THE LION KING

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Special Effects: A

One might easily argue that a 2019 CG remake of The Lion King is both pointless and redundant, after a 1994 original animated film that at the time became the fourth-most successful movie ever; a 1997 Broadway musical version that continues to run to this day and is the highest grossing Broadway production ever; and even a 2011 re-release of the original animated film in 3D so skillfully applied it actually enhanced the experience.

I went in to this new Lion King with every expectation that it would be . . . okay. For me, that counts as a heavy dose of skepticism. As it happens, this new movie easily justifies its own existence.

And I say this as someone who would still say the original was superior, and even that the 2011 3D version is superior. It’s rare that 3D impresses me, but that one did; I gave it a solid A. That 2011 release genuinely amazed me.

I did not see the current release in 3D, which is an option. Maybe it’s fine; I can tell you it’s a great movie even without it. This is director John Favreau’s second CG treatment of a classic Disney property after The Jungle Book (2016), which I also very much enjoyed, and The Lion King is even more impressive in its environmental renderings. The Jungle Book had a live-action boy at the center of it, but the thing that makes The Lion King stand apart is that it looks very much like live action, but is technically an entirely animated film. In its own way, this movie genuinely amazed me as well.

It’s almost shocking how well it works. We’re talking about a story whose characters are all talking animals, rendered more realistically than anything you’ve ever seen out of actual live action. In traditional animation, talking animals are expected; they can easily be given more relatable, human-like emotions and expressions. This animal kingdom is sort of like watching a wildlife documentary except the animals are caught up in Shakespearean drama — literally: the story is basically Hamlet with lions. In any case, this unusual combination might cause a bit of cognitive dissonance for some.

I’ve already heard the many reasons people have for being disappointed with this movie, really none of which do I agree with. I have a theory that anyone who loved the animated feature as a child but chooses to reject this film just grew old and uptight and needs to pull the animated stick out of their ass. Really, this is like the natural evolution of animation as a genre, and it’s the perfect kind of story for it. There is very little “uncanny valley” effect here.

I will say this. The effects in this movie are stunning. That does not mean they’re guaranteed to age well. It’s still relying on computers to render the picture of human imagination, and it still has limits that date it in ways traditional animation can’t be. Animated classics remain as beautiful today as they were at their time of release, from Bambi to Sleeping Beauty to The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. Another twenty years from now, the original Lion King will look as good as it ever did; the 2019 version certainly won’t. Special effects technology will improve to the point where you can’t decipher the difference between it and live footage, in which case, what’s the point? Well, getting the animal characters to talk, I suppose.

But, we’re talking about right now, and right now The Lion King is absolutely worth the time and effort, particularly to be seen in a movie theater. The story is nearly identical to the original film — even a good majority of the shots are — but there is true magic in seeing it rendered this way. In the first half of the film, when young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) and young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are lion cubs, they are almost unbearably adorable. If you’re a cat lover at all, you will love this movie.

I do tend to insist that movies should be judged on their own merits, but that assertion works better for film adaptations of novels than for remakes. The original Lion King is still out there and still beloved, after all, with unforgettable voice work by the likes of Whoopy Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jeremy Irons and more. In the current iteration, the only voice used again is that of James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Jeremy Irons was deliciously evil as the villain brother Scar, now voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The delivery now lacks a certain punch, but it’s also appropriate. In this photorealistic version of the animal kingdom, it comes with a natural subtlety that actually works better for it. Ejiofor still effectively makes the character his own.

And it must be noted that this film is not without its own fun and humor, particularly with John Oliver voicing Zazu the Puffin; a charmingly gruff Seth Rogen as Pumbaa the warthog; and Billy Eichner, so delightful as Pumbaa’s meerkate best friend that he might be the greatest highlight of the movie. The rest of the cast includes Keegan Michael-Key and Eric André as hyenas; Amy Sedaris as a guinea fowl; Elfre Woodard as Simba’s mother Sarabi; and Simba and Nala as grown lions are voiced by Donald Glover and Beyoncé. Glover and Beyoncé don’t especially stand out in their speaking parts, but they certainly serve their purpose as vital characters — and God knows, Beyoncé’s singing voice is always a welcome addition.

