May 1980 goes big as THE EMPIRE finally STRIKES BACK
Plus Alan Parker makes another unconventional musical and we go long on a Disney re-release
While there are fewer films in this issue of the newsletter, that’s fine. It feels like I had plenty to say about the ones we’re covering this time, including a special re-release of a beloved family classic.
Not much room to spare, so let’s right to it…
Eddie Barth, Irene Cara, Lee Curreri, Laura Dean, Antonia Franceschi, Boyd Gaines, Albert Hague, Tresa Hughes, Steve Inwood, Paul McCrane, Anne Meara, Joanna Merlin, Barry Miller, Jim Moody, Gene Anthony Ray, Maureen Teefy, Debbie Allen, Richard Belzer, Frank Bongiorno, Bill Britten, Eric Brockington, Nicholas Bunin, Cindy Canuelas, Nora Cotrone, Mbewe Escobar, Gennadi Filmimonov, Victor of Aquitaine, Penny Frank, Willie Henry Jr., Steve Hollander, Sang Kim, Darrell Kirkman, Judith L’Heureux, Ted Lambert, Nancy Eng, Sarah Malament, James Manis, Carol Massenburg, Issac Mizrahi, Racquel Mondin, Alba Oms, Frank Oteri, Traci Parnell, Sal Piro, Lesley Quickley, Ray Ramirez, Loris Diran, Ilse Sass, Dawn Steinberg, Jonathan Strasser, Yvette Torres, F.X. Vitolo, Stefanie Zimmerman, Tracy Burnett, Greg De Jean, Laura Delano, Michael DeLorenzo, Aaron Dugger, Neisha Folkes-LeMelle, Karen Ford, Robin Gray, Hazel Green, Eva Grubler, Patrick King, Cynthia Lochard, Julian Montenaire, Holly Reeve, Kate Snyder, Meg Tilly, Louis Venosta, Philip Wright, Ranko Yokayana, Adam Abeshouse, Yvette D. Carrington, Fima Ephron, Anthony Evans, Crystal Garner, Lisa Herman, Thais Hockaday, Karen Hoppe, Frankie Laino, April Lang, Richard Latimer, Lisa Lowell, Anne Marie McDermott, Kerry McDermott, Maureen McDermott, Josh Melville, Peter Rafelson, Ann Roboff, Boris Slutsky, Alan Vetter, Evan Weinstein
cinematography by Michael Seresin
music by Michael Gore
screenplay by Christopher Gore
produced by David De Silva and Alan Marshall
directed by Alan Parker
2 hrs 14 mins
We follow a group of students through all four years of their lives at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.
Alan Parker is one of the most original and innovative directors of film musicals to work in the modern era. By the time he broke through as a filmmaker, the musical was all but dead in the mainstream. There’d be occasional big swings from the studios, but many of them tanked, and the thinking was that audiences had moved on. Parker’s debut movie, Bugsy Malone, is a wildly unconventional take on the genre, peopled top to bottom with children playing adults. It’s a gangster movie but it’s packed with songs by Paul Williams and the violence is all handled as marshmallow fights. It’s deeply weird, and part of that is because he chose to have adults sing the songs and then overdubs the children who star in the film. He originally wanted to have the kids do their own singing, but the demands of the production made it impossible.
He did not make that mistake with his next musical, although his approach was just as unconventional. This time, the entire film was built around the notion of casting actual kids to perform songs that would be built as diegetic scenes instead of what you typically think of as musical numbers. The film was originally written by Christopher Gore, but he and Parker worked closely on the final version, with Parker pushing him to make it darker and to explore just how much it cost these kids to chase their dreams. Just as Bugsy Malone is defined by the eccentric earworms created by Paul Williams, the songs by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford are impossible to separate from the overall impact of the film, and Parker cast all of these amazing kids to bring it to life.
