Reviving a beloved fifty-year old property was always going to be a tough ask for Disney; Mary Poppins Returns succeeds primarily because Emily Blunt is perfect casting to take over the umbrella from Julie Andrews; there’s a mix of starch and sweetness here that’s ideal to recapture the character, although Blunt’s Poppins is notably different, particularly in a sexualised way. Rob Marshall’s film doubles down on the musical-hall styling of the original, but the fresh emphasis on innuendo; Blunt’s performance of The Cover is Not The Book shifts somewhat towards Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Otherwise, there’s a familiar mix of 2D animation, sentiment, and of course every child loves a trenchant analysis of the banking system. Nefarious disaster capitalist Colin Firth has the Banks family (Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer) over a barrel unless they can recover precious deeds. Mary Poppins Returns scrupulously adheres to the original film, right down to longeuers, general over-length and a lack of pace. But the music is fine, and Blunt revitalises the character for a new generation of nanny-seeking children of all ages.
Hailed as a return to form for Tim Burton, Miss Peregrine is more like a return to familiar ground; Burton’s obsessions are never buried deep in his work, and it’s not like he was dampening his style down for Big Eyes, Frankenweenie or Dark Shadows. But this YA adaptation of the book by Ransom Riggs has a more confident and epic scope as it relates the story of a young boy Jake (Asa Butterfield) who is won over by the many gifted children of Miss Peregrine (Evan Green). There’s some complex, time-shifting story-telling here, and a strange visual atmosphere involving the British coastal resort of Blackpool. A strong supporting cast including Rupert Everett and Judi Dench don’t get to contribute much, but Green is as good as ever, and Burton seems to have remembered what his audience like to see; channeling his off-kilter style into a compelling narrative.
A breezy take on James Dashner’s Young Adult novel, The Maze Runner is a sci-fi drama that racks up a decent amount of tension around an abstract idea. Thomas (Dylan O’Brian) wakes up to find himself in a community of teenagers, whose only exit from their woodlands camp it through a maze populated by large, alien beasts. Thomas battles to be recognised as a leader in a volatile group including Will Poulter and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and the scenes in The Maze are well-staged and pretty graphic for young audiences. The finals is disappointing in that it sets up a franchise in a rather obviously open-ended way, but the high production values of Wes Ball’s film make it a cut above most studio product for kids.
Writer/director Todd Field followed up In The Bedroom with an equally dark but just as compelling drama, featuring Kate Winslet as Massachusetts mother Sarah who embarks on clandestine afternoon meetings with Brad (Patrick Wilson). Their initially chaste meetings, while their children play at a local park, gives way to a torrid romance, despite their family ties, and engenders a secret that affects the way they see the community around them. That disaffection becomes important as Brad’s friend Larry is suspicious of local outcast Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), who lives with his mother and has a complex set of mental health issues relation to women and young girls in particular. How the community treat Ronnie becomes mixed up with Sarah and Brad’s covert affair, and final few scenes of Little Children are intense and powerful as deception leads to consequences. Little Children is melodramatic at times, but the 134 minute length is justified by the eloquent way that Field draws out the mores of the suburban community, and engenders sympathy for Sarah and Brad and their fight against the common denominator of loveless marriages. A woman’s picture in the old style, Little Children is an accomplished adult drama.
Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda scored an international sleeper with this charming film about wishes and dreams in a decidedly modern world. Koichi (Koki Maeda) has lost touch with his brother due to the separation of his parents; when a new bullet-train network in Japan is unveiled, he is told that the precise moment when two trains pass each other is the moment that dreams can come true; he enlists a group of friends to make the trek to the appointed spot in the hope that he can reunite his family. Whimsical, yet pragmatic, I Wish is a realistic fantasy of family life and brotherhood, a Stand By Me for the 21st century.
Gore Verbinkski’s first features shows all the visual energy and gift of visual comedy that featured in the Pirates of The Caribbean movies, but without the lame-love interest. Instead there’s a stream of high quality slapstick for kids of all ages; Nathan Lane and Lee Evans play Ernie and Lars Smuntz, who are hoping to restore an ancient mansion but haven’t reckoned with the sitting tenant; a mouse who is unwilling to move out. Mousetraps, cats and eventually a tough professional exterminator (a brilliant cameo from Christopher Walken) are all enlisted, and Mousehunt has enormous fun with the comic possibilities in this breezy Dreamworks production; any film with such an extended mouse-down-the-trousers gag deserves points for trying.
Rather surprisingly for a Disney film, neither children and dinosaurs are center stage in Robert Stevenson’s silly romp, with instead focuses on a battle between nannies (led by Helen Hayes) and Chinese criminals (led by Peter Ustinov). The competition is for Lotus X, a mysterious formula smuggled out of China by Lord Southmere (Derek Nimmo) and hidden in the bones of a dinosaur in a London museum. Few would suggest that Stevenson’s film has anything astute to say about race of age; the gag is that the old ladies are more than a match for their professional opponents. Featuring a role call of aging British talent, from Jon Pertwee to Max Wall, this holiday staple’s main prop turns up in Star Wars, and features some rather lovely glass paintings in the old style and is based on a novel by David Forrest.