Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Disney via AP)

Movie reviews: 'Mary Poppins Returns' is a spoonful of sugar in bitter times

Published Dec. 21, 2018 8:04 a.m. ET
Updated Dec. 21, 2018 1:32 p.m. ET

Film critic and Pop Life host Richard Crouse reviews four movies opening in theatres this weekend: the new Disney musical-fantasy 'Mary Poppins Returns," DC Extended Universe superhero flick "Aquaman," the "Transformers" franchise spinoff "Bumblebee," "Vox Lux" starring Natalie Portman, and the formulaic "Second Act."

From left, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Jay Maidment/Disney via AP) A scene from 'Mary Poppins Returns'

MARY POPPINS RETURNS: 4 ½ STARS

Fifty-four years after Julie Andrews made her debut as "the practically perfect in every way" nanny, who flew in (courtesy of her parrot-handled umbrella) and introduced magic to the lives of the dysfunctional Banks family, the beloved Mary Poppins character is back in "Mary Poppins Returns." The new Disney musical-fantasy picks up 25 years after the events of the classic, with Poppins, played by Emily Blunt, returning to help the Banks children after misfortune befalls the family.

Emily Mortimer, Ben Whishaw and Emily Blunt in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Disney via AP) A scene from 'Mary Poppins Returns'

Set in 1930s London during the Great Slump, a city of gaslights and chimney sweeps, "Mary Poppins Returns" sees the kids from the original Michael and Jane Banks all grown up and played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer.

Michael's wife passed away the year before and now he, his kids (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) and housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) live in the Banks’s family home on Cherry Tree Lane, the house made famous by P. L. Travers.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, centre, and Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Jay Maidment/Disney via AP) A scene from 'Mary Poppins Returns'

When the bank calls in the loan Michael took against the house the family risks losing everything.

"Pay back entire loan on the house or it will be repossessed in five days," cackles the lawyer who delivers the notice. On that very day Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), the nanny who helped Michael and Jane as kids, and her magic bag come to the rescue.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, centre, and Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Jay Maidment/Disney via AP) A scene from 'Mary Poppins Returns'

"Good thing you arrived when you did Mary Poppins," says Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), former apprentice of Bert from the original film. Mary "I suspect that I am never incorrect" Poppins, helps the Banks family regain the joy and wonder that made their childhood years magical. 

From the first song, "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky" — "Count your blessings," sings Jack. "You're a lucky guy." — the movie establishes its uplifting tone. It's a frothy, satisfying concoction of nostalgia, music, fanciful visuals, elegance and optimism; a spoonful of sugar in bitter times.

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Disney via AP) Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins

Director Rob Marshall has made a full-on musical that mixes the best of old and new Disney. This thoroughly modern movie feels old-fashioned in the sense that it takes its time with the music, allowing the songs to breathe and the lyrics to sink in. But it isn't simply an exercise in recollection. The smart new songs (written by Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Scott Wittman) refresh a familiar story, mixing seamlessly with snippets of songs from the original film blended into the score. 

Read more: The pressure of composing new music for 'Mary Poppins'

There are huge musical numbers, including a wild underwater spectacular, but the songs that work best are the more modest tunes like "A Conversation," Michael's requiem for his late wife. "These rooms were always filled with magic but that vanished since you've gone away." It is heartfelt and heartbreaking. Ditto Mary Poppins's "The Place Where Lost Things Go."

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in 'Mary Poppins Returns.' (Jay Maidment/Disney via AP) Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins

Still, this is a movie that brims with joy. When the spunky Banks kids tell Mary Poppins (no one ever calls her Mary or Miss Poppins, its always first and last names) that they have "grown up a great deal in the last year." She replies, "Yes. We'll have to see what we can do about that."

Like "Christopher Robin" from earlier this year, "Mary Poppins Returns" is ultimately about the importance of staying young at heart.

The film essays Michael's sense of loss and longing, his frustration at not knowing how to go on without his wife but it's the upbeat attitude that gives it depth.

"Everything is possible, even the impossible," is a cliché but in context it is a call to believe, to have faith. If Michael believes in himself everything will be OK. That's a potent message, delivered with a spoonful of sugar or not.