And yes, there’s that — not only do these animals talk, but they sing. So what? They did in The Jungle Book too, and in both cases, somehow, it works, even with these songs all being lifted directly from the original film (with one new track by Beyoncé). I did think about this: how well does 2019’s The Lion King play to people who, by some miracle, actually have never seen the original? In spite of the fact that these animals sing solely because the original exists, and this certainly would never been a musical film otherwise, I would still say it likely plays quite well to anyone coming to the story for the first time. In fact, this movie is overall so well executed, it’s entirely conceivable that anyone seeing thei version first would prefer it to the original. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that!

There’s a lot to say about The Lion King — clearly, as I’ve already said about 1100 words about it. This is one case where I am mystified by the mixed reviews, but entirely unsurprised by the box office success. The criticism people have is almost exclusively nitpicky, borne of people overprotective of their own childhood memories. This movie exceeded my expectations on every level, gripping me with its drama in spite of how familiar it was, and otherwise left me with a constant smile on my face.

The rightful rulers of their world.

The rightful rulers of their world.

Overall: A-

TOY STORY 4

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Animation: A

My love of the Toy Story franchise cannot be overstated, especially since Toy Story 3 became not only my favorite in the series, but my favorite movie of 2010. When the first Toy Story was released in 1995, it established Pixar Animation Studios as the industry standard for CG animated features, for visual impressiveness and storytelling power in equal measure; with Toy Story 2 in 1999, Pixar’s first-ever sequel proved that they were capable of sequels equal to their predecessor. But, a second sequel, eleven years after the last installment? Which was more emotionally affecting even than the previous to put together? The achievements of Toy Story 3 astonish me to this day.

So, I had mixed expectations for Toy Story 4 — and, in the end, somewhat mixed feelings about it after the fact. Could the lightning in a bottle they managed with a third film in a series, which still woks perfectly as the final installment of a trilogy, be repeated with a fourth installment? In short: no. But, it’s more complicated than that. Toy Story 4 feels like a revisit to a world we all love, and it is undeniably fun and emotionally affecting in its own right. But it also doesn’t not particularly innovate the story in any way, doesn’t move these characters’ universe any further forward than they had gone the last time around.

With eleven years between 2 and 3, and nine years between 3 and 4, there has been an average of ten years between the release of every Toy Story sequel. Entirely new generations of kids exist with the release of each new installment. It seems kind of fitting that much of this new one takes place inside an antique store. Granted, these toy characters have been talking about their conditions as antiques since the second film, but 4 contains a fully contained environment housing relics collecting dust. It feels like a vague allusion to this franchise itself, were they to continue making them.

Sadly, the truth is, of all four of these movies, Toy Story 4 is the least vital. Unlike the first three movies, this one doesn’t even have Andy as part of the narrative thread that connects them all — only the memory of him, which Woody (voiced, as everyone should know by now, by Tom Hanks) can’t learn to let go of. And strangely, even though Toy Story 3 aged its characters close to the amount of time passed between the Toy Story 2 and 3, Toy Story 4 starts with a flashback to “nine years ago” that would actually place it closer to the time of Toy Story 2. In the narrative of 4, Bonnie, the little girl Andy gifted all his toys to at the end of 3 as he headed off to college, is still the same little girl. It has a slightly discombobulating effect, a decade between movie releases but time passing that much in the story with one but not at all with the next.

But. But, but, but! I freely admit I am being nitpicky here. I can nitpick even more: if Bo Peep has been living such a wild outdoor life all this time at a carniva (Annie Potts, who voices the character, did not appear in Toy Story 3), how the hell does her porcelain face and clothes remain so clean and spotless? Pixar is usually better at attention to detail than this. But I’m digressing again! Because: seriously, so what? Toy Story 4 not being the truly great movie I wanted it to be certainly doesn’t change the quality entertainment it offers in its own right and on its own terms.

The new toy characters alone make this movie worth seeing. “Forky” (Tony Hale), a spork with googly eyes made by little Bonnie at kindergarten orientation, is a delightfully weird addition to the gang. Keanu Reeves voices Duke Caboom, a Canadian toy daredevil motorcycle rider with a hilarious amount of pride in himself. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up as the voices of insanely cute and also unruly plush carnival prizes, a bird and a bunny, with overactive imaginations. An antique doll with a pull string but a malfunctioning motor that makes her borderline villainous in her desire for the working motor in Woody’s back, is voiced by Christian Hendricks.

