Night at the Museum (2006)

Longtime readers know that we almost always watch family movies and adventure movies from the past, to give our kid a look at what entertained generations before him. I took it for granted that he’d see Night at the Museum on his own, because day cares and child cares and other families where he might play or have overnight sleepovers are more likely to have contemporary family movies on offer, and not expect kids to watch stuff in black and white, or stuff from the seventies with rotary dial telephones and chain-smoking dad characters. That’s why our son’s never asked to watch most Pixar movies: he saw them all already.

So Night at the Museum served a dual purpose for me: I did want to watch a more recent family film with him, and somehow, I managed to sneak this one in before some other family or after-school care program got there. I figured this would be as ubiquitous as the Toy Story series, but he had never heard of it and had no idea what it was. It sure is fun seeing him discover what a movie’s about. Brilliantly, this movie opens its supernatural discoveries with its biggest one: it’s the big Tyrannosaurus skeleton that comes to life first, knocking the child audience’s socks off, and then calmly adds additional layers of mayhem atop each one. He adored it.

Joining Ben Stiller in the chaos: Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and several more. I think it’s just an imaginatively good script until the third act, where the villains and their motivations are revealed and a critical eye might want to work backward and spot all the holes in the plan, but as long as you just let everything go and accept the strange – and mighty convenient – rules of Ahkmenrah’s tablet, it’s a fun and silly roller coaster.

They made two other Night at the Museum movies, and I don’t know that I’m ready to believe they’re all that essential, but I’m glad I picked this one up for my son’s own collection. It ended with him saying “Now I want to work in a museum,” which made my heart grow three sizes. That’s where I wish I worked, too.

Dick Tracy (1990)

I’m often reminded of Otto Preminger’s bizarre 1968 film – slash – trainwreck Skidoo, in which the director decided to make a movie that would be hip with the kids, and filled it full of people like George Raft and Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason. I wonder whether the nineteen and twenty year-olds of 1968 heard about such a thing and concluded that nothing else could possibly be so far out of touch as Hollywood, that year. Because in 1990, that’s precisely how nineteen year-old me felt when news of Dick Tracy‘s imminent release reached me. It felt like Hollywood was so desperate for the next Batman that a bunch of eighty year-old men asked the air, “What else is a comic book? What do kids read? Dick Tracy, yeah, that’s the ticket!” and filled their cash-in with such popular-with-kids actors as Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman.

I mean, seriously, in 1990, exactly five people on the planet gave a damn about Dick Tracy. One was Tribune Media’s accountant and the other four were Max Allan Collins.

And yet, while Skidoo is almost hypnotic in its strange, dull awfulness, Dick Tracy turned out to be a surprisingly good film, full of offbeat performances, an occasionally very clever script, and some of the most gorgeous color and cinematography of anything else in its day. You can watch Dick Tracy with the sound down and fall completely in love with it. I really like the unreal color palette and the remarkable symmetry in the framing.

So even though Dick Tracy‘s world is an unreal one, it’s a believable one because it’s so consistent. The visuals are pared down to basics, just like an artist might do in a small comic panel. So instead of a detail-packed label on a can of chili, full of words and pictures, it’s just a red can with “CHILI” in black letters. A milk truck doesn’t deliver for any specific dairy with a logo, it’s just a white truck with “MILK” on the side. Everything’s told with broad strokes, but it’s told beautifully.

Our son liked it a lot as well. I wouldn’t claim that he loved it – I wouldn’t go that far myself – but it’s full of weird and grotesque villains, a believably fun hero, a heck of a lot of machine guns, and a few very interesting twists in the script. Plus there’s a shot where Dick Tracy punches an entire crowd and they go down like ninepins. Warren Beatty may be in the center of almost every frame where he appears, but Al Pacino, William Forysthe, Paul Sorvino, and especially Dustin Hoffman effortlessly steal their scenes from our hero, as the best baddies should. Mandy Patinkin and Dick Van Dyke are also here, with comparative subtlety, so there’s a lot for people who love watching actors to enjoy. On the other hand, Danny Elfman’s music is bombastic and incredibly annoying, and you can’t help but wish that Tess Trueheart wasn’t so helpless and passive.

