Weeks ago, I listened to the original Tony Award-winning 2008 Broadway recording for In the Heights, the first major musical by multi-hyphenate artistic virtuoso, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I had never heard the music before and I found that, over the course of a couple hours, little of it stuck with me. There were a handful of tracks where I thought it was nice but nothing grabbed me the way that Hamilton’s soundtrack did from the very start. Because of that musical dip, my expectations lowered slightly for the long-anticipated movie musical of In the Heights. Well, dear reader, let me say what a monumental world of difference seeing the songs in their proper context, with character relationships, and the able performances of the actors can do for making the music come alive. In the Heights is an exuberantly joyous experience, one brimming with energy and good vibes and a warm-hearted welcome that serves as the best argument movie theaters can have to come back and experience the pleasures of the big screen with your friends and family.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is a twenty-something bodega owner in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood and dreaming about returning to his home in the Dominican Republic. His young cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) helps him stock the shelves and keep the family business going. We follow the many faces of the neighborhood, like Abuela (Olga Merediz), who has helped raise everyone as a sweetly matronly figure, Nina (Leslie Grace), returning home from her first year at Stanford as the “girl who made something of herself,” Benny (Corey Hawkins) who was in a relationship with Nina and is looking to work his way up as a cab dispatcher, Daniella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) who is moving her popular salon into another neighborhood, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of relocating into Manhattan’s fashion district. Usnavi has been nursing a crush over Vanessa for ages, but will he finally make a move before leaving the country for good to return to the Caribbean?
This is such a positive and overwhelmingly optimistic story that it becomes infectious, a pleasing balm to sooth all that ails you. It’s very easy to get swept away in the enthusiasm and energy of the movie, enough so that after the exemplary opening number setting up our characters, our setting, and our relationships and goals, people in my theater actually clapped, and I almost felt like joining them. In the Heights succeeds through how relatable and specific it comes across, lovingly showcasing the diverse population of Washington Heights and the community that feels at home here. It’s built upon the celebration of its specific, Latin-American heritage and culture but the movie is also constructed to be so accessible and welcoming to others to learn and join in. The themes and conflicts of these people have specific touchstones to their community, like the threat of deportation and the encroachment of gentrification taking away their neighborhood, but the inner conflicts like feeling the pressure to succeed and questioning whether your dreams are practical are worries that anyone regardless of ethnic background can relate to. In the Heights finds that sweet spot where it’s reverential to its own cultural background and open for anyone.
Naturally, in a musical, much of the appeal will live or die depending upon the quality of the music and the vitality of the performances. With In the Heights, the music and lyrics are quite good and the presentation is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of Hamilton, and if you have ears I assume you would be, it’s fun to listen to the early seeds that would become the signature sound for Lin-Manuel Miranda. There are similar salsa/merengue melodies and hip-hop-infused syncopations that will be familiar to the legions of Hamilton fans, including some rhymes (“Eyes on the horizon” among others). In many ways it’s like watching a junior thesis project of a genius. The opening number does a fantastic job of table setting as well as bringing the audience into this world and getting us excited for more. Usnavi, and Ramos especially, takes full control of our attention and command of the world with fast-paced delivery and extra charisma. There are more bouncy, humorous tunes like “No Me Diga” set in a salon replete with literal bobbing weaves, more traditional Broadway ballads like “Breathe” about a character expressing her doubts and guilt, and the Cole Porter-esque smooth jazz of our young lovers dancing and declaring their affection for one another like “When the Sun Goes Down.”
But the best moments are the ones that open up the big space and bring the whole community of Washington Heights into the mix. The electricity of the opening number is rekindled in “96,000” where a trip to the local pool turns into a jumping jamboree where everyone dreams about what they would do with a winning lottery ticket sold at Usnavi’s bodega. It allows each character an opportunity to share their dream and what is important to them, providing each person a platform to be more defined. It also taps into that bubbling optimism that permeates the entire movie. The grand finale also has the same effect as characters sing their hearts out about lessons learned and wisdom gained and, thanks to the medium of film, it provides a happy ever after resolution that was unavailable on stage. Miranda is excellent at weaving musical themes to come back into multi-harmonic convergences and crescendos, and it all comes to a rousing and uplifting conclusion.