I was ten when I saw the film, and I thought the entire thing was thrilling. I have a theory that kids love to watch movies about kids who are just a little bit older than them, and for me, thinking about what high school would be like was mysterious at this age. This wasn’t just any high school, though, and Parker adopts an almost documentary approach to trying to capture the feeling of going to this school where everything is focused on turning these kids into working actors, dancers, and musicians. The film opens on audition day, and it’s absolute chaos. The sheer overwhelming energy of this sequence is just intoxicating, and we’re introduced to all of the primary kids we’ll follow through the film. The movie jumps through all four years of their time at the school, and for some of the kids, it is a time to grow into the person they were meant to be, while for others, it is a crushing, punishing experience.
I love all of these kids. Irene Cara is incandescent as Coco Hernandez, a triple major, and I love her friendship in the film with the prickly, anti-social Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri). Paul McCrane is just heartbreaking as Montgomery MacNeil, and one of the few ways I feel like this film is dated is that Montgomery feels alone as one of the few gay students at the school. Considering when the film was made, his storyline is generally well-handled, and in particular, I love the way the film captures the unique space that The Rocky Horror Picture Show held in pop culture at the time. Gene Anthony Ray is almost too charismatic for the movie to handle, and his audition scene, where Leroy shows up to dance with someone else, is one of the film’s most electric moments. He and Anne Meara have tremendous chemistry that builds to a lovely final scene between the two of them.
I am less enthusiastic about the work by Maureen Teefy and Barry Miller as Doris and Ralph, the two other leads, but that’s more about the way they’re written than about their performances. Ralph is obsessed with Freddie Prinze and emulating him in every way, right down to the self-destructiveness. Doris is mainly driven by feeling like she’s too plain, too ordinary, too overshadowed by everyone else at the school. While Bruno’s equally underwritten, there’s something more compelling about Curreri as a performer, and he’s got an easy oddball charm that makes him more magnetic. When the film became a TV series, several cast members made the jump, including Curreri, Ray, and several of the teachers, and I think the show allowed Doris to shine more as a character. But the film is special, this spectacular moment captured in time, all these young and beautiful talented kids all throwing everything they’ve got at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Be warned… when the film gets dark, it gets very dark, and Coco’s storyline in particular gets very upsetting at a certain point.
The film’s most iconic moment comes when Bruno’s father, frustrated by Bruno’s refusal to let anyone hear the music he’s making, pulls his cab up in front of the school. He begins to loudly play one of Bruno’s songs for everyone just as the students are filing out of the building, and it erupts into a spontaneous dance number that stops traffic and fills the entire New York city street. It is a spectacular moment, and it captures the pure joy of performance better than almost any other moment I can name in any movie. While I love the vast majority of what Alan Parker did, I’m not sure there’s another moment in his career that is quite this pure, quite this clean. It’s a great moment in a great movie, and one of the most indelible images of the entire year.
Nancy Allen, Mary Davenport, Kirk Douglas, Vincent Gardenia, Keith Gordon, Gerrit Graham, Loretta Tupper, Captain Haggerty, Theresa Saldana, Kari Borg, Constance Ilowitz, Kim Herbert, Ross Barnes, Stephen Le May, Charlie Loventhal, Robert Mickles, Jeff Graham, Erin Lynch, Jon Dawson, Colter Rule, Symie Dahut, Al Maclennon, Tom Surgal, Bunny
cinematography by James L. Carter
music by Pino Donaggio
screenplay by Kim Ambler, Dana Edelman, Robert Harders, Stephen Le May, Charlie Loventhal and Gloria Norris
story by Brian De Palma
produced by Gilbert Adler, Brian De Palma and Jack Temchin
directed by Brian De Palma
1 hr 30 mins
A young man, part of a film class taught by a strange charismatic leader, learns of his father’s infidelity and sets out to catch him on camera.
