‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Saved By Its Aesthetic Elements

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios

Walt Disney Studios score a major hit almost 55 years ago when it premiered its musical, Mary Poppins.  Based on the novel by author P.L. Travers, and starring actress Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music, Victor Victoria, The Princess Diaries), the movie went on to be one of the studio’s most respected productions.  Now 54 years after its debut,  Disney has revisited Travers’ beloved nanny with a big-screen adaptation of another in that series of books, Mary Poppins Returns.  The movie is an entertaining watch, but is not the runaway success that the studio would have people believe it to be. One of the positives that keeps the movie afloat is its musical numbers.  This will be discussed shortly.  For all that the musical numbers do for the movie, its script does just as much to detract from its presentation.  It will be discussed a little later.  The sets and animation work with the musical numbers to make up a little more for the script problems.  Each item is important in its own way to the whole of Mary Poppins Returns.  All things considered, they make the movie a work that is worth at least one watch, but few, if any, *ahem* returns.

Walt Disney Studios’ new Mary Poppins sequel, Mary Poppins Returns is a respectable new offering from the studio, but is not the best work that it could have been.  That is not to say that it is a total loss.  It does have some positives, one of which being its collective musical numbers.  The musical numbers throw back to the movie’s predecessor, stylistically speaking.  They are just as bombastic as that movie’s numbers, with the full choruses, choreographed dancing and Broadway style sets.  Given, some of the musical numbers, such as the one in which the men sing about tripping a little light fantastic is one of the numbers that probably could have been cut, in hindsight.  Also, considering the plot hole created in the script (which will be discussed a little later) by Mary’s visit to her cousin, that number likely could have been cut, too.  The two numbers together, could have saved the movie at least five minutes if not more.  They could have been saved as bonus features for the movie’s home release.  That aside, the fact that the songs, their choreography and sets sound and look how they do, they will appeal to fans of Disney’s  days gone by and of Broadway musicals in general.  As a matter of fact, one could even argue that the sense that they collectively create in audiences’ minds makes it easy to see them being translated to a live stage setting.  That appeal is in itself reason for audiences to see this movie at least once.  It is not the movie’s only positive.  The other positive will be addressed shortly.  Before that positive is addressed, one must address the movie’s clear negative, its script.

The movie’s script does just as much to detract from Mary Poppins Returns’ presentation as its positives do to make it worth the watch.  The script is based very loosely on Travers’ 1935 novel Mary Poppins Comes Back.  The initial scene in which Mary makes her first appearance is true to the source material, but so much other material was changed.  For instance, Mary declares in the movie that she will leave “when the door opens.”  That is different from the novel, in which she states that she will leave when ‘the little chain to her locket breaks.”  Adding to the issues with the script is that for all intents and purposes, this movie’s script is a rehashing of the first movie.  Once again, the banks family is in turmoil as it deal with the city’s bank.  This time around, it’s Michael, all grown up, dealing with the evil bank head, and trying to save the family home from said villain. This is not the first time that a sequel has basically gone back to its predecessor for a story, either (E.g. Tron and Tron Legacy – another Disney pairing – and Blues Brothers and Blues Brothers 2000).  What’s more, it certainly is not the first time that a movie’s script has centered around an innocent land owner facing off against an evil banker/landlord figure to keep his or her land.  That is a plot element that goes back to the golden age of cinema, when so many Westerns saw their protagonists having to save their land from said bad guy.  As if all of that is not enough, there is an unmistakable plot hole involving Mary’s cousin Topsy.  While Mary and the Banks children visit Topsy in order to have the vase fixed, that story line is never re-visited (not to give away too much).  Why have that element in there if it is not going to be addressed again?  It’s almost as if it was included just to give justification for the studio bringing in veteran actress Meryl Streep.  When one considers all of this along with the movie’s pacing issues, which can be traced at least in part to the overabundance of musical numbers, it becomes impossible to argue in support of this movie’s story.  Considering this, the movie’s script does a lot to detract from the movie’s overall presentation.  Luckily though, the damage that it does to the presentation is countered again, by another of the movie’s positives, its collective sets and animation.

The collective sets and animation incorporated into Mary Poppins Returns is more proof of the movie’s creative heads trying to establish a certain sense of nostalgia in audiences’ minds.  The animated scenes, which take place when Mary and the Banks children jump into the China vase, look almost identical to those used in Mary Poppins.  This is important to note because in an age when so much animation is clearly CG or flash, the work put into those scenes makes it next to impossible to tell if it was crafted by hand or on computer.  That is a testament to the time and effort put into those scenes.  That in itself is worth its share of applause.

The sets that were crafted for the movie, as previously noted, give the movie a look that makes it easy to see the movie translated to the stage.  Again, kudos is in order for those behind the scenes in this case, too.  From the scene with the lamp lighters singing and dancing, to the exteriors of the Banks’ home to the finale in the park, the sets look just like something that could easily be presented on stage.  Even the set for Topsy’s shop, with its ability to go upside down, is something that certainly some set designer(s) can build.  The positive created from this element and that of the animation combines to make them just as important to the movie’s presentation as its musical numbers.  When these aesthetic elements are considered together, they make clear that while Mary Poppins Returns is hardly the return that many fans will expect, it does prove that there is at least still a place in today’s entertainment industry for musicals.  Simply put, they prove that this movie is worth at least one watch, but few if any, more returns.