And yes, of course, Tim Allen also returns as Buzz Lightyear, with an amusing running joke about considering his button-press recorded sayings his “inner voice.” Pretty much all the rest of the regular toys return as well, particularly Bo Peep, here basically getting a co-lead part in the story.

Thus, as you might imagine, a whole lot is going on in this movie. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, and it zips along so quickly it feels much shorter than that. And, I must also admit, the more I think about it after the fact, the greater my appreciation for it becomes. That doesn’t make it any more vital as an addition to the series, but it does illustrate that not a single moment of time is wasted watching it either. As with its predecessors, I will no doubt by happy to go see it again.

As always, I must mention the animation. It is as impressive as ever, and here easily the most impressive part of the film — pretty on-brand for Pixar. Because Bonnie’s family has chosen to take a road trip in the interim between kindergarten orientation and the official start of the school year, the majority of the story takes place first on the road, and then at the aforementioned carnival — only a fraction of it takes place in Bonnie’s bedroom. And this carnival allows for some spectacular visual backdrops, the lights, the colors, the spinning rides, the occasional fireworks. This could easily have been a sensory overload, but the animators here present it with a unique beauty, often as deliberately blurred background for the action of the story. It’s animation that looks remarkably like a location shoot.

I suppose these flourishes are increasingly necessary, lest the repetition of the conceit, that toys get misplaced and must find their way back to their kids, get stale. It’s true that these stories are really just variations on the same basic concepts — but then, aren’t all stories? The joy is in the details, and this is a film with plenty such joy to offer.

A return to something we did not need but are sure glad to have.

A return to something we did not need but are sure glad to have.

Overall: B+

SIFF Advance: TROOP ZERO

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

There’s a pretty strong, old-school “independent movie” vibe to Troop Zero, a light and breezy tale of a young girl in rural late-seventies Georgia getting together a ragtag group of local girls (and one effeminate boy) to form a “Birdie Scouts” troop with the intent of winning a jamboree prize of getting her voice recorded on a record set to be sent to space. The script is both unique and strong, as written by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), but the direction, by a female duo called “Bert & Bertie” (which makes me think of avian muppets), much of the time has the feeling of unfinished business. It’s as though there perhaps wasn’t enough time or budget (or both) for a proper amount of rehearsal or number of takes.

To be fair, filming with children is tricky, and Troop Zero features a lot of them, pretty much all of them with the vibe of real kids rather than professional actors. And how easy is it to find that sweet spot between kids who feel genuine onscreen and kids who come across as creepily precocious? Given a choice between the two, I’d take the former; at the very least, there’s nothing odd or unsettling about any of these kids.

Still, I found myself thinking as I watched this movie, what kind of theatrical release this might get. There are far more polished films than this one which these days are better marketed as releases straight to streaming platforms, which seems like perhaps the most appropriate avenue for Troop Zero . Who knows how big an audience it would get there, compared to in movie theatres?

That said, Troop Zero has more than its fair share of genuine charms, not least of which are its opening and closing sequences, with special effects impressively rendered for what was clearly a small budget. The opening credits follow a meteor hurtling towards the Earth, until we zoom in on little Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), sitting in a chair under the stars, watching a meteor shower, reminiscing about how her late mother encouraged her interest in making contact with alien life. Christmas is immediately established as a girl with an exceeding interest in science, and what’s not to love about that?

The adult actors rounding out the supporting cast include some pretty big names, not least of which is Viola Davis (who gets top billing, actually) as Rayleen, who works as secretary to Christmas’s downtrodden defense laywer dad (Jim Gaffigan, sporting a truly horrible blond wig). Aside from the many local school bullies, Christmas’s pseudo-nemesis turns out to be Principal Massey, played by Allison Janney.

“Troop Zero” is the number given to the Birdie Scout troop formed by Christmas, because all the other numbers are taken — an attempt at a slight joke at the expense of the misfit kids, I suppose, although it makes little logical sense: apparently the numbers can only go up to thirty? Rayleen gets roped into being their “Troop Mother,” and by extension a much needed mother figure to Christmas.

