family films

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

There’s a new Disney sequel or remake every quarter it seems, with at least five slated for release this year (Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Lady and the Tramp). While hopes are high for Beyonce’s The Lion King, as we call it in my house, Disney’s track record isn’t promising when it comes to these recycled classics. They may generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the studio, but most have been greeted with indifferent reviews and audiences.

The one that stands out from the bunch is Pete’s Dragon, which succeeded by embracing a new vision inspired by but not beholden to the original. Elements of the 1977 film are present in the 2016 movie, namely a magical dragon and a boy named Pete, but almost everything else, from the story to the style to the look, is its own. Instead of exhausting itself trying to find clever ways to work in the source material, the movie creates a unique vision with breathtaking results.

I’m guessing this sequel to Mary Poppins might have fared better with a similar approach. Delightful to look at and brimming with top notch talent, this film is one I really wanted to enjoy. However, director Rob Marshall strains to make something new out of the old, leaving us with a movie that looks shiny and familiar but that never truly ignites the imagination.

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to Cherry Tree Lane to tend to the Banks family, only now young Michael and Jane are all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw), a recently widowed father of three, is also in danger of losing the family home. With a week to pay off his loan, he scrambles to find certificates of some bank shares while the bank president, Wilkins (Colin Firth), counts down the hours. In these desperate times, he could use some help from his magical nanny, if only to calm his frayed nerves.

In floats Mary Poppins, not a moment too soon, and so another adventure begins. Except it doesn’t really. The story moves along, winding its way through London as the new generation of Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) tries to be helpful, either by staying out of their father’s way or getting very much in it. They are joined by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary’s friend who fancies Jane (Emily Mortimer).

The main conflict is not enough to bind the story together though. Every non-house related thing, whether taking a trip to mend their mother’s old bowl or washing up for the night, seems incidental. It’s as if the plot is serving the flashy, YouTube-ready set pieces instead of the other way around. Even Mary gets sidelined, an observer along with the children rather than the source of their wonder and adventure. Emily Blunt is the understudy peering from the wings, waiting for a moment to break through. There just isn’t much for her character to do. And what she does do fails to match the excitement of, say, digging through her bottomless carpetbag or piecing together or a torn nanny advert.

I could forgive the story’s bland execution if the musical numbers turned out to be real show stoppers, but the film disappoints here as well. Each is a flight of fancy on its own, with Blunt and Miranda bearing down to deliver the razzle dazzle, but I couldn’t remember a single song if I tried. There is one about the Royal Doulton Music Hall and something about a cover not being a book, but I can’t even say if they are parts of the same piece or not.

The problem with the music is really the problem with the whole movie. Mary Poppins Returns is too reverent of and reliant on the past. Every song, every character, every detail references the 1964 original. The dance spectacle “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a perfunctory homage to “Step in Time.” There’s Mary dancing with penguins, the admiral firing off canons, the kids ambling through the animated countryside. Sometimes the movie does a simple swap – labor organizers for suffragettes, lamplighters for chimney sweeps. With each nod to the classic, the story loses more of itself, becoming a facsimile of the first film but without its heart or imagination.

The best example of this is “Turning Turtle,” in which Mary takes the children to visit her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep). They happen to call on her on the second Wednesday of the month at precisely the time her entire home and workshop turn upside down, leaving everyone to hang on for dear life. It’s an amusing sequence and echoes a similar physics-defying scene with loopy Uncle Albert. His uncontrollable laughter causes him and his guests to levitate whilst taking tea. But whereas “I Love to Laugh” combines whimsy with the characters’ emotional ups and downs, Topsy mostly sings about how crazy things look when flipped around.

The cast does its best to outshine the material though and wring every drop of tenderness out of the script. They infuse their otherwise bland characters with plenty of charisma, which is to be expected when the likes of Blunt, Miranda, and Whishaw get together. The art department also deserves special praise. The film’s look is absolutely sublime, and I could wallpaper my house with the paintings from the opening credits. Nineteen-Thirties London never looked so dreamy and inviting. The bold, crisp sets have the confidence the film lacks, and I only wish the visual richness carried over to the movie’s other aspects.