Another concern about big screen musicals is whether they can translate to the visual landscape of cinema, whether they can escape the trappings of the stage, and In the Heights is exactly how musicals should be filmed. Director John M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) got his filmmaking start with the Step Up dance franchise and knows, whatever the film, how to keep things moving swiftly and full of vivacious energy. Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, In the Heights doesn’t feel like it has any noticeable down time. The filmmaking choices adapt with the needs and intents of the songs, so when we have a fast-paced multi-part song and dance, the editing adopts this speed, and when we have large ensembles the cinematography widens to take in the expansive group choreography. When things need to slow down and become more intimate, Chu’s camera adopts to this and relies on longer tracking shots and close to medium shots. The pool choreography in “96,000” is splashy fun and lively and very colorful, and the quick visual cues and edits of “In the Heights” incorporates the neighborhood into the music to make New York City feel like a living participant. Chu’s direction takes full advantage of what film can offer but still makes the viewer feel the same intimacy and vibrancy of live theater.
There are two standout movie moments. The first is the song “Paciencia Y Fe” that does so much symbolic heavy lifting about the immigrant experience, discrimination, and the long struggle for personal dignity, that it made me tear up by the end for a character that, only moments before the empathetic expose, was a nominally nice old lady. The other is “When the Sun Goes Down” between Benny and Nina, which begins with them gazing out a fire escape and takes a magical turn into dancing along the walls of their building like Spider-Man. That transitional moment, from the ordinary to the extraordinary, is the only real magical realism in the show, so Chu has been saving it up for his big moment. The dance is beautiful to behold, and the perspective has an Inception-style spin that alters their balance and perspective of what is up. It’s a beautiful movie moment, captured in long takes, and reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s fanciful fantasias.
Ramos (A Star is Born) played John Laurens in the initial stage show of Hamilton, and its filmed production on Disney Plus, and now he gets his own starring vehicle. He is tremendous as Usnavi, convincingly laid back and charming while also being amusingly anxious around his crush. The awkward romantic fumbles are adorable. Ramos’ singing and skill with the flow of rap lyrics is impressive, but he’s also providing a performance first and worrying about the singing second, not that he should be worried on that front. Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) surprised me with the range of his singing, and he’s such a pleasant presence to have along. Gregory Diaz IV (Vampires vs. the Bronx) is hilarious at times, like when he’s adopting a macho voice to ask Vanessa adult questions, but he can also break your heart like when he reveals his own legal vulnerability. His poolside solo is also a delightful interjection about what his own rap skills comprise. Merediz (Godmothered) is the only holdover from the original stage show and she is so captivating in her signature number that it’s easy to understand why she was nominated for a Tony Award. There are so many amusing and enjoyable supporting characters populated by familiar faces, like the women of the salon (Rent’s Ruben-Vega, Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz, and Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) providing comic relief and a playful attitude, Jimmy Smits as the noble father giving of himself for his daughter’s future, and Miranda and Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson as dueling sweet treat vendors vying for summer supremacy. You’ll enjoy your time in Washington Heights thanks to these fine folks.
It’s unfair to directly compare In the Heights to Hamilton, like looking at an artist’s portfolio and complaining it isn’t quite up to the standards of Da Vinci, but one area where In the Heights does come up short is the depth of its characterization. The film exudes good vibes as it skips over topical and important political issues with an optimism that might, arguably, borderline on naivete. This feels almost like the opposite-minded compliment to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, another tale of a New York City block one very hot day. The characters are kept at a genial level of interest that makes them enough to feel for and root for, but they’re not exactly deep portrayals with complex conflicts. All the characters have a singularly defined personal conflict that can be resolved by the end, and the lessons about learning to listen to others, appreciate family and self, and find home where you feel it are not exactly revolutionary or complex. Again, this stuff works, and I understand why the story needs characters that have lesser complexity and definition to fulfill the different levels of life. It’s just when compared to the depth of the real people of Hamilton where you realize that maybe the colorful characters of Washington Heights are held to a lesser standard and simply not as multi-dimensional.