It feels a little like the more famous actors involved are present as a means of lending attention this movie might not otherwise get. And in more experienced directorial hands, the final product might have been delivered with a bit more finesse. Still, I have to admit that by the end of this movie, it had completely won me over, and I was even misty-eyed by its delightful climax at the jamboree talent show. The story strands all get tied together with a neat bow with a nice emotional payoff, and with a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more than that.

A bit of star power is lent to the proceedings.

A bit of star power is lent to the proceedings.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: PACHAMAMA

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A

Although its run time clocks in at an unusually brief 72 minutes, Pachamama is an animated feature the allows its story to settle and sink in, rather than presenting itself as though it is competing for the minuscule attention spans of eight-year-olds. The truth is that likely means it won’t get seen by a particularly wide audience, and that makes me sad. Its animation, “inspired by colorful indigenous art,” is reason enough to be seen on its own.

And herein likes a minor bit of catch-22: it’s wonderful that Netflix has picked up the rights to stream this film, which it reportedly will begin doing as soon as next month. Look for it on Netflix then, if nothing else; it’s better seen that way than not seen at all. But, that also will likely dissuade viewers from seeing it in movie theatres, where it truly is best seen. The artistry is truly unique and beautiful, and there just won’t be the same appreciation for detail on an iPad screen.

A joint production of France, Luxembourg, and Canada — and a 2019 César Award nominee for Best Animated Film — Pachamama is actually directed by Argentina-born Juan Antin, who bases this story largely on the Earth/Time Mother goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. The story thus takes place in a small village just outside the city of Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, and is presently in modern-day Peru, about 47 miles from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

No “ruins” figure in the story here, as Pachamama takes place during the reign of the Incas — although the two children, Tepulpai (Andrea Santamaria) and Naïra (India Coenen), take a journey by foot from the village to Cuzco. They are seeking the return of a golden totem they use in ceremonial offerings to the goddess Pachamama. In the process, the film Pachamama illustrates a bit of the hubris of both the Incan rulers as well as colonialist conquistadors, as Tepulpai and Naïra get caught in the crosshairs of those conflicts.

All the while, though, always steeped in indigenous Andean mythology, Tepulpai in particularly must learn the importance of both sacrifice and tradition. He’s defiant in the face of offering his “most prized possession” to Pachamama, and starts off pretty petty and selfish. In short, he’s a little asshole — behaving the way a whole lot of children in need of a lesson behave. The is thus the focus of a parable, and a very well rendered one at that.

The story, quite well polished considering there are five credited script writers, offers backdrops of both historical and mythological complexity, behind a veneer of pretty simple and straightforward plotting. Adult viewers will find a film of both visual and narrative depth. Young children are apt to be dazzled both by the story and the colors, provided they give the movie a chance to begin with. If they are desensitized by frenetic animation that relies on chaotic, rapid-fire editing, they might have little interest.

Longer attention spans, however, will very much be rewarded by this film, which is a genuine work of art.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Our young heroes soar above a truly unique template.

Overall: B+

DUMBO

Directing: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.

And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.

One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.

That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.

The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?

There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.

It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.

And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.

There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.

It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

Overall: B-

Advance: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Music: B
Animation: B+
Special Effects: B+

Watching Mary Poppins Returns, I kept wondering how it might play to anyone who has never seen the classic 1964 original. Surely there will be plenty such people. Perhaps it makes a positive difference to them to be removed from how blatantly this sequel coming 54 years later traffics in nostalgia?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the first film, with Julie Andrews in arguably her most iconic role, that nothing can possibly stack up to it. Mary Poppins Returns attempts to recapture a whole lot of the kind of magic that really only existed in a bygone era, but excels when making bits of original magic. In other words, this film is full of its own delights, and also a bit of a mixed bag — especially if you’re looking for something for which there is no comparison.

Comparisons are quite literally what this movie is asking for, though. So let’s start with the stuff which, if far from terrible, well, could have been better.

It’s not often that I wish a movie were longer than it is, especially when it’s already 130 minutes. (The original film was 139 minutes.) Much of Mary Poppins Returns is not quite frantic, but just shy of it; it feels very much a product of its time, ironically — as though made for people with no attention span. It’s packed to the gills with story, and the story seldom gets any room to breathe.

