We all have our own traditions for Christmas, but there’s often plenty of downtime after you open up presents and swap stories with relatives. Taking a trip to the movies is a great way to get out of the house and have some good fun. And thankfully, there are three big movies releasing this week to keep the season merry as ever.
Mary Poppins Returns (★★★★) Because the original 1964 Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way, no spoonful of sugar was thought to help the idea of a sequel go down. Yet, Mary Poppins Returns recaptures the magic and fills you with all the joy in the world that you don’t want to ever leave.
Fifty-four years after the Oscar-winning original’s release (with the story set 25 years after), Disney returns to Cherry Tree Lane to watch the perfect nanny (Emily Blunt assuming the role originated by Julie Andrews) re-entering the lives of the Banks children, now all grown up. Plucky Jane (Emily Mortimer) is following in her activist mother’s footsteps as a union organizer, while reserved Michael is trying to take care of a financial situation and his three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson).
When life is at its most out-of-control for the Banks family, Mary Poppins — and her friendship with a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) — drops in to put everything in perspective and find the light in the darkness. She offers to take care of the children and they go on the most spectacular adventures together. They learn the importance of bath time (and not in a corny Bert and Ernie kind of way) and hop through a portal to a magical place filled with dolphins and sunshine. They also learn the importance of togetherness when they journey over to the hand-drawn, animated world on the sides of a ceramic bowl.
All of this sounds extremely silly and something you’d find on a Saturday morning cartoon; however, Mary Poppins Returns has a lot of class. How director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) weaves live-action and animation in and out of the film is extraordinary. These scenes go on for extended periods, sometimes 15 minutes, but if you just let the film take you on its wildly adventurous ride, it’ll sweep you off your feet.
Its simplicity, stunning visual and special effects, beautiful songs (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” will be taking over your stereos soon), good morals, charm, characters and humor are all supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, to say the least!
Rated PG, 130 minutes. Now playing.
Aquaman (★★★ 1/2) Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed a movie featuring armored soldiers riding on seahorses and sharks, an octopus playing drums, and a fishman who says “my man” more than Denzel Washington to be one of the most entertaining titles of the year. But director James Wan (The Conjuring films; Furious 7) drowned all my doubts and left me in awe. As Wan and filmmaker James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) continually prove, sometimes weird can win if you play your cards right and lay down compassionate characters.
Aquaman uses the familiar beats from superhero origin stories, such as how our titular character, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (a charming-as-ever Jason Momoa), came to be, how he learned to control his powers and how he pissed off some bad folks along the way, but shakes up the traditional A-to-B plot structure to craft something more inventive and enjoyable. Wan may begin the film with Aquaman’s parents, former underwater queen Atlanna (a terrific Nicole Kidman) and human man Tom Curry (Star Wars‘ Temuera Morrison), raising their gifted son, but he takes the fast track, providing us with just enough information to stay invested and soak in the good stuff.
The good stuff is all the underwater world-building and action scenes. The underwater plants and castles are as richly textured as what you experience in Avatar. And the action scenes (especially an early one involving Kidman’s character rough-housing with some Tron-like cronies) are creative and thrilling.
If I had to take a few elements to the mat, I would say the film runs at little long, clocking in at nearly 2 1/2 hours. There’s a certain point where the film becomes a mission movie, where the good guys (including Amber Heard’s undersea royalty character) bounce from place to place like a James Bond movie. They have to gather all this information and collect the all-important item (Aquaman’s signature golden trident) to defeat evil. It’s similar to Thor getting his hammer; if the object deems the person worthy.
As many similarities it has with other properties, Aquaman has this infectious confidence that makes it difficult not to like. Plus, the rules of the sea are firmly established, the bad guys — Aquaman’s brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), and Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — have proper motivation, and what it populates the screen with is a feast for the senses. So, don’t hold your breath. DC makes another splash.
Rated PG-13, 143 minutes. Opens Friday.
Bumblebee (★★★ 1/2) Also coming out of the depths of a troubling critical history, Bumblebee gives the Transformers franchise a fresh oil change for the better. Michael Bay is out of the director’s chair. Shia LaBeouf is long gone. Mark Wahlberg is too busy making family films and cop dramas. And thank the Lord for that.
Bumblebee is how the franchise should have started. The Bay-directed Transformers movies were overcomplicated and didn’t make a lick of sense. Director Travis Knight, who’s best known for his animated tales such as Kubo and the Two Strings and Coraline, strips the unnecessary parts and gives it a nice 1980s shine.
It begins how you’d expect: Autobots (the good guys) are duking it out with the Decepticons (the bad guys) on their homeworld of Cybertron. There’s lots of computer-generated action and hero moments that call back to the original 1980s television series and movie. Like the opening of Superman, everything is going to hell, so the Autobots have to ditch Cybertron and head over to other planets to survive and uphold order. B-127, aka Bumblebee, is sent to 1987 Earth to protect the humans. However, once he arrives, it’s not a warm welcome. Decepticons are on his tail and John Cena’s military character is there to give him hell.
While the U.S. government and Decepticons are on the hunt for Bumblebee, he meets 18-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, bringing more naturalism than was ever brought by any of these films’ protagonists). She’s a Smiths-loving misfit with a large chip on her shoulder. She has a crappy job at a corn dog stand, a posse of rich kids kicking her while she’s down, and a family (including Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider) who don’t seem to understand her. Bumblebee understands her, though, and the two strike up a friendship that feels like an accumulation of a John Hughes movie, E.T. and The Iron Giant.
What’s fascinating about this entry is that all its issues are issues you’d find in ’80s movies. You get shots of shirtless jerks driving around in nice cars, cheesy sequences of the car top down as the characters shout at the top of their lungs, and parents who just won’t listen to their kids. It has to be by design. So, even the “bad” aspects have a lot of charm to them.
The bar for the franchise was already at an all-time low, so anything remotely coherent would be an improvement. In Bumblebee, the story is simple, the villain count is low, the camerawork isn’t done like a Sports Illustrated shoot (you can actually see what’s going on, too), the characters have actual flesh on them (even the robots) and have relatable feelings. Since the franchise first rolled out, there is more than meets the eye.
Rated PG-13, 113 minutes. Opens Friday.