What a strange movie. If you just watched this with no context whatsoever, you might imagine this is De Palma’s first movie. It’s technically rough and wildly uneven, and it doesn’t really feel like any of the rest of his work stylistically. Thematically, it’s one of the most directly autobiographical things he ever made, and it feels like the weird shaggy flip side of the same coin as Dressed To Kill, which we’ll talk about a little later in the year.
De Palma had already started to build his reputation by this point, and he was coming off the wild excessive energy of Carrie and The Fury back-to-back. This is almost ten movies into his filmography, and he had enough failure under his belt to understand how hard it was to put it all together. De Palma never quite had the blank check that some of his peers had, and that’s because he was so hard to pin down at first. It would be easy to be confused by any director whose work could encompass Greetings and Hi, Mom! as well as Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise. He’d had some commercial success, but he had also run head-on into the Hollywood system. He did something that not many of the other young guys trying to transform the system did at the time… teaching. And he did it right in the middle of a fairly hot streak, which is even more surprising to me.
This is a student film in many ways, but with certain Hollywood advantages. He had his students participate in every single aspect of the production of the film, including the fundraising. They are in front of the camera and behind it as well in almost every department, and he clearly called in tons of favors from people he’d already worked with to help make this feel more professional. I mean, Kirk Douglas plays the film teacher, for god’s sake. That’s pretty impressive.
Much of the “plot,” such as it is, seems drawn directly from De Palma’s own life, with Keith Gordon serving as a stand-in for him. Nancy Allen and Gerrit Graham both give everything they’ve got, but there’s nothing holding all of this ramshackle nonsense together. I’m sure it was a great learning experience, but as a viewing experience for anyone else, this is definitely one of the most frustrating things De Palma has ever claimed as his own.
The Empire Strikes Back
Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Alec Guinness, Jeremy Bulloch, John Hollis, Jack Purvis, Des Webb, Clive Revill, Kenneth Colley, Julian Glover, Michael Sheard, Michael Culver, John Dicks, Milton Johns, Mark Jones, Oliver Maguire, Robin Scobey, Bruce Boa, Christopher Malcolm, Denis Lawson, Richard Oldfield, John Morton, Ian Liston, John Ratzenberger, Jack McKenzie, Jerry Harte, Norman Chancer, Norwich Duff, Ray Hassett, Brigitte Kahn, Burnell Tucker, Treat Williams
cinematography by Peter Suschitzky
music by John Williams
screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
story by George Lucas
produced by Gary Kurtz
directed by Irvin Kershner
2 hrs 4 mins
Luke Skywalker seeks further training in the Force while Darth Vader, driven by the demands of the Emperor, moves to crush the Rebellion after their unlikely victory over the Death Star.
There was no guarantee we would ever see more Star Wars when the lights came up in the theaters in 1977. We had not been conditioned to expect endless sequels and fan service. Probably the most notable attempt at franchise-building before this was the Planet of the Apes series from Fox, and part of the appeal there was just how crazy and different each of the sequels was.
If you weren’t there in 1977, you can’t really comprehend what kind of cultural impact Star Wars made. There are no hit films today that register on the same scale. No, not even the biggest of the Marvel movies. It feels like hits these days are fleeting things, momentary things. Our culture digests even its favorite things very quickly now and then moves on, and part of the purpose of a franchise is to keep something in the public memory while the endless tsunami of content washes over us.
When this film opened, we had been waiting for what felt like forever, and we really had no idea what to expect from this return to the galaxy far, far away. The trailers hinted at amazing new things, but it wasn’t like it is now, where you got pummeled by advertising that was designed to ingrain every money shot in your head before you ever sit down in the theater. You didn’t have a thousand outlets trying to detail every single plot detail to the general public before they had a chance to see the film. Hell, even Marvel Comics, who published the comic adaptation, seemed to have no idea what Yoda looked like when they published their first issue featuring the character.