That said, maybe it doesn’t need to be longer — the story could have been given room to breathe if the first “magic of imagination” sequence were simply done away with, and all the rest of the scenes fleshed out a tad. This movie jumps right in with a bathtub number that is rather over the top with its undersea colors and effects, and it’s just a little much, a little early.

I might not have had so much of a problem with packing so much story in, if that story weren’t so contrived and undercooked. This time out, we get Colin Firth as a bona fide villain — a character type I don’t recall existing at all in the original Mary Poppins. The charm of the original film was the simplicity of its themes: if there were any villain, it was time itself, and how it robs grownups of their childhood wonder. This idea returns here, but it’s attached to a ridiculously predictable plot involving the search for shares in Michael Banks’s bank, in time to save his lifelong home from being repossessed.

So yes, some of this is outright nitpicking — but when it comes to the legacy of a film as pitch perfect as Mary Poppins, there shouldn’t be so much room for it. The music in particular is fine, but “fine” is not good enough for Mary Poppins, who once regaled us with such unfortgettable tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Feed the Birds.” Not one song here comes remotely close to such classic songs: no answer to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” no “Chim Chim Cheree.”

Granted, for those of us who grew up watching that film so many times we practically memorized it, it arguably doesn’t matter what anyone making a sequel did, they just couldn’t win. So from my perspective, it’s a great compliment to Mary Poppins Returns that while it’s nowhere near as great as I wanted it to be, it remains far better than I feared.

This movie falters when it attempts to recreate specific ideas and feelings from its predecessor, which it does a lot — instead of Dick Van Dyke as a chimney sweep, we get Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamplighter, complete with many friends who come together for an elaborate dance sequence much like those of the chimney sweeps in 1964. The inclusion of stunts on bicycles feels strangely like a strained attempt at modern sensibility while coming up slightly short of the original choreography.

But, once it gets past that slightly ill-advised bathtub swimming sequence, Mary Poppins Returns does offer several sequences that are both original and an effective expansion on the original sensibility. Popping into the animated world of the etching on a ceramic bowl, a horse and carriage rides along a path that curves with the bend of the bowl. In this sequence, the blending of animation in a specific-era Disney style with live action has a comforting authenticity to it.

As for the live-action cast? Honestly, Emily Blunt, while otherwise very well cast in the title role, slightly overdoes it at times with the Poppins pomposity. Other times, in spite of there being no replacement for Julie Andrews, Blunt seems to channel her surprisingly well. Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer are serviceable as the grown Michael and Jane Banks. Michael, now a widower, has three children of his own, played with more childlike wonder than precociousness by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson.

Poppins’s return is much more about setting things right with the grownups than the actual kids here — she simply uses the kids as a means to that end. Of course, the adults being the ones with a lesson to learn was the original idea — a tried and true concept that really needed no conceit about shares in a bank to be tied to it.

Mary Poppins is undeniably fun regardless, and I must admit, by the very end, after a truly delightful number involving balloons at a spring fair, I finally decided I was fully on board. Sequences like that convince me I’d enjoy watching the movie again, even with its many minor flaws. Not one of those flaws are fatal, after all — they simply weigh down the legacy it’s clearly attempting to live up to. For every flaw, though, there’s a new delight. Many of them involve brief appearances that inevitably bring on a smile: Meryl Streep as “Topsy,” Poppins’s eccentric cousin who fixes things; Angela Lansbury as the balloon seller; even Dick Van Dyke — not as Bert the chimney sweep, but this time as an old bank executive. His spry performance at 93 years old might be worth the ticket price alone.

Of course, I really wanted Dick Van Dyke to be coming back as Bert. Don’t get your hopes up on that one! Consider that less of a spoiler than a way to avoid being disappointed during the movie. It’s wonderful to see him onscreen no matter what part he plays.

And contrived as it is, the Mary Poppins Returns script does have its clever moments. You could call it uneven: slightly rough patches of story telling, and other parts that are smooth sailing. It’s the moments of smooth sailing that keep you believing in the power of imagination.