In the Heights is a joyous experience that I think I’ll enjoy more upon re-watching and listening to the soundtrack over the summer months. I can completely understand why people fell in love with this musical upon its initial release and touring, and I can also acknowledge that it’s clearly an earlier artistic steppingstone to greater later achievements for Miranda. That’s not to take anything away from the pleasures of this particular story, these particular characters, and especially these particular songs. In the Heights is a lively and welcoming musical experience that carries a deep affection for its cultural roots and invitation for others to join that celebration. It’s powerfully optimistic that it’s so easy to be swept away and smile with its charms and uplift. In the Heights takes advantage of its cinematic opportunities, the charisma and energy of the talented cast, and the soaring and lovely melodies and catchy rhymes from Miranda. In the Heights is a great way to kick off a return to a summer season at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Multi-hyphenate sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sounds like a bizarre misfire, a hip-hop-infused musical about one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and yet not only does it succeed so magnificently, so transcendentally, it’s one of those rare artistic pinnacles that lives up to its own momentous hype. This is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the twenty-first century. I’m exceedingly grateful for a filmed version of the vaulted stage experience, with the original cast, that allows me that front-row view my bank account never would afford. This is going to be a film review of what is, essentially, a live theatrical performance, but really this written review is going to be a celebration of Hamilton and what I consider to be so phenomenal.
In 1776, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) is an immigrant looking to make his name in the American colonies and the looming war with Britain for independence from King George III (Jonathan Groff). He meets and befriends Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious upstart who seems fatefully linked with Hamilton through the decades. Hamilton falls in love and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but also has a close relationship with her older sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who keeps her real feelings at bay to protect her sister. Eager to get into the action, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s (Chris Jackson) right-hand man as the battle comes to New York and the colonists do the unthinkable and defeat England as we conclude the musical’s first act. “You’ll be back,” King George retorts.
Next comes the tricky part of building a functioning country in the aftermath. Hamilton is appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, but his federalist principles are fought against by some pretty big names in the cabinet, like James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Both are wary of a centralized government and prefer more power to be held by the states. The Founding Fathers jostle for ideological supremacy and Hamilton gifts his opponents with the burgeoning nation’s first political sex scandal with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Aaron Burr rises in local and national politics but sees Hamilton as a constant thorn in his side. With the presidential election so close in 1800, Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr is the final straw, and Burr demands satisfaction in a duel against Hamilton that will prove tragic.
For fans of musical theater, Hamilton is a two-hour-and-forty-minute joyously exuberant celebration of a bold artistic vision, the electricity of live theater, and broadening American history in a manner that makes it far more accessible, relevant, and humane for a modern audience. The very nature of having minority actors portraying the Founding Fathers and their famous wives is part of Miranda’s appeal that he wanted to tell the story of America with the America of today. Ordinarily, African-Americans would never get an opportunity to play Washington or Jefferson, or a Chinese-American woman playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, and there is definite power in representation, in seeing these different faces playing these historical figures. The deliberate color-blind casting makes America’s history feel more inclusive. It’s such a simple act, opening the ethnicity of historical roles, but it produces a beautiful result and provides even more cross-textual commentary, like slave-owning presidents played by black thespians.
Another miraculous effort by Miranda is his ability to generously humanize many of the characters, including the man who eventually murders Hamilton himself. Very often when we talk about the Founding Fathers and other Great Figures of History from oh so long ago, they take on a mythic quality and seem less human, less flawed, and less relatable. They seem practically superhuman, absent our doubts and desires. Miranda’s portrayal of the men and women of America’s founding does the opposite and makes these people feel relatable, flawed, and human yet again.
This includes Hamilton as well. He’s obsessed with his sense of legacy, has a pretty healthy ego that gets him into trouble, and might have been having an emotional affair with his sister-in-law, never mind an actual affair with Maria Reynolds. He’s so concerned about his “good name” and rumor of impropriety (he was accused of embezzling government money to pay for Ms. Reynolds’ husband’s extortion) that he literally confessed to his marital misdeeds and published it. Hamilton is consumed with writing his ideas (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and an impending early death, something he amazingly escaped during a hurricane in the Caribbean that destroyed his village as well as his mother’s fatal illness. He was so eager to get into the heat of war that Washington had to sit him down to persuade him that dying as a martyr isn’t as glamorous as living and seeing through your ideals. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr is likely the most widely known fact about both duelists, but the musical brings each to glorious and troubled life with unerring compassion without excusing their real failings.
