My first exposure to the characters and story of Mary Poppins was in the books by her creator P.L. Travers. Then came the Disney film version in 1964. I loved much of it, but at age 13 was already critical of the changes Disney made to the characters and storyline in the books. And even then I knew Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent was terrible. This past Thanksgiving weekend, Ellen and I saw a performance of the Mary Poppins musical at Centenary College in northern New Jersey, thanks to Dave and Ann Greene. I enjoyed it, but was struck by the strange mixture of elements from the books, elements from the film, and some all-new things created by adapter Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame. It made me want to reread the books for the first time in decades, and I did that through December, specifically the four main books by P.L. Travers. Here are some thoughts on all this, with SPOILERS if you haven’t read or seen any of these things and plan to. Continue reading
Here’s where I stand on Harry Potter. I read all of the main series of books by J.K. Rowling and enjoyed them but didn’t love them, though I thought the writing improved over the course of the series. Probably if I first came to them as a teenager I would have loved them. I saw the first two or three films, and thought they were well done, but was not motivated to see the rest. I haven’t read the short book that sparked this new film or any other newer writings by Rowling. What got me to the theater for this film was the trailer, seen when viewing “Doctor Strange.” I liked what I saw, and I liked the idea of finding out what Rowling herself would put into a film she wrote and co-produced.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a Hogwarts graduate who has become a specialist in magical beasts, traveling the world in search of them, and putting some of them into his magic suitcase which is MUCH larger on the inside. He comes to New York, where there is a well-developed society of wizards, but one which hides itself from the common people. (This reminded me of Bill Willingham’s FABLES.) Soon after his arrival, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a non-magic New Yorker with the dream of opening his own bakery. In the old switched suitcase gambit, Kowalski unwittingly allows some of Newt’s fantastic beasts to escape. Newt is soon collared by New York witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) who tries to convince her superiors to help Newt regain his beasts, and failing that, decides to help him herself. Newt and Jacob end up at her apartment where Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) takes a shine to Jacob and wants to help, too.
Other plot lines involve a cult-like society out to destroy wizards and witches, a very dangerous evil force spawned by a mistreated child, a high-ranking New York wizard, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who is playing a deceptive game to gain power, and of course the beasts themselves, which are all made-up creatures of varying kinds. The one we see the most and earliest is a Niffler, which loves to steal and horde gold and jewelry. It looks something like a cross between a mole and a platypus, and is charmingly naughty. All the beasts are interesting and visually impressive, as are the effects in general. The true focus of the story, though, is people. The four heroic leads, some mistreated children, the devious wizard, and more. There’s plenty of action, plenty of magic and magical destruction, mentions here and there of Harry Potter connections, and all taking place in 1920s New York, adding historical charm of its own. There’s also a nifty reveal near the end.
I liked the film a lot. Not sure that I loved it, but I would certainly go see the next one. I’m generally impressed with Rowling’s work here. The emotional strings are pushed a bit harder than necessary, but I liked the characters, and would enjoy seeing more of them. I also liked the expansion of Rowling’s magical world both back in time and out to America, and further by implication. More of that, please.
I’ve been looking forward to this one, and I was not disappointed, even though they did NOT use the odd variation of my Doctor Strange logo that appeared with a lot of the publicity images in the actual film, but went instead with the ever boring Trajan font with a gold metallic Photoshop effect. It’s the one on many of the newest movie images. Sigh.
When I first discovered Marvel comics in the early 1960s, I loved the original Doctor Strange stories by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. I was already a fan of magic and fantasy, and this was the biggest use of it in comics at the time. Ditko’s visuals were mind-bending and wonderful in every way. Lee’s dialogue was corny, with some silly made-up magic words and names, but heartfelt all the same.
The movie, in my view, takes the best of the original ideas and builds on them in many ways, with respect, intelligence and even some humor. It puts the characters in a believable present without taking away what I liked about them in the comics. Yes, there are some obvious changes that some have found troubling—The Ancient One, Strange’s teacher being played by Tilda Swinton rather than an Asian actor being the main one I’ve heard about—but I thought she did an excellent job. Benedict Cumberbatch was superb in the title role. All the actors were great. The only role I found predictable and kind of one-note was that of the main villain Kaecilius, a former student of The Ancient One who has rebelled and stolen a spell to bring the Dreaded Dormammu and his dark world to Earth, or rather, Earth to it.
The effects and visual look of this movie are truly mind-boggling. Many had a sort of mad clockwork approach that I first remember seeing in some of the Harry Potter films, but taking that idea to artist M.C. Escher impossibilities and beyond. Even the little things like makeup that mimics very real scars was impressive.