The Banks children young and old think to themselves . . . “Hey, you’re not Julie Andrews.”

The Banks children young and old think to themselves . . . “Hey, you’re not Julie Andrews.”

Overall: B

Opens Wednesday December 19.

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B
Special Effects: B+

Fantasy stories about witches and warlocks aren’t exactly new, so it would be unfair to call The House with a Clock in Its Walls a retread of, say, the Harry Potter series. But in a world where Harry Potter exists, a movie like The House with a Clock in Its Walls still feels decidedly low-rent. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer; it’s also about an orphaned kid who realizes previously unknown magical potential; it feels like the start of an intended franchise.

One might wonder if the John Bellairs novel on which the movie is based feels low-rent. I never read it. But, it could hardly owe any debt to Harry Potter — which, it must be noted, was technically derivative itself, throughout the series; it was just better at adding a new, modern spin — as it was first published in 1973. This movie, though, as directed by Eli Roth, is the first-ever film adaptation, and having waited all this time, it does feel a bit like a cash-grab so late to the party that even the peak of early-21st-century movies with fantasy and magic has passed.

Roth is the director behind the first couple of films in the Hostel franchise, and he does bring a subtle undercurrent of horror in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s a rated-PG kind of horror, clearly meant for kids but kids old enough to handle a few jump-scares. I jumped pretty hard at least once. And that seems to be the niche Eli Roth is attempting to carve here: Harry Potter dipping his toes in the horror genre.

Alas, the story, at least as presented here, just isn’t that compelling. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has lost his parents to a car crash at the age of ten and is being sent to live with his next of kin, a heretofore estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who has a close but platonic relationship with his neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis learns quickly that Jonathan’s house is alive with its very own magical personality, and is also afflicted with a hexed clock in its walls left by Jonathan’s late magician partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Trouble brews when Lewis succumbs to peer pressure from a new friend at school and opens the locked cabinet he’s forbidden from opening. This is literally the single rule Unlce Jonathan imposes on him, but of course Lewis breaks it.

Much of what happens in this movie is due to characters refusing to be fully honest with each other about things. The story never gives any particularly plausible motivation for this caginess, except to contrive a story that winds up not being quite as exciting as it wants to be.

It doesn’t help that Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are so mismatched, have such little chemistry, that they almost seem like people from different movies. Blanchett is as great as ever, as it happens; she has a knack for intensifying her own charisma by being restrained. Jack Black is a different story, always just slightly over-acting and never quite believable in his delivery. This is surprising indeed, given how fantastically he played a teenage girl trapped in the video game avatar of a middle-aged mad in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He clearly can be a great actor, and has demonstrated as much many times over the past couple of decades. He just doesn’t manage it here.

There are also running gags in this movie which are simply dumb, such as the “topiary griffin” that power-poops leaves out of its ass. It’s well-rendered CGI whose impact is neutered by playing for easy, silly scatalogical laughs. Jonathan looks upon the collection of mechanical dummies in his house, which eventually come to life, and says “So creepy!” — several times. Duh? On the other hand, I’ll give this movie credit for its brief forays into memorable weirdness: it’s not every day you see Jack Black’s head on the body of a baby, which even pees. Such an example is the exception that proves the rule, though: this movie hints at a direction that could truly set itself apart, but then never truly commits to it. A scene in which our heroes battle a yard full of living jack-o-lanterns could have been something far better executed than the silly farce of a scene Eli Roth makes it here.

The special effects are arguably the best thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it’s never showy. There’s a pretty fantastic scene in which celestial bodies and stars are conjured into the air over the house’s large backyard, complete with the topiary griffin batting at the stars like any cat would, and it is all too brief. So here we end up with a movie not great enough to sing its praises; not bad enough to complain much about. It’s just . . . fine. But unless you’re a fanatic for all-things magic, then why bother?

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

Overall: B-

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Special Effects
: A-

I wonder what the crossover audience is between one movie and the other that clearly inspired it, from 27 years before? How many people watching Christopher Robin had the experience I had, where it consistently reminded me of Spielberg's 1991 blockbuster Hook? In that movie, the question was, "What if Peter Pan grew up?" In this one, it was "What happened when Christopher Robin grew up?"