Burr serves as the narrator of our near three hours, setting the stage for Hamilton’s story with his own regrets and jealousies framing his recounting. He’s a complex character worthy of his own biopic, an orphan who finished college in two years, had an affair with the wife or a British officer, lost her at sea, and championed retail politics centuries before it was the norm. His personal philosophy was one of caution, diametrically opposed to Hamilton jumping after whatever he wanted no matter the consequences. Burr longs for being near the real center of power, and his showstopping number “The Room Where It Happens” is an ode to his desire. He begins as a friend and ally of Hamilton, then political rival, and finally as a mortal enemy. He’s too calculated with his personal beliefs, never wanting to be too challenging and at risk, which is an embodiment of his social-climbing ambition as well as his callow decision-making. To Burr, avoiding risk and not accruing enemies is simply smart business. The musical does an excellent job of humanizing Burr (“Now I’m the villain in your history book”) and offering a perspective in opposition to Hamilton but not without its own measurable merits.
The domestic side of Hamilton could be its own movie to itself. The relationship between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is complicated to say the least. Angelica was the elder sister and in her stellar song “Satisfied” she details the social pressures of being in that position, being expected to marry into a desirable match that will see the family name and fortune to prosper. Feeling initially unsure about Hamilton’s intentions, she introduces him to her sister Eliza instead, and it’s a choice that she feels conflicted about ever since. Angelica dearly loves her sister (“I love my sister more than anything in this life/ I will choose her happiness over mine every time”) but cannot help but still feel a yearning for her brother-in-law. However, when the Reynolds scandal comes to light, she will defend her sister to her dying breath. That sisterly deference makes Angelica such a fascinating figure, and it certainly makes the Hamilton marriage more intriguing and roiling with pent-up desires. Eliza sings about removing herself from the narrative in “Burn” and how her husband has “forfeited the rights to my heart.” She’s been trying to impress upon her husband to be happy in the moment (“Look around, look around/ How lucky we are to be alive right now”) and enjoy his accomplishments rather than looking ahead. Her eventual forgiveness of Hamilton is one of the most emotional moments of the show that causes me to tear up. And she serves as a final testament to Hamilton’s legacy during the final number, after his death, and fills in the gaps of history by asserting her own agency back into the observed “narrative.”
I’ve gone over 1300 words, dear reader, and I haven’t even talked in depth about the music, so allow me to say that Hamilton as a musical is just about music perfection. Hip-hop is such a densely wordy platform that allows so much information to be imparted at lightning speed, which means that lyrically these songs are jam-packed with clever asides, allusions, and rhyming recitations of history. The songs are instantly quotable and filled with deep consideration from witticisms to also important dramatic themes and perspectives. I was amazed at Miranda’s composition skills in particular how he’s able to weave and build off character leitmotifs. It’s brilliant how something like Hamilton’s declarative early song “Not throwing away my shot” about his ambitions can come back during his duel with Burr where he raises his pistol in the air, away from Burr, and literally throws away his shot. Or how the beat of a song can imitate a failing heartbeat in a fractious moment of tragedy. Or how King George’s self-involved songs are fashioned to be like 1960s British invasion pop ditties. Or how cabinet arguments become riotous battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton. Or how the same actors who played Hamilton’s wartime buddies in Act 1 are playing his political rivals in Act 2 (“Have you forgotten Lafayette?” he asks of Jefferson, the same man who portrayed Lafayette). There are layers and layers to the compositions here and the music is remarkably assured; almost every song is a certified earworm, and it’s an entirely sung musical. Every person will have their favorites, and for me they include “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” and the moving finisher, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you don’t like rap music, Miranda’s offerings are so catchy, so accomplished, and so bursting with excitement, that it’s near impossible to resist.
This movie was filmed in 2016 from the original Broadway cast, many of whom earned Tony awards for their sensational work (Diggs, Goldsberry, and Odom Jr.). Everyone is truly excellent but my favorite performer, by far, is Diggs (Blindspotting). He gets to spit lightning-fast rhymes in a French accent as Lafayette, and his portrayal of Jefferson as a dandy in the style of Andre 3000 from Outkast is enormously entertaining. His “What Did I Miss?” introductory number is a perfect impression for Jefferson’s arrival onto the stage. Diggs’ is so charming even when he’s being a scoundrel trying to plot the doom of Hamilton. His battle raps with Miranda are a highlight and Diggs also seems to get the most tricky lyrical arrangements because of his peerless skills at maintaining flow and diction (“I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in/ Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it/ If Washington isn’t gon’ listen/ To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference./ This kid is out!”). There’s a reason Diggs has become the other breakout star of the show.