Speaking of Hoffman, he kind of stole the audience’s attention when I first saw this movie as well as this morning. He plays one of the henchmen, a purple-suited dude called Mumbles. That first time, after the audience chuckled and guffawed through his interrogation scene, the crowd absolutely roared when Tracy confronts him again later on. Tracy and his men storm into his room, saying “Hello, Mumbles,” and the dozens of people I saw it with went completely nuts. It was one of the best little movie theater moments ever. And this morning, our son made one of his uncommon interruptions to protest “I don’t sound like that when I mumble!” And I said “You do.”

So yes, it’s a much, much better film than Skidoo. But I still want a Blu-ray of Skidoo from Criterion, and I might even watch it more often than I would ever watch this, because I contradict myself, and contain multitudes.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

How nice, it seemed, in a world of dreary and utterly unnecessary remakes, for Disney to actually make a sequel to an old film. Except this isn’t a sequel. Mary Poppins Returns is actually a remake of the original, every plot beat completely familiar and done with modern gloss. It follows the template and order of the original’s moments so precisely that the only thing that’s different is the casting and subtle changes to professions. Here we meet the oddball relative who was played by Ed Wynn last time and by Meryl Streep this time, and then we’ll visit the bank, and then we’ll have the great showstopping dance routine that was performed by chimney sweeps last time and by lamplighters this time. Even the mother figure is the same. Last time, she was a suffragette and this time, she’s organizing labor.

That said, while I wished desperately for some moments that would veer wildly away from the original’s format, it certainly succeeded with our favorite seven year-old critic, who remembers the original, but not particularly well. And if I hadn’t seen the original eight or nine times previously, I suppose the only real complaint I’d have is that the villain has no reason whatever to be a villain. Seriously, why is Colin Firth being villainous in this movie? Why does he compound his villainy by pretending to be sympathetic? Is there buried treasure under the Banks house or something and the movie just forgot to tell us?

But in its favor, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are practically magical, if not quite perfect, and the songs are nice, and the cameos by Nackvid Keyd and Angela Lansbury, so many years since the last time these actors danced with cartoon animals, certainly made me smile. David Warner takes over as a character from the original movie, and he’s always fun to watch as he bellows and shouts.

And in the category of really big wins for this movie, I have to say that the fantastic musical hall scene built around “The Cover is Not the Book” should go down as one of the absolute best musical numbers in any Disney film, ever. Also, if this film doesn’t win an Oscar for best costumes, something is downright wrong with the world, because the strange pastel-on-porcelain garb that the characters wear on their trip into the cartoon world is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

In other words, all the elements were in place for a truly fine movie. Everything but an original story. Should Mary Poppins one day return to assist the next generation of Banks children, I hope that family is having a completely different problem for Mary to tackle in a completely different way.

Photo credit: Time.com

Mary Poppins (1964)

“I didn’t really like it, but I did like it,” said our five year-old critic about Disney’s quite long, but phenomenally entertaining Mary Poppins. It did need a pause for us to explain nannies and suffragettes, and we took an intermission after eighty of its hundred and forty minutes, but he laughed with the slapstick and the dancing and the animation.

For those of you who don’t know much about this movie, it’s about a mysterious and magical nanny who comes to the Banks home to uproot a few things and arrange events so that Mr. Banks will be a more attentive father to his kids. Mom and Dad are played by Glynis Johns and David Tomlinson – add him to the very long list of actors who would have / should have made a better Lord Ffogg opposite Johns in Batman a couple of years later – and the kids by Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber.

