stars) might depend on one’s POV regarding the original film. If one holds the OG Mary Poppins in the highest esteem imaginable, then this follow-up is sure to disappoint; if one can see room for accommodation and equality, then this new film is sure to entertain.
Certainly, even the detractors already popping a cap in Poppins have conceded that Emily Blunt was the right choice to assume the Andrews mantle. As the magically endowed nanny who reappears in 1935 (25 years after the first film’s timeframe) to again aid the Banks family, she’s an absolute delight, retaining Andrews’ frosty demeanor but adding a spark of sly mischievousness to her interpretation.
The Banks family can certainly use some assistance, as the now grown-up children from the first film, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), are in danger of losing the family home to the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (repped by Colin Firth’s wolfish president) and Michael’s three small children are being ignored by their well-meaning but weary and widowed father. Therefore, it’s up to Mary to entertain the moppets, receiving invaluable assistance from Jack the lamplighter (Hamilton guru Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Mary’s daffy cousin Topsy (more overexposure for Meryl Streep). Cue the songs as Mary takes the kids on a nautical adventure (“Can You Imagine That?”), Mary and Jack take part in a music hall extravaganza alongside animated figures (“A Cover Is Not the Book”), and Jack and his fellow lamplighters help the children find their way home (the show-stopping dance number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”).
Mary Poppins Returns is slow getting out of the gate (the first song, “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky,” is one of the weakest), but once Blunt shows up, it picks up considerably. Blunt is the linchpin, yet the entire cast is well-chosen, and it’s particularly delightful to see the co-star of the original film, 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke, turn up to briefly perform a soft-shoe number (other old-timers invited to the party are 93-year-old Angela Lansbury as the Balloon Lady and 77-year-old David Warner as Admiral Boom).
In Mary Poppins Returns, plot doesn’t count as much as pomp, and the central figure occasionally feels superfluous even in her own film. But this is certainly of a piece with other recent Disney pilfers of the past, endeavors like the live-action Beauty and the Beast and the recent Star Wars flicks. The force of originality may not be particularly strong in any of these movies, but as long as they keep the customer satisfied with their irresistible something-old-something-new aesthetics, it’s hard not to chomp down on these spoonfuls of cinematic sugar.
A nautical tale such as the superhero saga Aquaman (two out of four stars) naturally lends itself to all manner of water-based putdowns when it comes to describing its rampaging mediocrity. “Waterlogged.” “Washed up.” “All wet.” I’m sure there’s even a “seaman” quip if one cares to wander in that direction.
At any rate, such groan-worthy puns are hardly necessary when seeking to describe this latest disappointment in the DC catalog. Even though it only came out last year, the wonderful Wonder Woman is already starting to fade like a desert mirage, shimmering out of focus with the subsequent releases of Justice League and now Aquaman.
While DC is often criticized (sometimes unfairly) for its why-so-serious approach to its cinematic worldbuilding, that charge is unlikely to be leveled against this latest installment in the DCEU. That’s because Aquaman is most similar to Thor: Ragnarok in its rowdiness and rabble-rousing, with Jason Momoa’s royal rebel coming off as a distant cousin to Chris Hemsworth’s social superhero. To be sure, Momoa is the best thing about this picture, adopting an infectious party-animal vibe that complements his what-me-worry demeanor. His physicality also doesn’t hurt, particularly where his fans are concerned. As the equivalent of a Jason Momoa pinup calendar, Aquaman rates four stars. As a superhero film, it merits decidedly less.
After the flashback sequences setting up the relationship between the human Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) and the Atlantis princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) — a courtship that produces a child named Arthur Curry — the movie hurtles full speed ahead to the present, where the adult Arthur, aka Aquaman, is busy thwarting a mercenary (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who eventually morphs into the villain Black Manta. Meanwhile, Arthur’s half-brother, the Atlantis denizen Orm (Patrick Wilson), is maneuvering to orchestrate a war between the surface and sea worlds, enlisting the aid of Atlantean king Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) to help him squash the puny humans. Defying the pair are Nereus’ daughter Mera (Amber Heard) and Arthur’s former mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe, who should have stayed in Florida), both of whom realize that the reluctant Arthur is the only one who can prevent this upcoming slaughter.
“You expect me to call you king?” asks a vanquished foe of Orm. “You can call me … Ocean Master!” And so it goes with the deadening dialogue, the sort that hits the ears with all the unwelcome force of an anvil shot from a cannon. Yet this aural assault goes hand in hand with the optic attack since the CGI is often shaky and sometimes downright risible. Aquaman is also the sort of overstuffed extravaganza that’s so intent on hitting all the requisite superhero beats that it never develops a heartbeat of its own. Aside from Momoa’s gregariousness and Morrison’s tenderness, there’s little personality to be found in this picture, with Wilson and Heard particularly vanquished by the one-dimensional aspects of their roles.
A shot of an octopus playing the drums would, of course, be right at home in The Little Mermaid (and it does relate to the actual comic book), but here it represents the tug-of-war undertaken by director James Wan and the five writers as they all seek to find the proper balance between goofy and grandiose. Alas, they never locate it, as the humorous interludes run hot and cold (though I loved Thomas stating that his superpower is drinking beer) while the more dramatic interludes get crushed by the weight of their stodginess. The picture eventually and inevitably ends with the sort of endless battle that should exhaust all but the most fanboyish of spectators. They’ll find this extended set-piece to be the perfect lubricant for their aroused imaginations, while others will merely dry up at the thought of sitting through one more minute of this soggy enterprise.
Based on a true story that was previously related in the 2010 documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen (two out of four stars) casts Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp, who was savagely beaten in a hate crime (his crime: wearing women’s shoes) and thereafter stripped of most of his memory. As therapy, he creates a model-size, WWII-era village and populates it with dolls inspired by actual people he has encountered. His alter ego is the heroic Hogie, the women who aid him in real life are all reimagined as sexy freedom fighters, and the bullies are naturally transfigured into Nazis. But Mark often has trouble separating the real world from his fantasy one, particularly when a kindly neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann) arrives on the scene.
The CGI employed to bring the action figures to life is astounding, but that’s about the only thing Welcome to Marwen has in its favor. This should be a movie about the transformative and therapeutic powers of art, but writer-director Robert Zemeckis (scripting with Caroline Thompson) instead tries to force the square peg of an unpleasant experience into the round hole of a feel-good endeavor. There’s also a lot of yammering about the goodness and “essence” of women, but it merely comes across as lip service since the women in the story (played by, among others, Janelle Monae and Gwendoline Christie) are only there to circle Mark’s orbit and end up feeling even more plastic than their diminutive counterparts.
An intriguing idea that’s ultimately compromised by an unfocused viewpoint and clumsy interludes (the character of Nicol’s cruel ex-boyfriend feels like an afterthought and could easily have been excised from the final product), Welcome to Marwen brings new meaning to the term “artificial intelligence.” It lunges at profundity but settles for manufactured mawkishness.