Soo (The Code) breaks my heart with her Act 2 solo numbers and then mends it back as she reasserts herself on “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) has such a fire to her. Groff (Mindhunter) is hilarious as King George, though his singing involves a lot of literal spitting. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) is exceptional as the titular character who comes from nothing and through the power of his ideas creates America’s financial institutions that are still standing to this day. But it’s his personal relationships that better define him in the play. The fatherly relationship he has with Washington is affectionate (“One Last Time” has an extra poignancy knowing Washington died shortly after leaving office) and his hopes for his newborn son (“You’ll Blow Us All Away”) speak to a larger truth about parenting that also links up with the foundation of a nation in infancy. There’s also his complicated love divided between Eliza and her sister. Miranda has such a natural charm and swagger and earnestness that seeps into his performance and every performer.
So is there anything about this movie-wise to separate it from a bootleg of the show? Director Thomas Kail (also the director of the musical) does make smart use of when to go tighter on his actors, to zero in on the emotions and expressiveness, and when to go wider for best impact. The stage is designed like a bullseye with a rotating circle, which can play up the dramatic confrontations between foes, especially the duels. I was impressed at points where the movement of the stage would be perfectly timed with camera focus and edits, allowing other characters to loom over the shoulder, or pop into focus, giving the production a greater sense of filmed visuals. However, this is really a filmed version of the stage show, so as a movie, it’s only going to do so much with those trappings. The unreality of theater has to be accepted but the movie version does a great job of maintaining the intimacy of the shared theatrical experience. It’s even nice to hear the applause after the musical numbers or some of the laugh lines hit home.
By this time, you’ve likely heard about the Broadway-smashing Hamilton success story of Miranda and his crew but do yourself a real favor and watch the movie with the OG cast. Yes, there are historical shortcuts taken for dramatic license and not everything you see on stage will be one hundred percent accurate with the long record of history, but it all clicks for the greater storytelling aims. Some might be uncomfortable with the re-visioning of the Founding Fathers, either by the open-ethnicity casting or glossing over their slave-owning faults, but Miranda’s larger goal of making history reflective of the people who currently live today is admirable. In short, unless you have the kind of money to blow on a front-row ticket, enjoy the Hamilton movie experience until Miranda eventually wrangles his artistic milestone into a more movie-movie version.
Movie Grade: A
Show Grade: A+
I have no real investment in Mary Poppins as a character or the original 1964 movie, so I was expecting to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns with a shrug, likely finding it middling at worse. I was unprepared for what I endured, and endured is the accurate statement. Mary Poppins Returns is an insane movie and one of the most maddening and painful experiences in a theater I’ve had all year, and no number of spoonfuls of sugar will help this bad medicine go far enough down.
It’s the “Great Slump,” a.k.a. Depression, in London and the Banks children have grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has three young children of his own and he’s struggling to maintain his job at the bank and be the father they need in the wake of his wife’s death. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has moved into help but it’s still not enough. Enter that famous nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes it upon herself to watch over the children, help them through the grieving process, and explore the outer reaches of London with some help from some friends, chiefly Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda). The Banks family is in danger of losing their home to the head of the bank (Colin Firth) unless they can find a specific title of shares that will grant them a wealth denied their adult lives.
This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. Things just happen in this movie and then different things happen but rarely do they feel consequential. This makes the film feel endless because you have no real concept of progression. It’s just another unrelated song into an unrelated magical realm that doesn’t really seem like it matters, and then we’re off to the next. I think some part of me is still trapped watching Mary Poppins Returns, never allowed to leave.
This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. They instantly vanish from your memory because there are no melodies or interesting production aspects that cause them to stand out. They assault you with their blandness and staid orchestration. They’re a careful recreation of an older sounding, 1950s musical, an antiquated sound that doesn’t have the same traction today. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collection of sounds.
