Friday, May 31, 2019

New York as an Animated Playground: Discovering “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

I’m just back from New York City, a vibrant metropolis where social diversity is the name of the game. On one recent trip to the Big Apple I walked into a soul food buffet on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, and discovered—next to the fried chicken and spare ribs—a full assortment of vegan delights. Yes, tofu, quinoa, and kale salad. There was a big sign advertising fresh bagels daily, and the counterman was Korean. Only in New York, right?

Along with its lively ethnic mix, New York offers a vibrant swirl of bodies in motion. The streets teem with pedestrians, along with cars, trucks, bikes, and electric scooters. Horns honk at all hours. Neon lights flicker. And those wonderful glass towers that scratch the sky make a dramatic backdrop for what’s happening above and below ground, as well as at ground level. Life in New York City just doesn’t quit.

While flying to New York from the left coast, I finally encountered a movie I’d never bothered to see at the multiplex. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had always sounded to me like yet another superhero movie, and I’d already seen plenty of those. And since it was a work of animation, it promised to be something of a kiddie flick. But that Oscar victory (over a Pixar film!) and the strong enthusiasm of my students encouraged me to check it out. Not that a seatback screen was the right way to enjoy a film first released in 3-D. But at least I could catch a glimpse of what everyone seemed so excited about.

I knew, going in, that this Spider-Man was a tribute to multiculturalism, featuring Miles Morales, a teenaged Brooklynite who is half-black, half-Puerto Rican. Far be it from me to explain a complicated plot that features multiple Spider-Man figures who hail from several alternate universes. There’s  Spider-Woman, Spider-Man Noir, SP//dr (a young cutie-pie who represents Japanese anime stylistics), and the goofy Peter Porker, also known as Spider-Ham. Moreover the grown-up Peter Parker, the original Spider-Man himself, appears in two very different incarnations, both as a vigorous hero and as something of a sad flop. Needless to say, there are also villains of all stripes, as well as a nefarious plot that must be stopped in its tracks. The head-scratching array of Marvel comic book characters is augmented by the more realistic folks of Miles Morales’ daily world. There’s a thoroughly convincing relationship between Miles and his dad, a NYPD officer who’s both loving and at times totally exasperating to his son. (Imagine having to say “I love you” to your cop-pop in front of your way cooler classmates.)     

But beyond the quirks of plot and characterizations, I quickly spotted that this film is a paean not only to comic books of old but to the glitz and glamour (as well as the grit and crud) of New York City. I’ve simply never seen an animated feature that looks like this one. It’s loud; it’s bold; the style of the artwork changes from moment to moment, sometimes capturing the SHAZAM look of comic strips, sometimes verging into psychedelia. They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse brilliantly conveys the energy of Times Square when the sun goes down. To say this film is eye-popping doesn’t do it justice.  I only wish I could experience it in 3-D someday soon. But I’ll probably have to wait until my next trip to NYC to experience something of the wild and crazy city where Max Morales, aka Spider-Man, makes his home. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mary Poppins Redux (A Whole Not-So-New World)

 This past weekend, moviegoers could for the first time check out the live-action feature film version of Disney’s Aladdin. I didn’t rush to see it, and I doubt that I will. But I remember so vividly the day in 1992 when I took my kids (ages 14 and 10) to enjoy the animated Disney original, starring Robin Williams as a very mercurial—and very blue—genie. We were lucky enough to experience Aladdin in a grand old movie palace now used by the Disney company for major premieres. The El Capitan, built on Hollywood Boulevard in 1926, has been fully restored to all its Spanish Colonial Revival glory. Williams’ madcap humor, the Menken/Ashman/Rice songs, and above all the film’s brightly swirling animation made the three of us feel so happy that we didn’t much want to go home. Instead, we lingered under the neon-lit theatre marquee, singing and dancing.

We’re now in an era when Disney, trying to squeeze every last buck out of every last project, has taken to re-making its animation classics as live-action features, with CGI used to help the magic along. The live-action version of Beauty and the Beast was passable,, but I hardly saw the point of moving beyond the splendidly animated original. So why would I want to watch Aladdin and Jasmine pursue their courtship aboard a CGI-enhanced magic carpet?

I feel similarly about Mary Poppins. I read the books as a youngster, and then (as a high school senior) totally fell in love with the Disney musical film. Yes, I knew full well that Julie Andrews was a bit too pretty and too amiable to approximate P.L Travers’ spit-and-polish nanny, who performs acts of magic almost despite herself. Still, I was so taken with the film’s whole ensemble (despite Dick Van Dyke’s sad stab at a Cockney accent) that Mary Poppins felt enchanting to me, and to many of my classmates. Doubtless, much of our enthusiasm had to do with the fact that we were on the brink of leaving for college. At a point in our young lives when we were about to cross the threshold between childhood and the world of adult choices, it seemed very special to linger in a place built on sweet and solid family values.

Which made me very curious to see 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns.. I thoroughly approve of the sequel’s re-use of the charming home on Cherry Tree Lane, and have no problem with a script that features the now-grown-up Jane and Michael Banks  Emily Blunt is an inspired choice as the updated but mostly unchanged Mary Poppins: she can sing well enough, and conveys a nice tartness that tempers the sugary Disney approach. But here’s my problem: the new film appears determined to mimic the original, only more so. Every song and dance number seems required to replicate (in spades) what went before. If the original Mary and her charges jumped into a chalk picture that morphed into a cleverly animated sequence, Mary Poppins Returns must do something similar, played out at greater length. If the original had Uncle Albert (the incomparable Ed Wynn) floating on the ceiling, the sequel must feature Meryl Streep singing while upside down. Lin Manuel Miranda and a gaggle of lamplighters perform a lively rooftop dance number that’s clearly modeled on Van Dyke and his chimneysweeps. And the bank scenes are longer, fuller, scarier, and more determined than ever to show the evils of corporate capitalism: an ironic twist, given Disney’s reputation as a company that sweeps up everything in its path.