The cast impresses, delivering the film's message with charm and verve. Emily Blunt brings a mix of strictness — "Sit up straight you're not a flower bag," she scolds. — and mischievousness to her character, effortlessly slipping into some very big shoes. Miranda provides a dose of musical theatre. Meryl Streep, as Mary's eccentric cousin Topsy, offers a fun and funny lesson in perspective and Dick Van Dyke's cameo as Mr. Dawes Jr. connects the old and new.

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. (Disney via AP) Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins

"Mary Poppins Returns" feels modern without sacrificing its nostalgic charm. There's no "Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious" but, like the first film, there is plenty of heart. 

Read another take: Spit spot! Blunt's a practically perfect Poppins

Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman'

AQUAMAN: 3 ½ STARS

'Tis the season for big budget Hollywood entertainments. "Mary Poppins Returns," "Bumblebee" and "Welcome to Marwen" are all large dollar enterprises with hopes of raking in even larger box office cash. Add one more to the list. 'Tis also the SEA-son for "Aquaman," the sixth instalment in the DC Extended Universe.

Jason Mamoa plays Arthur Curry, the half-human, half-Atlantean superhero also known as Aquaman. With his father Thomas (Temuera Morrison) working hard at the lighthouse and his mother Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen Of Atlantis, feared dead, he is an outcast reluctantly drawn into some crazy underwater action by kingdom of Xebel warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard).

Just so we're clear," he says. "I'll help stop this war then I'm done."

Jason Momoa, left, and Amber Heard in a scene from 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Jason Momoa and Amber Heard in 'Aquaman'
Nicole Kidman as Atlanna in a scene from 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Nicole Kidman in 'Aquaman'
Kekoa Kekumano in a scene from 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Kekoa Kekumano in 'Aquaman'

Together they hunt for the mythical Trident of Atlan, an all-powerful weapon that can only be used by the true King of Atlantis. It's hidden in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean and is the only weapon that can put an end to Arthur's half-brother King Orm's (Patrick Wilson) reign of terror and vendetta against the good people of Earth.

"The war is coming to the surface," shrieks Orm, "and I am bringing the wrath of the Seven Seas with me!" With the fate of the world at risk Arthur teams up with Mera; high tide or low tide, they'll be side by side.

Let's face it, the character of Aquaman is ridiculous. The son of the sea, protector of the land talks to fish, rides dolphin jet skis and was a running joke on "Entourage." "Aquaman, baby!! It is Spiderman... underwater. Boooom!"

Willem Dafoe in a scene from 'Aquaman.' (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Willem Dafoe in 'Aquaman'
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a scene from 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in 'Aquaman'
Dolph Lundgren in a scene from 'Aquaman.' (Jasin Boland / Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Dolph Lundgren in 'Aquaman'

Director James "Furious 7" Wan has crafted a film that embraces some of the kitsch aspects of the character while form-fitting the story to sit alongside other DC superhero flicks like "Wonder Woman."

A scene from 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) A scene from 'Aquaman'

From an octopus drummer to a dress featuring a collar of iridescent jellyfish the spirit of Hanna-Barbera's TV cartoon "Super Friends" is very much alive in "Aquaman." Add to that the usual save-the-world superhero plot and some big action and you have a DC movie that is equal parts peculiar and pleasing.

At the centre of it is Mamoa, a hulking presence with a light touch. The "Game of Thrones" veteran is comfortable in the action scenes but also seems in on the joke.

Less comfortable is Willem Dafoe as Aquaman's mentor, and speaker of endless pages of exposition. Heard, as an underwater being who, inexplicably, is also a master of woodwind instruments, is a good foil in the buddy action comedy she and Mamoa have going on.

Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Jason Momoa in 'Aquaman'
The character Manta, portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, in 'Aquaman.' (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) The character Manta in 'Aquaman'

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Black Manta is a suitable villain in a silly suit who I'm sure we'll be seeing more of in the inevitable sequels.

"Aquaman's" biggest achievement in a world crowded with superhero movies is its sheer size and spectacle. Wan decorates every frame with eyeball entertainment that grasps the sublime and the silly of the "Aquamen" origin story.

Read another take: Jason Momoa swims but 'Aquaman' sinks

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie with Bumblebee in a scene from 'Bumblebee.' (Paramount Pictures via AP) A scene from 'Bumblebee'

BUMBLEBEE: 3 ½ STARS

The "Transformers" franchise revs up the engine for the sixth time in eleven years with a movie that feels fresh out of the body shop. Pimping the Ride this time out is director Travis Knight, founder of LAIKA studios and director of the wonderful animated fantasy "Kubo and the Two Strings." Knight puts his own stamp on it, doing away with most of former franchise mastermind Michael Bay's bombast in favour of a more humanistic approach.