There are two astoundingly peculiar songs. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big ensemble number involving the lamp lighters lead by Miranda. However, the song reference is clearly evocative of the Timothy Leary “trip the light fantastic” comment about LSD. It’s strange to think this is only a coincidence when the lamp lighters are dubbed “learies.” It’s not a good song to begin with and the performance literally involves men on BMX bicycles flying around and doing tricks. How is any of this happening in a reported Disney family film? The Meryl Streep “Turning Turtle” song may be the most excruciating five minutes I’ve sat through for all 2018. It’s just embarrassing to watch and made me honestly think of the children’s movie disaster, The Ooogieloves, where you watch once proud actors debase themselves and their legacies in depressing fashion. That’s the level of dread and mourning I had watching Streep slog through a Bela Lugosi accent and dance upside down. It has to be seen to be believed but you shouldn’t ever have to see this. I have a new appreciation for the La La Land songs.
The continual removal of stakes robs the movie of feeling like anything onscreen genuinely matters. Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers for the duration of this paragraph, but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?
Is Mary Poppins really a creature of good or does her need to be loved prove her a fickle god who demands adulation, subservience, and obedience? When Mary Poppins travels from world to world, some live action, some animated, all fanciful, every inhabitant seems to know this woman and love her unconditionally despite her prevalent smarm. The bigger question is do these magical worlds exist independent of Mary Poppins? Is there a pocket universe in existence on the side of a chipped porcelain bowl, or did it only come into existence when Mary Poppins decided it would be a lovely vacation spot? If so, that means she is calling into being a throng of adoring creatures that exist to validate her impulsive whims. She is a selfish god that demands an audience of servants and sycophants, not unlike the Javier Bardem character in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing polemic, mother!.
The actors acquit themselves fine for their roles. Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Miranda (Moana) will still be charming performers even when given substandard material. Blunt holds your attention with her prissy, schoolmarm persona, balancing the audience’s memories of Julie Andrews without going into parody. Her singing (as also evidenced from 2014’s Into the Woods) is above average and can help make some of the songs more tolerable to listen to. Miranda is a talent bursting with charisma and range, which makes it all the more frustrating to squeeze him into the narrow confines of a cockney scamp. He does get a rapping reprise in “A Cover is Not the Book” with a group of cartoon penguins. The stranger element is that it really feels like Miranda’s character wants to have sex with Mary Poppins. They slot him as a forced romantic option for Mortimer’s underwritten sister, but his eyes are clearly set for the woman who bosses people around and has magic in her fingers. He remembers her when he was a boy chimney sweep and I think he’s been fantasizing about her every day since. Plus, she hasn’t aged in 30 years.
Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know who this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic lookalike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” I still don’t know. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The Polynesian-based animated musical Moana is a throwback to the Disney formula of the 1990s that became so familiar and entrenched. The time away has made it a welcomed return, especially when executed to this magnificent magnitude. A formula by itself is not a problem, in theory. Many of our favorite movies follow storytelling paths that others have trod well before, but it’s all about the level of execution, building characters that an audience cares about, a conflict that feels involving and escalating, and payoffs that are naturally setup throughout the plotting. With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with.
In ancient times among the Polynesian islands, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the literal heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a shining green emerald responsible for creating life. Many years later, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenage girl next n line to be the chief of her people. Much is expected of her for the betterment of the island but Moana would rather be out there on the water, a passion that her father forbids. Her island is in dire trouble when the food supplies are rotting or disappearing. Moana’s eccentric grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) tells her what must happen: she must venture out to sea, find Maui, retrieve his magic fishhook, and force Maui to return Te Fiti’s heart to the source. Moana sneaks away and embarks on a great adventure that will test her skills and her sense of who she is and what her calling should be.
With a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. The Disney formula of the hero or heroine yearning for something grander from their supposedly drab existence became a crutch after the apex of the Disney Renaissance in the mid 90s. The overprotective father who doesn’t want their daughter or son to break far from tradition will also be plenty familiar. With Moana, the masters who kickstarted that Renaissance, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, return to the formula but also know what to subvert, what to tweak, and what to dive right into. While it’s not as subversive as mildly revolutionary for a Disney movie as Frozen, this is still a movie that anticipates the connections an audience will make and knowingly tweaks them. On her island, Moana has a cute little pig sidekick who you expect to make the journey with her… except it doesn’t. Instead the brain-dead chicken, a reliable source of comic relief, is her traveling animal companion. Moana prickles at being called a princess; she’s the daughter of the chief and actually already functions in a ruling capacity. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he nonchalantly retorts. There’s also a lesson in what constitutes good and evil as all the villains and reprobates of legend are far more ambiguous. There’s also a refreshing lack of a central romance. We have a strong heroine whose goal is completely unrelated to romantic love. This girl has bigger things on her mind than boys.