I saw the film in Memphis on a giant 70MM screen, and because of the enormous demand for tickets, the only screening we could get into started late, after 9:00. That made no difference to ten-year-old me. It could have been 3:00 in the morning and I would have been bouncing off the walls with excitement. The primary lesson that Hollywood learned from the film was the wrong one because they clearly only saw the surface. We’ve been subjected to forty years of sequels desperate to cash in on any success, the assumption being that audiences just want to watch the same thing they liked the first time again and again. That’s not what The Empire Strikes Back was, though. It was a richly imagined expansion of everything that was good about the first film but on a bigger, broader scale. It wasn’t just more of what we’d already seen… it changed everything we felt about these characters and the larger world in which they lived.
By now, the phrase “world-building” is so overused as to be meaningless when it comes to franchise filmmaking, but that’s exactly what George Lucas was doing with this film. He was smart to hire Irvin Kershner to direct, giving himself room to focus on the bigger picture. From the moment the film opens on Hoth, it is a near-perfect adventure movie. There is a reason why almost every time someone makes a sequel, they like to say, “We’re making the Empire of this series,” and it’s because there is more soul in this film, more big ideas, and more narrative invention than in the first film. Because they don’t have to set everything up, Lucas and his collaborators are allowed to explore these characters more deeply, even as they crank up the pulp across the board.
This time out, they knew what they had in the form of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, and they wrote to their strengths. The chemistry between Ford and Fisher is preposterous, and it’s impossible to count how many films have tried to play their own variation on their iconic exchange just before Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. Their “will-they/won’t-they” vibe helped change Lucas’s ideas about where things were going, and part of the amazing magic trick of the film is how there was no real master plan in place from day one. Much of what happens in Empire is reactive, a response to the way the world absorbed the impact of that first film, and it’s interesting the way all of the different voices in the mix combined to create that elusive, perfect tone. People love to try to give the credit (or the blame) to different collaborators, but the simple truth is that this film isn’t this film without Leigh Brackett, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan all in the mix, and if Kershner wasn’t onboard to help sift through all of these different ideas, then there’s a very good chance there’s no more Star Wars today in 2021.
For me, there were two things that made this more than just a sequel to a film I liked. The first was Yoda. Even now, I find it hard to dissect the amazing illusion involved in bringing him to life. On the one hand, I know he’s just a hand-puppet designed by Stuart Freeborn and performed primarily by Frank Oz. It’s not that complicated. But on the other hand, Yoda is real, a living breathing thing that gives a wise and warm performance, and from the moment he was introduced, I have believed in him completely. Not in a “I don’t understand what is real” kind of way, but in a “Movies are magic and I love them on a chemical level” kind of way. Ultimately, Yoda represents the best of what fantasy movies can do, as does Empire as a whole. It is transporting, completely and utterly, and it allows me to give myself over to the things that it is creating wholeheartedly. I want to have that experience in a movie theater, and honestly, that’s what I’ve been chasing since 1980 when I saw this film.
The second thing was the reveal. Even now, that’s all you have to say. I can’t imagine there will ever be a narrative moment during my lifetime that does to me what that did to me. I had invested so fully in the idea of Darth Vader as a murderer who destroyed Luke’s father that the mere suggestion that he could actually be Luke’s father turned everything upside down. It was a violation, but it was also thrilling because of the possibilities it suggested. Part of the brilliance of that cliffhanger was the three year gap we knew was coming, three years where we all endlessly debated those possibilities, and I can’t imagine anything ever baiting that hook quite that effectively. When I consider why that works so well, I think it’s because it’s not a plot-driven cliffhanger… it’s a character-driven one. Everything Luke is as a person is wrapped up in the answer to that question. Can he ever learn to be a good person if his father is the very personification of everything he hates?
One of the things people seem to get wrong about this one is that “darker” automatically means “better.” The success of this film has nothing to do with it being darker than the original, and that misconception has led to a lot of series derailing themselves trying to mimic this in the wrong way. Empire is a romance, an adventure, a comedy, and a sprawling soap opera all rolled up into one big irresistible package, and very few films can juggle all of those elements that nimbly.