“A Conversation” by Ben Whishaw:

“Can You Imagine That” by Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“The Royal Doulton Music Hall” by Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“A Cover is Not the Book” by Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” by Emily Blunt:

“Turning Turtle” by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, Tarik Frimpong, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Nowhere to Go but Up” by Angela Lansbury and cast:

Released: 2018
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, David Warner, Jim Norton, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Noma Dumezweni
Time: 130 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)

Like a moth to a flame, I just can’t help myself when it comes to Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Maybe it’s my childhood affection for the cartoon or my love of small, furry critters, but I’ve somehow managed to watch all four films and, with the exception of the last one, actually like them. This fourth installment is the best one yet, succeeding where the others have failed. The acting and story are greatly improved, especially now that David Cross’s grating character is out of the way. The filmmakers have also scaled back the gimmicky pop culture references, giving us a family film that isn’t overloaded with slang and all the latest radio hits. The franchise could do with a bit more charm though. Four movies in, it still feels motivated by the novelty of talking chipmunks run amok, but Road Chip has enough of an emotional center for a heartwarming story to take shape.

Brothers Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are joined by Miles (Josh Green), son of Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), their dad Dave’s (Jason Lee) new love interest, in this cross-country adventure. An unpleasant first meeting at the mini-golf course leads to bad blood between the Chipmunks and Miles. The situation worsens when the siblings discover an engagement ring amongst Dave’s shopping and realize Miles might soon be their new brother. When Dave takes Samantha, and the ring, to an album launch in Miami for one of his artists (Bella Thorne), the Chipmunks have to find a way to Florida and stop the proposal, even if it means teaming up with their chief tormenter.

At least the enemies are on the same page when it comes to wanting to break up their parents’ relationship. Miles agrees to the plan, and volunteers his mom’s credit card, and the four set off to Miami. Trouble is never far behind though, and the Chipmunks find themselves on the No Fly List after they cause an incident involving chinchillas and goats. Not only are they stuck in Texas without any money, but they are also pursued by Air Marshal Suggs (Tony Hale), who has a personal vendetta against the singing rodents.

The “road” part of this trip is relatively short but it’s enough to squeeze in a boozy stop in New Orleans. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore join in a street carnival rendition of “Uptown Funk,” an enjoyable musical interlude precisely because there are so few of them in this movie. That the brothers don’t take center stage makes the scene even better. Instead of computer generated chipmunks flying around, desperate to grab our attention, the trio get to just groove to the music. Keeping the Chipettes’ role to a cameo also cuts down on the audio and visual clutter. The girls fly in for a glittery musical finale but are otherwise preoccupied as judges for American Idol.

A stripped down Chipmunks story allows Road Chip to really get to the heart of things, and that is the relationship between the brothers and Miles. If they make a fifth movie, and I’m not suggesting that they do – but if they do – I’d hope Miles rejoins the gang. Green is a fresh presence, even if I can’t figure out how old he’s supposed to be (young enough to be grounded yet old enough to traipse around the country alone apparently). He takes great care with his character, embracing every part of Miles, from the would-be bully to the traumatized son and protective older brother. Unlike so many of the actors in this series, he plays his part with seriousness and sincerity, and that’s what makes this a feel-good film.

The same is true for Hale, who gives a class on how to be a proper kids’ movie villain. Unlike Cross, the actor never feels like he’s phoning it in. His character is sneering, over-the-top, and foolish but purposely so. Also, Suggs is mean without being mean-spirited, which is one of my main gripes about the previous movies. This script keeps things light-hearted and avoids the franchise’s cynical streak. That seems to have elevated even Lee’s acting. He still looks disconnected half the time and never gives off any warm, fatherly vibes, but he has no choice but to perk up alongside everyone else.

“Uptown Funk” by the Chipmunks:

“Home” by the Chipmunks and the Chipettes:

Released: 2015
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Walt Becker
Writer: Randi Mayem Singer, Adam Sztykiel
Cast: Jason Lee, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Josh Green, Tony Hale, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Kaley Cuoco
Time: 92 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Yours, Mine & Ours (2005)

Yours, Mine, and Ours is not great. In fact, after watching a handful of clips from the original 1968 film starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, it’s clear that that movie is superior to this slapdash effort featuring Rene Russo and Randy Quaid. The story is about a blended family with a boatload of kids as well as a few dogs and cats and a pig. No one gets along, and someone is always screaming or throwing something or generally making a mess. Still, I chose to keep watching while eating Saturday leftovers when given the chance to change the channel, so I guess this means I liked it?

If there’s one thing that kept me watching, it was Russo and Quaid. They lack chemistry surprisingly but make an attractive double act nonetheless. Both are magnetic and can turn me on with a smile, which is helpful since the script doesn’t leave much in the way of character development or romance. Helen North (Russo) is the kind of hippie mom who encourages creativity and group hugs amongst her ten children, some of whom are adopted. Her new husband and high school boyfriend, Frank Beardsley (Quaid), is the opposite, a pre-Maria Captain Von Trapp if you will. The Coast Guard admiral orders his eight kids to stand at attention and draws up bathroom charts for orderly use of the facilities.