Some of the Marvel films I’ve seen, like the first Avengers one, were too much all-out action and fighting. I thought this was a better balance of story and action, character moments and violence. Many times in the film I had feelings of “yes, that was done right.” Never did I feel bored. You can’t ask for more than that in a film of this type, I think.
We watched this on Amazon Prime last night and enjoyed it. From stills I’d seen I thought the digital animation might bother me, but it worked okay for the most part. There are some disconnects between the very Schulz-like black lines on the faces and the more sculpted body shapes and hair. Occasionally I found myself looking at that rather than enjoying the story, particularly when things went a bit weird, as in one scene where Schroeder’s eyebrows went over his hair, but mostly I got used to the look pretty quickly and I feel it does capture the Schulz characters at least as well as the old hand-drawn animated features on TV. The digital animation gets into some very detailed backgrounds and landscapes at times that seem too three dimensional and precise, as when Snoopy in his flying doghouse is dogfighting with the Red Baron over Paris, but in all it was visually fun.
The story is well done, a collection of short episodes and gags combined into scenes of varying lengths, but none longer than about five minutes, I think. This helps preserve the flavor of the original comic strip more than some of the later TV cartoons, and much like the original “Charlie Brown Christmas” one. There is some development to the story as it goes along as well, but it’s light enough to work in this format. There are changes from the strip that make sense in a movie, such as having Peppermint Patty and Marcie in the same school and class as Charlie Brown and his gang. And there are two major plot elements that are new or carried much further than the strip, depending on how you look at it: love interests for Snoopy (a female pilot) and Charlie Brown (the little red-haired girl). I found both charming and in a way kind of satisfying.
Charlie Brown and Snoopy get the most screen time. Many of the regulars are here, but Linus gets less screen time than you might expect compared to his large role in the strip, and Lucy is also somewhat sidelined. In all, it was fun and well worth watching right through to the end credits. And Charles Schulz’s line drawings of the characters do make appearances at times throughout, just to remind the viewer of where this all came from, a nice touch.
If I was required to pick one book from the thousands in my home and the thousands more I’ve read as my favorite of all time, it would be “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s been so since I first read it around age twelve, and I’ve reread it dozens of times since. While I did not initially warm to Peter Jackson’s version of “The Lord of the Rings,” I came around to it and now like it a lot, so of course seeing all three Hobbit films was a must. Having found a place in my head for Jackson’s version of Tolkien, I was able to enjoy and appreciate his version of “The Hobbit,” even though there’s so much in it that’s not in the book. A lot of that is, I think, a matter of creating a blockbuster action film, but even more, of introducing things he and his writing team wanted to see more of and more about.
It reminds me of fan fiction in a way, like “wouldn’t it be cool if, amid the madness, a dwarf and an elf-maiden fell in love,” or “what if the orcs had giant digging worms like the Sandworms in Dune,” or “let’s see the battle between the wizards and The Necromancer.” Some of these ideas are easier to go along with than others, I admit I liked the last one. Even Tolkien himself did some tinkering with his story after the first edition saw print to deepen the connections to “Lord of the Rings,” as evidenced in his introductory note in my edition from the 1960s. And of course it was a given that Peter Jackson’s version would have lots of action and lots of fighting, especially in this last film. It’s surprisingly non-gory action, but still very violent, and strays far from Tolkien, even when it’s kind of cool, as in the feats of Legolas, who of course isn’t in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” at all.
Despite all that extra stuff, the main points of the book are covered pretty well, I thought. And Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth is, in my view, a pretty cool place to visit, even if it’s not that much like Tolkien’s. Looking at my well-worn copy of the book, the one with Tolkien’s actual signature tucked into the flap, I see that the Battle of the Five Armies is covered in one chapter of twelve pages. It’s about half the film. I did appreciate the many character moments in the film, even some of the ones not in the book, and could have done without so much fighting, but maybe that’s just me. In all, I enjoyed this and all the Jackson films. I think I liked the Hobbit ones less than the LOTR ones, but I did like them. It’s not something I would bring a kid to, let them read the book, and find the films later would be my plan, but I don’t have kids of my own, so I’m not sure how realistic that is.
The end of the film is not as satisfying as the end of the LOTR films, because Jackson has spent so much time connecting his Hobbit to those films, and as viewers, we know there’s lots more trouble coming for Bilbo and the Hobbits, so that’s a little disappointing, but I suppose if you wanted to watch them all in chronological order, it makes sense. I know I’ll go back to the book again, and find more enjoyment in that in the long run, but the things accomplished in the films will also stick with me.