Bringing magic into the family’s life, there’s Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but you mustn’t overlook Ed Wynn as a strange Uncle Arthur, who has a contagious habit of levitating when he laughs. Andrews is not merely practically perfect in every way, but perfect, period. Van Dyke is an absolute joy to watch, if not to listen to. You make allowances for this being a movie with only a half hour of plot because the music and the dancing are so entertaining, but there’s really no allowances for his terrible accent. But you can forgive him because “Step in Time” is just so amazing. In much the same way that the swordfight in The Princess Bride is as good a swordfight as you’ll ever see in a movie, this is the definitive song and dance in a movie for me, even more than the iconic Singing in the Rain. It could go on another five minutes, and only the churlish would object.

Honestly, a hundred and forty minutes and the only thing that takes me out of this movie is Van Dyke’s accent. It’s incredibly fun, supremely witty, packed with great performances, and sports at least four songs that darn near everybody in the western world knows. Our son may not have really liked it, but I did.

For some reason, my laptop adamantly refused to play this DVD for me to get some captures, so the sole image here comes from Cinema Blend.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

This was by no means Daniel’s favorite film, and boy, is it ever long, but I think it’s a terrific and silly fantasy. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on the children’s novel by Ian Fleming, and, since Albert Broccoli and his company were making the Bond films from Fleming’s books, it seemed like a good investment. Also since, in 1967, they had Roald Dahl on their Rolodex – he had written the screenplay for You Only Live Twice – they had somebody to phone who had lots of experience in writing good children’s fiction to turn Fleming’s novel into a good script.

Dick Van Dyke had been in the habit of making films in between seasons of his sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early sixties. Of these, of course, Mary Poppins is the best-known. He was hugely in demand after the series ended and regularly in front of cameras. I suspect that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a very long shoot. It filmed across three countries and required the use of those gigantic stages on Pinewood that the 007 people were typically using for bases inside volcanoes, and was released in time for Christmas 1968.

Cast opposite Van Dyke was Sally Ann Howes, who was principally a stage actress, with dozens of hugely successful roles on Broadway and the West End over her career. Also in the cast, a few names familiar from the 1960s Bond films, including Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewellyn, and, just to show there were no hard feelings for Columbia not returning the rights to Casino Royale and making that very silly spoof film instead, Broccoli hired one of Casino‘s five credited directors, Ken Hughes, to shoot this.

Like Casino, this is a movie that really could use some scissors taken to it. It’s in two sections with an intermission, about 84 and 60 minutes each. Those first 84 could have been trimmed by a good fifteen minutes, if not more. Our son has really started to rebel against songs in movies, and there are some really long numbers in the first section. He got restless and fidgety and, on a couple of occasions, got up to lie down behind the sofa just to put an end to all this nonsense and wait for this car to fly like I told him would happen.

Then he met the Child Catcher and it wasn’t boredom that sent him behind the sofa. See, if you’ve never seen this movie, its central conflict is a long fantasy story that Dick Van Dyke’s eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, tells, in which he and his children and his new friend (and, possibly, fiancée) are beset by agents from the country of Vulgaria who want his magical car. They have to fly to Vulgaria after Potts’ father, played by Lionel Jeffries, is accidentally abducted by the baron’s agents.

In Vulgaria, children are forbidden because the baroness, played by Anna Quayle, is afraid of them. She has employed this really freaky dude to capture them. The Child Catcher is played with bizarre energy by the late Robert Helpmann, a celebrated Australian dancer, director of that country’s national ballet theater, with a list of honors and awards as long as your arm, and he’s best known for less than fifteen minutes onscreen luring children into cages with lollipops. He is absolutely horrifying to little ones. There were so many tears welled up in my son’s eyes that I teared up a little just looking at how shaken he was!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is flawed, but it’s aged extremely well and we were mostly entertained by it, even if our son’s restlessness during the longer sections got pretty exasperating. We probably should have taken more advantage of the movie’s intermission, but four is a little young for this one and we would have done better to wait another year or so. For adults, you’ve got the sumptuous production and giant sets and wonderful chemistry between the leads, and if their romance seems just a little too inevitable, well, you need to have your heart polished up a little bit.

Now, about getting the darn theme tune out of my head…