Despite being the actual adults in the room, they have little control over their kids and are mere observers to the chaos their bickering offspring create. They occasionally yell for the madness to stop, but the movie depends on anarchy. Without extended sequences of sibling sabotage and that scene where they turn their gorgeous lighthouse home with the 200-year-old banister into a Jackson Pollack work, the movie has little to go on.

The novelty of an eighteen-child household gets old after awhile, and the writers don’t have a plan for what to do when things slow down. Helen has an interesting job as a designer, but that barely comes into play. We catch just one small glimpse of how it affects her relationship with Frank before it’s tucked away. Frank gets the better end of the deal, and his reluctance to take on a promotion with the Coast Guard makes a bigger impact. It’s done in such a hurried way though that it feels like they’ve only skimmed the surface.

The momentum in this narrative lies with the kids, whether they’re fighting each other or, after changing tactics, they decide to fight together. Determined to break up the family one way or another, they agree that their quickest route is through divorce. By joining forces though, they’re guaranteed to form a real alliance, and the promise of a happy ending is another reason why I enjoyed this movie. Look, I like it when kids who don’t like each other end up liking each other. It’s predictable but it makes me smile, and dammit, that’s what I want in my lazy weekend entertainment.

Released: 2005
Prod: Robert Simonds, Michael G. Nathanson
Dir: Raja Gosnell
Writer: Bob Hilgenberg, Rob Muir, Ron Burch, David Kidd
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Rene Russo, Sean Faris, Rip Torn, Linda Hunt, Danielle Panabaker, Drake Bell, Lil’ JJ, Miranda Cosgrove, Katija Pevec
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Nine Lives (2016)

Nine Lives could be a great children’s movie. A selfish workaholic reflects on and atones for his behavior after a freak accident puts him in a coma but traps his consciousness in a cat. Though snarly in his new feline form, he comes to understand the hurt he has caused his family and learns that he may be condemned to eating fish paste and peeing in litter boxes for the rest of his life. Whether you like talking animals or a redemption story or Norwegian forest cats, there’s something for everyone in the family.

But it’s hard to enjoy this movie because of, yes, star Kevin Spacey. His presence is enough to put off many viewers, and they’re not wrong for it. Watching his character, Tom Brand, manipulate those around him and then try to win their forgiveness is sickening, and I found it impossible to separate Tom’s misdeeds from the actor’s own criminal behavior.

It’s especially painful to see his family try to win his love again and again. Tom’s daughter, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), is about to turn eleven, that perfect age before puberty when a girl still adores her parents. Never mind that her father practically lives at work and is more concerned with building North America’s tallest skyscraper than he is with celebrating her birthday and getting her the cat she really wants. When fate intervenes and lands him at the doorstep of Purrkins Pet Shop run by the eccentric Felix Perkins (Christopher Walken), he reluctantly gives in and splurges on one Mr. Fuzzypants, who’s already used up seven of his nine lives.

Instead of heading home for Rebecca’s party though, Tom goes back to work and checks in with Ian (Mark Consuelos), a manager at his company who informs him that his building will not in fact be the tallest one in North America, or America for that matter. They fight on the rooftop during a storm, and really, everyone deserves what they get. When Tom comes to, he finds he’s now Mr. Fuzzypants and that Mr. Perkins can communicate with cat-kind. He also learns that he has just one week to set things right with his family if he does not want to spend the rest of his life on all fours.

Too bad he’s been a jerk to everyone. His wife, Lara (Jennifer Garner), and his son, David (Robbie Amell), from his first marriage somehow see past Tom’s sins. This is an abusive relationship, full stop. He neglects Lara and belittles David, and yet they constantly feel the need to earn his love. David, who also works for his dad, gets it worse; it’s as if Tom delights in humiliating his son, using his behavior as an excuse to boost his fragile ego.

The film would still need tweaking even if we’re working on the assumption that we’d recast Spacey’s role. The only reason that Nine Lives is watchable now is its robust cast, sans its lead. Garner and Cheryl Hines, who plays Tom’s first wife, complement each other, playing supportive friends rather than two women bickering over a bad man. I also enjoyed Weissman’s warm and honest performance. Jessica loves with such conviction that I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt no matter how wrongheaded I think she is. Then there’s Amell, who comes at you with a look of utter dejection and some Chris Pine blue eyes. As hard as the actors try, however, they are limited by their narrow roles. There’s nothing redeeming about Tom, and it’s hard to see why anyone ever like him. I wouldn’t mind a more sympathetic though still flawed lead.