A lot of hype was built around Walt Disney Studios’ new Mary Poppins offering Mary Poppins Returns ahead of its theatrical release late last year.  Sadly though, the movie does not entirely live up to that hype.  It is not a complete loss, though.  Its musical numbers – overly abundant as they are – its sets and its animation go a long way toward making the movie worth at least one watch.  That is especially the case among fans of musicals and Disney’s own golden era.  The movie’s script does as much to detract from the movie as its aesthetic elements, though.  Keeping all of this in mind, Mary Poppins Returns is, again, worth at least one watch, but few, if any, more returns.  More information on this and other titles from Walt Disney Studios is available online now at:

 

 

 

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Saving Mr. Banks Has Few Saving Graces

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Courtesy: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Walt Disney Studios’ recently released full length picture Saving Mr. Banks is not the worst movie that the studio has ever released. It is also, hardly the best movie that WDS has ever released. The story presented in this movie is little more than another period piece that can be tossed into the ever-growing pile of movies that are “based on actual events” and forgotten over time. It tries to make up for this by throwing in an attempt at a serious story about Travers’ attempt to reconcile her past and present that ultimately falls flat. That is thanks in large part to the glut of flashbacks and the unevenness of those transitions between the flashbacks. For all of the negatives that weigh down the story, there is at least one positive to the whole presentation. That bright shining light is the acting on the part of the movie’s largely A-List cast. Other than that sole beacon, it’s difficult to ultimately say that there is anything that truly “saves” Saving Mr. Banks.

Saving Mr. Banks is anything but one of the best movies that Walt Disney Studios has ever released. There is very little that one can argue actually “saves” this period piece. That’s because ultimately, it’s just one more movie that is “based on actual events.” Co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith seemed to have gotten down Travers’ persona. And veteran actress Emma Thompson brought Travers even more to life with her expert depiction of the famed author. However, one cannot deny the fact that Disney likely took a certain amount of liberties with the story of how Travers’ beloved book Mary Poppins came to life. That is just the way of movies that are “based on actual events.” Marcel and Smith had to have known that there are those—like this critic—that would know this, too. So their answer to that was to throw in a personal drama story on the part of Travers that sees her trying to reconcile her troubled childhood as she worked with Walt Disney and his people on their adaptation of her book. It’s a bit much. Add in the glut of flashbacks and the unevenness of said flashbacks, and audiences get what is one more loose brick in this movie.

The attempt on the part of Marcel and Smith to craft a dual-pronged story in Saving Mr. Banks is a major part of the movie’s downfall. It isn’t the end of the movie’s problems, either. The glut of flashbacks that Marcel and Smith toss into the story and their unevenness hurts the script even more. One doesn’t even fully realize that the pair is using flashbacks as part of the story until after about the fifth time that the transition happens. The primary reason for this is that there is little to indicate the separation of the scenes. The story constantly jumps from Travers’ present day life to her childhood growing up in Australia. And because there is no clear indicator of the jump back and forth in time, audiences are left scratching their heads at who the little girl is until again, after about the fifth or sixth time that the transition happens. There is perhaps one clear transition that finally makes it clear for audiences that they are looking into what is supposed to be Travers’ childhood. While Marcel and Smith do finally make it clear what audiences are seeing in the scene transitions, things don’t get much better. That’s because it actually starts to feel like the flashbacks in question tend to happen at an increasing pace. Even in that increased frequency of flashbacks, the transitions between past and present are still not entirely clear. They just seem to happen at random points without any clear separation. It only serves to hurt the movie even more. Thankfully for all of the problems with Saving Mr. Banks, it does have one saving grace. That saving grace is the acting on the part of the movie’s largely A-List cast.

If not for the acting on the part of Saving Mr. Banks’ cast, this movie would possibly be classified as one of the least of Disney’s movies in recent years. That being the case, Casting Director Ronna Kress deserves a standing ovation. Kress pulled in some of the biggest names in Hollywood for this movie. Actress Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction, Nanny McPhee, Nanny McPhee Returns) was an obvious choice considering her time in the role of another literary nanny named Nanny McPhee. McPhee’s character was based on the literary Nurse Matilda. Nurse Matilda’s books came years after Mary Poppins was published. But her stories are arguably far more enjoyable than that of Mary Poppins or even this semi-historical look at how the book was adapted to the big screen. Ironically enough, Thompson’s depiction of author P.L. Travers was just as spot on as that of Nanny McPhee. One can’t help but laugh at the obvious cultural differences between herself and her American hosts. And while he is in a supporting role in this movie, fellow veteran actor Paul Giamatti (The Illusionist, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Duets) is incredible as Travers’ personal driver Ralph. Ralph’s innocence makes him such a lovable character. Jason Scwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeerling Limited, Rushmore) and B.J. Novak (The Amazing Spiderman 2, Inglourious Basterds, The Smurfs 2) are just as entertaining as the famed Sherman Brothers. Anyone that knows the history of Walt Disney Studios knows that the Sherman Brothers are responsible for some of the greatest musical numbers to ever grace the big screen in Disney’s golden age. And their drive to get the songs right despite Travers’ constant refusal makes them such sympathetic characters. Not once did they ever get mad at her for her stubbornness. And their playful nature in playing their songs makes them even more lovable. Tom Hanks can’t be ignored here either, as the one and only Walt Disney. Those in the makeup department got the look of Walt Disney pretty close with Hanks. And one must agree that he expertly channels Disney, too. He worked so hard to get the part down that he even tried to get down Walt Disney’s accent for the role. It’s subtle. But it’s there. And it makes his depiction all the more enjoyable to watch. It’s one more piece of the whole of this movie that makes Saving Mr. Banks at least somewhat bearable.