This movie is primarily a two-hander as we witness Moana and Maui interact, grow, and change, much to our amusement. I can’t recall another Disney film that had such a small focus on a limited number of characters and this decision pays dividends. While only 103 minutes, we really get to understand these two people and what drives them and what fears keep them from accomplishing their goals. Moana is a terrific character. She’s pulled in different directions from her sense of duty and her own ambition to explore the world outside. She’s feisty but still clumsy, empowered but still filled with doubts, independent but considerate of others. After all, her plight is to save her people. Pairing this character with Maui provides plenty of narrative sparks, especially as Maui is forced against his will by the power of the ocean to assist in doing right with Moana. Newcomer Cravhalo makes quite a debut. Her singing voice is flawless but I was highly impressed with the emotion she was able to convey through her vocal performance. She makes you care deeply for her character because she brings such life to the lively Moana. Johnson’s boundless charisma is amazingly channeled into the character thanks to the animators. Johnson isn’t lazily sleepwalking in his performance like so many celebrity vocal actors. Moana and Maui both intrinsically have their identities tied up in their sense of obligation to others, and this provides a common area for them to bond and also to stretch as characters. Theirs is a dual journey of self-discovery and defining themselves on their own terms. The actions of others and their demands do not have to define you. The charged interplay between Moana and Maui, two characters at cross-purpose in their goals, is a scenario that places them in our focus and endears them to us as they deepen.
The fantasy setting also allows for plenty of fun and imaginative diversions and turns. The mingling of man and god with the whimsical and weird magical creatures made me think of the great Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) as a direct creative influence. There is a delightfully wonky sequence with a wild band of pirates that are best described as living coconuts from a Mad Max film. Their floating ships are patched together with ramshackle planks and pieces and a thunderous drumbeat for pacing. All that’s missing is a coconut with a flaming guitar. It’s such a visually delightful and daffy segment and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maui’s living tattoos (traditional hand-drawn animation) provide further personality and serve as his conscience. The underwater land of monsters is also begging for further exploration. Maui’s shape-shifting powers are brought to the forefront during key battles with the giant lava monster Te Ka. Even when the movie isn’t dazzling you with a song or its character development it can pull off inventive and visually gorgeous world building that sucks you in.
While not hitting the earworm heights of Frozen’s best, the songs in Moana are uniformly good and, even better, advance the story and give additional light to characters. Lin Manuel-Miranda is still a musical genius and imbues the sounds of Moana with Polynesian culture and history, lots of powerful percussion and harmonies. Moana’s personal theme of “How Far I’ll Go” has some wonderful melodic turns especially as it builds, and it’s a fine musical throughline for her journey with each repetition building in emotion. I enjoyed the Hamilton-style rhyming flourishes as well as the extended rap interlude on The Rock’s jaunty signature song, “You’re Welcome.” That tune is quite playful with a strong hook and it boasts all Maui’s accomplishments and his hefty ego, but it also has a narrative purpose. Maui uses the song to distract Moana and steal her boat. My current favorite might actually be the outlier on the soundtrack; “Shiny” is an absurdly enjoyable Bowie-esque glam rock number from a giant crustacean admiring his fascination for all things shiny. Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) superbly sinks his teeth into such a theatrical and comical villain. It’s a short scene but Clemente’s impression is irresistible. His song is also a strategy, allowing Maui to steal back his fishhook while the opportunity for gloating distracts the giant crab. The songs are a reflection of the characters singing them and serve narrative purpose, which is a rarity in big-screen musicals. The musical score by Mark Mancini beautifully matches Manuel-Miranda’s songwriting themes and provides a lush sonic backdrop.
This has been an absolute dream of a year for animated movies. From Zootopia to Kubo and the Two Strings to the heartwarming indie Life Animated, the movies have enchanted and entertained and also dared to challenge, uplift, and engage an audience. These are more than mere babysitting tools for exhausted parents to put on; these movies are some of the best of the year, animated or live-action. For my tastes, Moana is just a touch below Zootopia due to the latter’s complexly inventive world and articulate social commentary. However, Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?
Nate’s Grade: A-