What happens is arguably a mixed bag, but I opened up to it, and allowed myself to be charmed. Christopher Robin is getting very mixed reviews, and if you look at it with even a moderately critical eye, it's easy to see why. But here is a movie in which paying attention to such things misses the point. Audience scores are far higher than critical reviews, and if we're being totally honest, that's a far better barometer of what the likelihood is that you'll enjoy it.

Do you love Winnie the Pooh? The old books, the old Disney cartoons? Christopher Robin won't equal them, and I don't think any Pooh fan will say that it does. But pretty much any Pooh fan will still be endeared by it.

I certainly was. Granted, I am also a Ewan McGregor fan, and he plays the grown up Christopher Robin. Directed by Mike Forster, who also gave us 2004's Finding Neverland -- another Peter Pan connection -- Christopher Robin has an odd through line of wistfulness, bordering on melancholy, even as it has a clear message of appreciating the simple pleasures of childhood.

The broad beats of the story are very familiar. Christopher Robin works for a luggage company in post-World War II London and is so consumed by his workaholism that he neglects his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). It's slightly anachronistic that this child of the forties should be a young girl, being groomed by her father to emphasize the value of career. The choice not to make her a little boy feels less organic than focused grouped to appeal to 21st century audiences. Christopher's workplace is also surprisingly racially integrated, but, I suppose, so what? This is clearly a fantasy, after all.

And: it works. It did for me, anyway, in spite of the fact that in this stage of Christopher Robin's life, he's not the only person who can see and hear his walking and talking stuffed animals. Wherever Pooh and his friends go, which includes two different trips into the hustle and bustle of London, their personalities are not just a product of Christopher's imagination. Everyone can see and hear them, and they are at one point taught to "play nap time" just to keep people from freaking out.

In any case, a lot of Christopher Robin is . . . odd. What truly rises above it all is the cuddly, pure of heart personality of Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also voices Tigger, in both cases having also done so for the cartoons since the late eighties). Pooh gets occasionally confused, but never hurt or angry. He takes nothing personally. He goes with the flow, and is thus a font of simple wisdom. He finds joy in a red balloon.

He reappears in Christopher Robin's life after thirty years, literally out of thin air outside his London flat, evidently just to snap him out of the distracted state of being a grown-up. When he converses with Christopher, even in this complex adult world, he is only capable of processing it in the simplest terms, often to hilarious effect. I laughed pretty hard several times. The same can be said of Tigger and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) and especially Eeyore (Brad Garrett, fantastic), and the rest of the gang. But Pooh is the heart of this movie, as is to be expected.

There is something slightly jarring about this being a live action film rather than animation, the stuffed animals all CGI effects as opposed to drawings. They look very much like real stuffed animals, in ways the cartoons and drawings we're all used to never quite did. But still they move and talk, and have unique personalities with which we've long been familiar.

The lesson, as always, is the importance of play, and how gloomy life becomes when deprived of it. None of this is new. But I was taken by the fish-out-of-water story of Pooh and his stuffed buddies navigating the big city with a little girl eager to please her father. The script remains the weakest link in Christopher Robin, which is unfortunate given that's the most important part, but here the performances make up for a lot. The charms offered by these stuffed animal characters are plentiful enough to render the wildly overdone plot inessential. Spending a couple of hours just hanging out with these guys is enough.

Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Hey Pooh, I think I'm tripping.

Overall: B

COCO

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Animation: A

Oh, Pixar -- how great it is when you are great! And you are great more often than most, if less often than you used to be: Pixar films were reliably worth the time and money, without exception, with every film released between 1995 and 2004. I'll never really understand the enduring appeal of Cars (2006), their first movie that was really good rather than great, yet is the second of their franchises to spawn not just one, but two sub-par sequels (in 2011 and 2017; Cars 3 was the first-ever Pixar film I never even bothered to see, from sheer disinterest). For the past decade or so, they've been churning out about two adequate movies for every great one.