I was the perfect age for Star Wars to land on me the way it did. I was seven when the first film came out, ten for the second film, and thirteen for the final one. I know it angers fandom when you call these films for children, but that’s because fandom thinks that is an insult. It’s not. I think when you make a film that is designed to communicate in broad mythic strokes and you want it to be instantly understandable to as wide an audience as possible, there’s nothing easy about that. You could show The Empire Strikes Back to anyone, regardless of their understanding of Star Wars overall, and it tells you everything you need to know about the characters and the world. It makes me wish every movie could be the middle movie in a trilogy, and that this had never been designed with an ending in mind. I feel like Star Wars is at its most compelling when it is less concerned with the destination and more focused on the journey and the world itself, and Empire remains the high-water mark that every film in this franchise (and most films in other franchises, for that matter) has been struggling to reproduce ever since.
Mary Poppins (re-release)
Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Reta Shaw, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell, Arthur Malet, James Logan, Don Barclay, Alma Lawton, Marjorie Eaton, Marjorie Bennett
cinematography by Edward Colman
music by Irwin Kostal
screenplay by Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi
based on the novels by P.L. Travers
produced by Walt Disney
directed by Robert Stevenson
2 hrs 19 mins
A practically-perfect-in-every-way nanny comes to stay with a troubled family in London.
Who made the classic Walt Disney movies? Seems like an easy enough question, but the notion of authorship is a little different when you’re talking about the films and television shows that were produced when Walt Disney was still a living, breathing artist and not just a name on the door of theme parks around the world.
Walter Elias Disney was an actual person, but that would probably surprise some kids who simply know Disney as a monolithic corporation. It’s sort of remarkable that the all-absorbing entity that seemingly owns everything you watch or listen to or think these days was once a start-up put together by a pair of brothers. It’s even more remarkable to think that the company was built on those early Mickey Mouse cartoons.
From the start, he seemed devoted to technical innovation, and much of what we consider industry standard now in terms of cameras and sound and post-production developed because of specific things that Disney needed to do in his films. He took artistic and financial risks time after time, and sometimes he got clobbered for it. More often, though, he managed to push the entire film business forward. I can’t imagine juggling the various ambitions that drove Disney in his life. His work on theme parks alone would have consumed most people, but even as he envisioned this whole new way of engaging an audience, and even as he worked on World’s Fairs and experimental cities and helped with the WWII effort, he was also radically focused on ideas that are responsible for the way giant blockbuster films are made today. Do you love Avengers: Infinity War? Do you love characters like Groot and Rocket Raccoon and Thanos? I’m guessing that if Walt Disney could see that film, he would be delighted by the way these characters were brought to life. He’d also demand that someone explain the process to him immediately. And when he figured out exactly what he was looking at, he would laugh and laugh at the way his earliest ideas were still influencing pop culture today.
After all, one of the first major deals Roy and Walt made was to produce a series of short films based on Alice’s Wonderland, a ten-minute piece he made for Laugh-O-Gram Studios. The Alice comedies were all about a little girl played by Virginia Davis interacting with cartoon worlds and cartoon friends. From the very beginning, Disney realized that live-action worked for some things and animation worked for others and finding a way to combine the two truly was the key to setting his imagination free.
His imagination, and the imagination of other filmmakers who he brought to his studio to help him bring all of his various impulses to life. There are a number of major collaborators who worked with Disney over the course of his career, and his successes are the stories of those collaborators as much as they are his own. Robert Stevenson was a successful English filmmaker who had already gone through several major stages of his own career, including his contracts with David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes. He could have easily shifted gears permanently into television as it started to become a more and more exciting place to work. By the time he made his first film with Disney, he had almost thirty years of experience under his belt. He ended up working with Disney on 19 feature films as well as episodes of Zorro, one of the early television successes for the company. Stevenson left a large professional footprint, but a very slight personal one. His work is marked largely by a lack of behind-the-scenes controversy, which made him a dream for someone like Disney, who was always looking for people who could just execute. Get shit done. When he had an idea, he expected it to manifest into reality, and that meant having people on the payroll capable of doing that. Robert Stevenson was that guy in a big way.