The acting on the part of Saving Mr. Banks’ cast is the one shining light that makes this movie bearable. The sad reality of this movie is that despite the entertaining portrayals on the part of the cast, there is little to nothing else positive that can be noted of the film. The transitions between Travers’ childhood and adult life are far too many and nowhere near clear enough. And the dual-pronged story crafted by co-writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith ultimately combines with those scene transition issues to make Saving Mr. Banks anything but memorable. Sadly these issues together prove that other than the cast’s acting, there is little to anything else that “saves” Saving Mr. Banks.

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Pete’s Dragon Is One Of Disney’s Underappreciated Musicals

Courtesy: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

Pete’s Dragon has always been one of Disney’s more underrated works.  While it isn’t the first time that the company has gone the direction of live action/animation, it has never really garnered the acclaim of other Disney works such as Song of The South or Mary Poppins.  Why that’s the case is anybody’s guess.  But one can’t deny its importance in the overall history of Disney releases.  While it has never stood out like other movies that mix live action and animation, the story’s focus on family makes it just as touching as other previous Disney movies.  Here audiences are introduced to Pete (Sean Marshall), a young orphan who wants nothing other than a family of his own.  Through his big green friend, Elliot, Pete is brought to a small seaside town where he eventually meets what would become his family.

Pete does eventually get his own family.  But in the meantime, his big green friend, Elliot the dragon, is Pete’s family.  He’s also Pete’s friend.  If for nothing else, Pete’s lovability makes the story worth at least one watch.  Elliot may be a big magical dragon.  But he’s little more than a puppy in his personality.  He just wants to make Pete happy.  It doesn’t matter how old or young a person is.  Audiences of all ages will instantly fall in love with Elliot because of his kind and peaceful nature.  He’s peaceful until someone messes with Pete, that is.  Then and only then do audiences see Elliot’s bad side.  Even then, audiences will root for him because of his devotion to Pete.  Again, he shows his devotion both as a friend and caretaker.  That devotion alone will keep audiences watching and cheering.

The message of family is an important factor in the success of Pete’s Dragon.  But it’s only one part of what made the movie so enjoyable.  While it wasn’t the first of its kind to cross animation and live action, it was one more that would pave the way for the modern practice of crossing CG and live action.  With the new BD/DVD combo pack presentation of the movie, audiences are treated to an in-depth history lesson of Disney’s history of combining animation and live action.  It even pays tribute to animation great Max Fleischer.  Fleischer is best known for his work on the famed Superman cartoon series.  He is hailed as an originator in the animation style that would give way to what audiences see in Disney’s mix of live action and animation through its history.  Anyone who has any interest in movie production and special effects will appreciate the lesson showing how much work really went into making Pete’s Dragon come to life.  That is especially the case considering seeing Disney’s beginnings compared to what it had to work with in Pete’s Dragon.

The movie’s story and the bonus making of feature go a long way toward showing how underappreciated Pete’s Dragon is.  There is at least one more factor that audiences should take into account in considering the movie’s importance.  That factor is the movie’s musical numbers.  Given the musical numbers abound throughout the two hour plus story.  But that the movie attempts to balance its old school musical style with the musical style of the time makes it just as interesting.  Pete’s Dragon came on the hells of the pop TV sitcom fad of the 60’s and 70’s.  Shows such as The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Monkees, and Josie and the Pussycats had all gone by the wayside.  But it’s obvious that here, there are still hints of the era’s musical style mixed in with the Broadway style musical numbers.  That attempt to bridge two cultures makes for plenty of discussions in itself.

Given what has been noted here, audiences will see that while it may never have the acclaim of its predecessors, it is in its own right a movie that every family should see together at least once.  From the musical numbers to the message of family to that of friendship, Pete’s Dragon offers audiences more than perhaps they might have otherwise considered.  It’s an underrated work that deserves at least one watch, especially now that it’s available on a new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.  It’s available in stores and online.  It can be ordered online at http://www.disneystore.com/petes-dragon-blu-ray-and-dvd-combo-pack-35th-anniversary-edition/mp/1320010/1000233/.

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