Case in point: after 2015's truly spectacular Inside Out was followed by the undeniably entertaining mixed bag that was The Good Dinosaur later that same year; the delightful yet by-definition unoriginal Finding Dory  last year; and then Cars 3 earlier this year -- two sequels in a row, in fact. And if there's any company that benefits most from not recycling material, it's Pixar -- who steps up to the plate yet again with Coco, a movie lacking in the thrills of the Toy Story series or The Incredibles or WALL-E or the sophisticated wit aimed at the adults in the audience found in most of Pixar's output, but containing all the visual dazzle now long expected of the Pixar brand, and a refreshingly straightforward amount of depth and heart.

I didn't laugh as much at Coco as I have tended to at most Pixar films in the past. I may have cried more than I have at any other Pixar film -- and that includes the opening sequence of Up (2009). This is a genuinely moving film, with pretty universal messages of the importance of familial love, and a very specific context in which to give it: during the Mexican tradition of honoring ancestors on The Day of the Dead.

Should I mention the ways in which Coco is unwittingly politicized? Talk about uncanny timing: animated features of Pixar's type are many years in the making, and when work on this began, no one had any idea it would be released to an America with Donald Trump as president, a man who has whipped up hatred toward immigrants and Mexicans in particular. And here comes along a film about a Mexican family, starring a clearly deliberate all-Latino voice cast -- you won't find any white people speaking with fake Mexican accents here.

And the script, by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich (with additional original story credit by Jason Katz and co-director Lee Unkrich), is pretty close to perfect. There is a semi-provocative sequence regarding skeletal ancestor characters passing through check points to visit family on the Day of the Dead that's pretty evocative of immigration, but it stops short of being any direct commentary on immigration issues. This would have been an interesting choice for Mexican characters regardless of the era of the film's release, though.

As it happens, the film's original title was Dia de los Muertos, but when Disney made the clearly misguided attempt at trademarking the phrase and it understandably caused a backlash among Mexican-Americans (who all was in the room when everyone present thought that was a good idea?), the title was changed to Coco. This is the name of a minor but key character, the oldest living relative -- great-grandmother -- of a little boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). He is the central character, and he loves music, but is forbidden to play it because his great grandmother forbade it after her musician husband abandoned the family in favor of his musical passions. The family went on to become shoemakers who for generations refuse to have music in their homes. Sounds pretty depressing, no?

There's something a little flimsy about that premise -- only in an uber-manufactured world like a cartoon would such a scenario fly -- but, oh well. When Miguel attempts to steal the mounted guitar at the grave of his musical idol, the strum of the guitar on the night of the Day of the Dead passes him through to the world of the Dead.

It is here that he meets all the deceased ancestral characters, each with the same basic design as the skeletons typically decorating the scene at Dia de Muertos celebrations -- stark skeletal features on which are imposed stenciled patterns. Miguel finds himself in a spectacularly rendered "Land of the Dead," where the animation is on the level of all the best Pixar films that came before it -- painstakingly colored, awe inspiring in its detail, dazzling in its scope. This can even be said of scenes in cemeteries where people have brought offerings and candles to honor their dearly departed.

It's tempting to ask if Coco is like Corpse Bride, just because both feature skeleton characters. The key difference is that Coco places them in a very specific cultural context, and expands the imagination and the world they inhabit. Coco also has far greater depth in its themes, storytelling, and even its visual palate. Miguel meets his ancestors who began this moratorium on playing music in the family, and they must find a way to help him return to the land of the living. The aforementioned singer (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), and Hector (Gael García Bernal), a man denied entry to the land of the living to visit for the Day of the Dead because he no longer has living family to remember him, also feature prominently.

I suppose it should be noted that not only does Coco deal pretty directly with the concept of death and dealing with the loss of family members, actual murder does fit into the plot. I'm not sure how appropriate it would be for the smallest of children, who could be frightened by some of it. That said, children of at least Miguel's age (about ten, I suppose?) are certainly perfect audiences for Coco's themes of family and honoring elders lost.

Rarely is an animated film as textured in its storytelling as it is in its visual scope, and Coco delivers in spades on all fronts. The final fifteen minutes or so are particularly moving, and tie it all together in ways not easily predicted from the beginning of the story. This is a movie that is beautiful both on sight and in feeling, an accomplishment that belies its surface simplicity. It's family entertainment done right.

Visiting the Land of the Dead is more fun than you might expect  .

Visiting the Land of the Dead is more fun than you might expect.

Overall: A-