For example, Darby O’Gill and the Little People is a film that is full of ground-breaking visual moments delivered with no fuss. So often, there is so much noise about how things are done when films come out now, but some of the biggest jumps forward in effects work were made in films that simply needed to make those advances to pull off something, not films that were made for the purpose of showcasing those effects. While the film is well-liked and even beloved in some quarters, the story behind the making of it seems oddly familiar to anyone who saw Saving Mr. Banks or who knows how Mary Poppins came together. Walt Disney reached out to the Irish Folklore Commission because he talked about working on a decade’s worth of movies about Irish history and culture, and at first, the IFC was delighted, seeing that as a huge opportunity. They were crushed when he ended up making a movie based on an American’s book, though. Often, Disney’s good intentions led him to follow his own personal vision for something, leaving some of his earliest collaborators on things in the dust as something would change or develop. I don’t think there was any malice in it… Disney just believed that you kept working on something until it was the way he wanted it, whatever that took. His willingness to shake off early versions of things was a benefit to his work, but could be bruising for other people in the process, no doubt about it.
Old Yeller is one of those movies that became emblematic of what kind of thing Disney could do in live-action that he wasn’t doing in animation, and The Absent-Minded Professor was a monster hit for the studio. The Misadventures of Merlin Jones kickstarted an entire subgenre for the studio, with Medfield College becoming the center of all sorts of teen scientist hijinks. Stevenson was one of those guys who consistently delivered, so it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that he followed up the sequel Son Of Flubber with the plum assignment of Mary Poppins. But to give you a sense of how not-special it was to the studio, he was also making Merlin Jones at the same time, which was basically two episodes of a TV show that got shoved together into a feature film. Stevenson wasn’t chosen because he was the best Disney director; he was chosen because he was the most Disney director.
By the time Stevenson came onboard, there had been several years’ worth of work on the film already. The story of how Walt Disney pursued and finally won the rights to make the film version of Mary Poppins has been told in romanticized fashion in Saving Mr. Banks, and it gets the big broad strokes right. For over twenty years, Disney tried to get the rights to the books, and when he finally succeeded, the film that resulted broke the heart of P.L. Travers, the author. I can imagine that’s true, since the books are very different, but it’s also a shame, because the film he made is a truly wonderful one. Stevenson may have been the one on-set working with the actors, including Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Ed Wynn, Dick Van Dyke, and the iconic Julie Andrews, but it was Disney who put all of the various pieces in place, and it is Disney’s movie, through-and-through.
Perhaps the most enduring and brilliant of all the live-action films he made, Mary Poppins is a film that has taught me more about the way we change as viewers and the way it feels like it’s the film that is changing over time than almost any other movie, and I love it dearly. I also think that like many great films, the things that are great about it have been imitated by other films in ways that have curdled, the imitations eventually tainting the original, and it’s important to look at Mary Poppins for what it is as well as the footprint that it has left in pop culture.
Seeing Mary Poppins as a child, it’s easy to see it as the story of Jane and Michael and the way Mary Poppins helps them. It’s also wrong, and it took the birth of my children for me to finally see the film for what it is, and it’s strange that I love it as much as I do, considering the way it’s hung on a plot device that bothers me more than almost any other. I hate the way Hollywood treats fathers as morons or heartless work drones who have to be reminded to love their families. You get movies where a dad is left alone with a baby for the first time and suddenly the dishwasher’s overflowing and the diaper’s on the turkey and the baby’s driving a car and it’s all hilarious, or you get movies where dad has a thankless, grinding job with an asshole boss that he’s obviously working to pay for the nineteen bedroom house and the six-acre lot in every Hollywood movie, and everyone hates him for it. I’m tired of those tropes, exhausted by them, because they’re too easy and too reductive. And they negate the real roles fathers do and can play in their families’ lives.