The effects could also use some work. Mr. Fuzzypants, or the cats who portrayed him, are fluffy and adorable, and the special effects used to nail down certain sequences will make younger kids squeal. Tom’s office space and his new skyscraper are pitiful though, an embarrassment of green screen. It looks like the budget went into cats and Lara’s gorgeous flat and nothing else. I imagine Mr. Perkins, for example, has a delightfully weird shop, one which we get just a few glimpses of. A little more money in that direction could only add to this familiar but imaginative tale.

Released: 2016
Prod: Lisa Ellzey
Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writer: Gwyn Lurie, Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Dan Antoniazzi, Ben Shiffrin
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner, Robbie Amell, Cheryl Hines, Mark Consuelos, Malina Weissman, Christopher Walken, Talitha Bateman, Teddy Sears
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2011)

I don’t know if it’s my nostalgia for the chirpy rodents or just my eroding standards, but I’m always game for a Chipmunks movie. My contrarian’s take is that the two previous films hit their marks despite tonal issues and some uninspired acting. At least they managed to please the kinds of folks who enjoy watching adolescent chipmunk antics, that is the under-10 crowd, and me. But the return of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney) for a third adventure is a strained effort. It has a few tricks but lacks that secret ingredient to make it worthwhile.

The whole crew, including Chipettes Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor (Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler), are vacationing aboard a Carnival cruise before heading out to an international music awards show. They can’t make it past one day before getting into trouble, however, and naturally, it’s Alvin who stirs things up and takes everyone down with him. After a kiting accident, all six chipmunks end up stranded on a deserted island, wondering if dad Dave (Jason Lee) still loves them enough to come to their rescue.

Chipwrecked allows the adult of the group, Simon, to shine but does so by turning him into the irresponsible one. A spider bite changes his personality and causes him to morph into Simone (Alan Tudyk), a feisty daredevil with little regard for Alvin’s now cautious ways. It’s fun to see Simon let loose for once and turn the tables on his older brother. Alvin, whose antics earlier in the film landed Simon into some trouble at the casino, gets a taste of his own medicine and goes into a panic when Simon plunges off a cliff for a swim. With no one else to rely on, he must find a way off the island or, better yet, find Dave. At last, the most mischievous chipmunk matures, if only for a while.

Sadly, the film doesn’t really involve the rest of the gang. I was disappointed that Theodore, the most adorable chipmunk in the world, is left out of the adventure. Though he has a weak storyline about overcoming his fearful nature, he’s not much more than a fawning sidekick to Simon, someone who will tag along on his brother’s extreme sports tour. The same is true for the Chipettes. They add to the number of talking animals on screen, which is great if that’s what you want, but they are limited by their role as the female counterpart. Brittany lends a hand to Alvin, Jeanette struggles to understand Simon’s affections, and poor Eleanor hobbles one step behind.

Still, I’d prefer a dull Chipmunks-only production to one with human characters. I’m not sure why these movies still feature Dave and former manager Ian (David Cross), both of whom actively detract from the film. At the very least, recast Dave, who could be a great addition if he were played by someone who cared about the role. Lee looks utterly bored and doesn’t even deliver the bare minimum emotion. All he can muster is his character’s angry dad scream whenever Alvin gets into trouble. In one of the film’s sweeter moments, Theodore gives Dave a necklace to wear throughout the trip. It’s edible and ugly but made with so much love. Lee registers some embarrassment but shows none of the tenderness you’d expect from a caring father.

Then there’s Cross, who fares slightly better just because he plays the villain. Ian is still being punished for his previous misdeeds and, as the cruise’s security monitor, is condemned to wearing a pelican costume for the film’s entirety. He’s slightly more tolerable in this film because he’s not causing all the problems, but his smarmy attitude still makes me want to throttle him. Jenny Slate is a new addition as Zoe, another castaway who befriends the Chipmunks. Of the three humans, she gives the most dedicated performance, but even she looks like she’s just tolerating this ordeal.

And not to pile on, but Chipwrecked doesn’t address the previous films tonal problems either. The movie is armed with a good message about trusting kids to make responsible decisions, but it’s not clear who the audience is for this. Very young children who might appreciate a chipmunk movie aren’t going to get the numerous Castaway references and suggestive jokes, and the older set who could get on board with the independent-minded chipmunks aren’t going to want to watch them. It’s what happens when you throw every idea into a script, hoping something will stick.

Released: 2011
Prod: Janice Karman, Ross Bagdasarian
Dir: Mike Mitchell
Writer: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast: Jason Lee, David Cross, Jenny Slate, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Alan Tudyk, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019