That's right, "Bumblebee" is a special effects driven story starring a talking robot car that emphasizes the story's less mechanical aspects.

The action begins with a battle on Cybertron between the Autobots — the rebellious bots — and the evil Decepticons. To save themselves the Autobots, including scout B-127 (Dylan O'Brien), make a run for it, scattering across the galaxy. "We will fight on," declares Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), "but we must find safety first."

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie with Bumblebee in a scene from 'Bumblebee.' (Paramount Pictures via AP) A scene from 'Bumblebee'

B-127 lands on earth, only to be found by a Decepticon operative who disables his vocal processors and damages his memory chip. Beat-up and alone, the robot car hides in open sight at a junkyard as a yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. He's destined for the car crusher until teenager Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) rescues him from rusting away in her uncle's junkyard, nicknames him Bumblebee and applies some tender loving care to his dented metal and dusty interior. Charlie and her late father were car nuts who spent their time together refurbishing an old Camaro. Since his sudden death she has worn the sadness of her father's passing like a shroud.

When she switches on the car for the first time she inadvertently sends a signal to the Decepticons setting into motion an invasion of earth. Enter the military who initially co-operate with the Decepticons, hoping to garner some space age technology tips from the alien beings.

"He's a machine," snarls Agent Burns (John Cena). "He's more human than you'll ever be," replies Charlie.

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie in a scene from 'Bumblebee.' (Will McCoy/Paramount Pictures via AP) Hailee Steinfeld in 'Bumblebee'

I wouldn't call "Bumblebee" restrained by any stretch but it feels positively Bergmen-esque compared to Michael Bay's five loud 'n proud instalments. Bay's "Transformers" left viewers with scorched eyes and ringing ears. "Bumblebee" does have giant action scenes but it doesn't forget to spend time with Charlie and her family, mom (Pamela Adlon), bratty brother Otis (Jason Drucker), stepfather Roy (Lenny Jacobson) and neighbour Memo (Jorge Lendborg Jr.). The main relationship, however, is between Charlie and a big chunk of metal.

A scene from 'Bumblebee.' (Paramount Pictures via AP) A scene from 'Bumblebee'

That relationship is the film's beating heart. "Bumblebee" is not just a tale of good vs. evil; it's a story of how friendship can mend a broken heart. Set in 1987, this is a throwback to 80s movies like "ET" that paired kids with fantastical creatures with heart warming results. Knight pulls it off, creating a believable relationship between the two. Bumblebee's eyes — or at least in the blue bulbs that substitute for his eyes — radiate wonder and tenderness. That's quite a trick to pull off in an action movie.

"Bumblebee" is a welcome change of pace for the "Transformers" series. Knight brings tenderness, humour — "They literally call themselves Decepticons," says Agent Burns. "How is that NOT a red flag?" — and action that owes more to the style of the 80s era "Transformers" cartoons and Amblin films than Bay's bombast.

Read another take: 'Transformers' gets a great saviour in 'Bumblebee'

Natalie Portman in a scene from 'Vox Lux' Natalie Portman in 'Vox Lux'

VOX LUX: 3 ½ STARS

In "Vox Lux" Natalie Portman plays a pop idol in a film that aims to expose popular culture's obsession with false idols.

The film begins on a sombre note. An early morning drive through winding streets ends at a high school. Shots ring out. Panicked kids slip and slide on bloody footprints in the hall. One student, 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), tries to reason with the shooter, asking him to pray with her. Her efforts are rewarded with a gunshot to the neck, leaving her with a bullet permanently lodged in her spine. Later, at a memorial for the fallen students, Celeste and sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) perform a self-penned tribute song. A video of the tune goes viral, attracts the attention of a fast-talking manager (Jude Law) and earns Celeste a record deal. A quick tweak to the tune's lyrics, the manager changes the "my" to "we," and the song becomes an anthem for the nation, an expression of shared grief. She's a pop superstar.

"I don't want people to think too hard," she says. "I just want them to feel good."

