Two iconic characters from the mid-20th century return to the big screen this weekend.
Aquaman—The seasonal superhero invasion continues this week, with the first feature film centered on DC's oceanic champion. Introduced in 1941 in More Fun Comics, Aquaman was originally just a guy who could breathe underwater, swim really fast, and telepathically communicate with sea creatures, which he referred to as his "finny friends." He battled Nazi submarines, and generally kept an eye on the briny beat.
In the '50s his backstory was given a reboot, giving him the name "Arthur Curry" and making him the product of the union between a Princess of Atlantis and the terrestrial lighthouse keeper who found her washed ashore one night, and adding a princess love interest, Mera, and a rival half-brother Orm, also known as Ocean Master. This is the version of the tale that, with some adjustments, the new film uses, casting Nicole Kidman as Mom—not your everyday bit of jetsam—and Temuera Morrison as Dad. Arthur himself is played by Jason Momoa, a veteran of several sci-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows I still haven't seen, notably Game of Thrones.
Momoa looks very little like the Aquaman I grew up with on Saturday Morning TV in the '60s and '70s, the square-jawed blond guy in orange-and-green tights, with Ted Knight's voice coming out of him. A Hawaiian native, he's a big, beefy, shaggy, bearded, tattooed fellow. He's well known to several female friends of mine, one of whom opined, of Aquaman, that "not a nickel of the budget should be spent on shirts." But in addition to his hunk appeal, Momoa is also an amiable, easygoing sort with a sly smile. As superheroes go, he's a relaxed, unassuming presence, and I found him easy to root for.
As for the movie itself, it isn't quite as compelling as last year's Wonder Woman, maybe because it lacks that film's touching anti-war concerns. But it has some of the same guileless charm, and it's certainly a visual spectacle, full of wild, colorful, off-the-wall fantasy imagery that owes as much to pulp-paperback cover art and the fevered imaginations of Lovecraft and Burroughs as to the comics. There are warriors mounted on sharks and prehistoric whales and hideous sea demons and talking crustaceans; about the time we see an octopus playing percussion we realize, with relief, that director James Wan is in on the joke.
The large cast includes Patrick Wilson as the sullen Orm, Willem Dafoe as the sage Atlantean counselor Vulko, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the high-tech pirate Black Manta, and Dolph Lundgren as another grouchy Atlantean royal. No one in the movie is as memorable, however, as Amber Heard's Mera, with whom Arthur bickers as they trade off rescuing each other. With Tammy Faye Bakker-colored hair and a green body suit, she comes across more like a college coed dressed as "Sexy Undersea Princess" for a Halloween party, but in this movie's glitzy context, she works. Like everything else in Aquaman, she's pure kitsch, and very endearing.
Mary Poppins Returns—The title character of Disney's 1964 favorite Mary Poppins should really qualify as a sort of domestic superhero herself; she flies, after all, with the aid of her umbrella, and can work all sorts of other miraculous wonders as well. One of the indelible signature roles of Julie Andrews, the super-nanny returns in the person of Emily Blunt in this lushly-produced sequel.
This time Mary returns to the same upper-middle-class London house on Cherry Tree Lane, here updated to the period of the "Great Slump," to find the grown-up Banks kids Jane and Michael (Emily Mortimer and Ben Wishaw) suffering personal and financial difficulties. Mary tends to Michael's three children (he's a grieving widower), and, as before, takes them on a variety of magical adventures, often venturing into animated realms.
Director Rob Marshall, of Chicago fame, and screenwriter David Magee employ a shrewd tactic: everything in the film is closely derived from some element in the original, but everything's also a variation. Dick Van Dyke's cockney chimney sweep Bert is here replaced by cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda); Mary's laugh-happy Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) is replaced here with a Russian-accented and similarly gravity-defying cousin (Meryl Streep); the kites at the end are replaced by balloons, and so forth. It's the same movie, except it's different.
The degree to which the filmmakers commit to keeping the style of Mary Poppins Returns old-school is impressive. This shows up particularly in the "2-D" animation sequences, and also in the music. The songs are arguably as good, lyrically, as the original's, and they carefully maintain the sound of the original's musical-comedy period.
The performances are what make the film, however. Miranda is prodigally exuberant, and even gets to do a bit of his Hamilton-style patter in "A Cover Is Not the Book," his music-hall duet that's possibly the film's best number.
All of this good work would have amounted to little, though, without the extraordinary Emily Blunt, who somehow makes the role entirely her own at the same time that she fulfills the expectations set by the classic portrayal of Julie Andrews. She's drolly poised and prim and no-nonsense in the face of her supernatural feats, she sings and dances beautifully, but there's an additional, almost unsettling undercurrent to her line readings and facial expressions: Not to put too fine a point on it, intentionally or not, Blunt gives the sexiest performance of the year.
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