Here, though, it’s the entire point of the film, and it was made at a point when it was still a relatively new idea for movies. Like many of the classic Disney films, Mary Poppins has gone well beyond being influential now and has simply become a template that other filmmakers use without any shame at all. It’s sort of astounding to see how often the bones of it get reskinned in new ways, like the recent Christopher Robin live-action film that the studio released. It’s also sort of astounding to see how often people get it wrong and turn it into something curdled and cruel.
I am a single father. I am lucky enough to have built an unconventional family with my girlfriend, her adult son, and my sons, and while it’s constantly shifting in shape and size depending on who is in the house and who isn’t, it works, and it works in a way that I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy again in my lifetime. When you go through the end of a marriage and the family that you thought you’d built explodes, it is traumatic. And while it seems ridiculous on some level, one of the things that has helped all of us navigate this difficult course has been the art we share. Mary Poppins was a big film in our house during the divorce years, and part of what was so scary about leaving my wife was that it brought one of my nightmares to life. I’ve always been afraid of being Mr. Banks, of missing major moments in the lives of my children, and suddenly I made the decision to give up half of my time with them. More than half, honestly, based on the way the custody works. But what has become clear is that I am Mr. Banks after the film’s conclusion, because it’s not about quantity; it’s quality. The time I spend with my kids, I spend with them. We talk. We laugh. Things are not always perfect, but at the very least, we are in there, constantly trying, constantly working at it.
What I enjoy most about the film now is looking at the way it serves as a dry run for techniques that every blockbuster uses routinely. Disney understood that there was a huge difference between live-action and animation, but he was fascinated by the place where the two met. Adding live characters to an all-animated environment offers one set of challenges while adding an animated character to an otherwise mundane setting offers a very different set of challenges, and on Mary Poppins, Disney and Stevenson and their animation and effects teams had to solve all of those challenges and more. It’s seamless work, inspired in the way it is shot, and when you look at how far Disney had come in the combination of these elements since 1946’s Song of the South, it’s clear that he’d been pushing his team to really think about how to make it work. The straight line from Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins to Thanos hitting Tony Stark with a moon is undeniable, and they are, at heart, no different. Disney’s animators loved shooting reference footage of actors that they could use to guide the performances in their films, and honestly, some of those actors they shot should have gotten co-credit for the character work in those movies. Yes, there was pen and paper in the middle, and you’re dealing with an interpretation instead of a direct record, but performance capture today is still massaged and manipulated by skilled animators in a way that makes it clear that this is all part of a continuum.
It breaks my heart that Walt Disney and Jim Henson can’t see the way we’ve married animation and puppeteering and performance into something new that is, at heart, simply a marriage of all these art forms that these men used to realize the fantastic. They would have both embraced digital tools wholeheartedly, and anyone who thinks Henson would have been against CGI on principle wasn’t paying attention. He was already leaning into the idea of CGI in the last work he did, and a performance capture rig is no different than a puppeteer’s waldo. Disney used hundreds of artists in every department on his films to all realize a singular vision: his. He was so much more than just a studio, and I suspect part of why Mary Poppins was a project that spoke to him so directly was because he had to give so much of himself in order to make these dreams come to fruition that he felt like he had not been good at being a family man. For a film as technically challenging and technologically driven as this to also be so clearly a personal expression of very primal emotional material is surprising, and for all of it to be wrapped up in a shiny, pretty package that makes it all feel family-safe and entertaining is miraculous.
Okay, so maybe I got carried away there. Four films, and this turned out to be one of the longest issues yet. We’ve still got two more weekends to cover in one last big fat overstuffed issue, and I’ll see you back here in three days to bring this month in for a landing. We’ve got animated mayhem of the gentlest sort, another horrible TV adaptation, and a classic film that broke the heart of the author whose work was the inspiration for the film. You don’t want to miss any of that, do you?
See you soon!