A scene from 'Vox Lux' A scene from 'Vox Lux'

Jump forward 17 years. Celeste is now 31-years-old, still a glitter-covered pop star but now an alcoholic and mother to Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, again). Another shooting rocks her world, this time on a beach in Croatia. Terrorists, wearing masks similar to ones seen in one of the singer's videos, attack and murder dozens of innocent people. Not responsible but certainly implicated in the violence, Celeste barely responds. She's more concerned with her homecoming concert in Staten Island and ranting about the minutia of her life. She's gone from the girl next door who survived tragedy to jaded celebrity teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

"Vox Lux" feels like two movies. The first half is a textured examination of pop music's place as a chronicle and catalyst of societal mores. Two terrible events, a school shooting and 9/11 frame Celeste's rise to fame. Director Brady Corbet considers how tragedy has helped shape much of recent pop culture; how stars like Celeste have become symbols of those tragedies and the receptacles of the public's need for comfort and catharsis. It's powerful, if a little obtuse, stuff.

Portman anchors the second half in a broad performance. Covered in PVC and glitter she has more hard edges than her younger self. She's more closed off, more superficial more concerned about how the press are speaking to her on a junket than the shooting on the other side of the world. It's a detailed portrait of what happens when people breath rarefied air and aren't the person the public thinks they are, but it isn't as interesting as the film's first hour.

Jude Law in a scene from 'Vox Lux.' A scene from 'Vox Lux'

A stand-out in both halves is Law as the aggressive manager. Law has morphed very comfortably into character roles and brings just the right mix of obsequiousness and grit to play the kind of guy who can toss off insider showbiz lines like, "She couldn't sell a life jacket to Natalie Wood."

Ultimately, while interesting, as a look at celebrity culture the last half of "Vox Lux" is as auto-tuned as the songs the Celeste sings at the end of the film.

Charlyne Yi, Alan Aisenberg, Jennifer Lopez, and Annaleigh Ashford in 'Second Act.' (Barry Wetcher / STXfilms via AP) A scene from 'Second Act'

SECOND ACT: 2 STARS

"Second Act," starring Jennifer Lopez and Leah Remini, isn’t a startlingly novel idea. We’ve seen the story of a person who transcends class and education to change their lives in everything from "My Fair Lady" and "Working Girl" to Amy Schumer’s "I Feel Pretty" and Lopez’s 2002 rom com "Maid in Manhattan." Part fairy tale, part study of class discrimination, "Second Act" breathes new life into an old trope. 

Lopez plays Maya, a New York supermarket clerk who, despite her keen work ethic, gets passed over for a promotion because the other candidate has a college degree and she doesn’t. "Arthur got his MBA from Duke," she is told. "He’s the best man for the job." Irritated, she grumbles to her friend Joan (Remini), "I just wish we lived in a world where street smarts equalled book smarts."

Leah Remini, left, and Jennifer Lopez in 'Second Act.' (Barry Wetcher / STXfilms via AP) Leah Remini and Jennifer Lopez in 'Second Act'

To help in her job search Joan and computer whiz son Dilly (Dalton Harrod) fabricate a resume, pumping up Maya’s credentials to include a degree from Wharton Business School and special skills like mountain climbing and fluency in Mandarin. "I gave you a completely new identity," Dilly says. "You said you wanted to be fancy, so I Cinderella’d your ass." 

The resume does the trick and she soon lands a job as a consultant for a large skin care company. Surviving on a combo of enthusiasm and street smarts she bluffs her way through despite opposition from the boss’s insecure daughter (Vanessa Hudgens).  

Like a Successories poster come to life "Second Act" is an attractively photographed bit of uplift complete with handy dandy inspirational message. "Our mistakes don’t limit us, our fears do." It’s also rather boring. After a promising start with some giggles provided by Remini’s razor sharp line delivery and some quirky work from Charlyne Yi, the predictable tale of second chances takes a sharp U-turn into melodrama and never recovers.

Jennifer Lopez and Milo Ventimiglia in a scene from 'Second Act.'. (Barry Wetcher / STXfilms via AP) Jennifer Lopez and Milo Ventimiglia in 'Second Act'

What might have been a tale of class designations washed down with a joke or two becomes an uncomfortable hybrid of a soap opera and fairy tale.

"Second Act" sees Lopez doing her best with a script that requires little more from her than sitting on the subway looking introspective. This story of second chances won’t hold up to a second viewing.

Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.