The author P.L. Travers left the 1964 premiere of Mary Poppins announcing: “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence,” according to the movie’s composer.
Thankfully, Walt Disney didn’t listen or the world would have been deprived of Dick Van Dyke dancing with a troupe of penguins and Julie Andrews riding a merry-go-round horse through a steeplechase. In 1965, his film version of Travers’s popular books earned Disney the only best-picture nomination of his career and went on to win five Oscars in other categories, including best visual effects and best editing. Its imaginative integration of animation and live action was without rival until Who Framed Roger Rabbit came along 24 years later, and the film is still considered Disney’s crowning achievement.
Today, as Walt Disney Pictures releases the sequel Mary Poppins Returns, a special effects team can land a flying nanny faster than you can say supercalifragilistic while animation software can turn mere sketches into infinite ribbons of colourful cartoons. From roaring dragons to giant toys, from sledding through the streets of a snowy village to climbing the vertiginous heights of Big Ben, there is nothing that CGI can’t imagine or create. Movie magic has become so much easier to achieve – and so much bigger, too. Whether it’s Mary Poppins Returns or The Grinch for the little ones, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms for tweens or Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald for teens and young adults, this year’s holiday fantasy lands are bursting with paraphernalia and effects. The aesthetic philosophy seems to be more-is-more and the results often overwhelm story and character.
If you want to know what clever cartoons used to look like, you can find lots of footage from the original Mary Poppins online. But you can also see the new movie: Its principal animated sequence is purposefully nostalgic, a series of scenes in which Mary Poppins and her three new charges enter the world of a porcelain bowl and discover the Royal Doulton Music Hall. It is peopled by singing birds and animals that look … well, charmingly retro or kind of dated, depending on your point of view. Creations of wavering black lines and planes of bright colour, they are visibly touched by the human hand (however they were actually made) and their charm lies in their idiosyncratic and exaggerated shapes – long necks, curving feathers, bushy tails – rather than their kinetic energy.
Aside from the massive time savings, the chief achievement of computer-generated animation is the way it can create the illusion of three dimensions without the inconvenience of Claymation or puppets. In contrast, Mary Poppins Returns evokes its predecessor, nodding to a flatter era when animation was closer to the sketchbook page.
You can see that difference writ large in The Grinch, an animated feature based on the Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The story is best remembered by the well-loved 26-minute TV special made in 1966, a brief cartoon that was stylistically faithful to the book, right down to those single strands of wiry hair that topped the heads of the Whos. A new Grinch was clearly required not only because the 2000 live-action version starring Jim Carrey was grotesque, but also because contemporary animation can create a whole three-dimensional world where the original simply layered two-dimensional figures on top of two-dimensional backgrounds.
And so, rounded Whos now bustle and a fattened Grinch now schemes in deeper space. Whoville is a thriving village of snowy lanes, overstuffed shop windows and lavishly decorated cottages while the Grinch surveys vistas worthy of the Alps.
The effect is busy and often frenetic as the film races through its settings without bothering to bring their many details into focus; it’s also annoyingly out of touch with the story. After all, the moral of The Grinch is that the stuff doesn’t matter; the Grinch can steal all the presents and the food, but he can’t ruin Christmas because the Whos only need each other. Here, it’s an anti-consumerist message that drowns in kenophobic clutter.
Still, The Grinch does at least have a coherent story to tell. Both The Nutcracker and Grindelwald are so confused, you have to pity the art department that had to figure out a unifying production design for either. The Nutracker’s four realms represent an ill-defined universe ruled over by a flower, a snowflake, the Sugar Plum Fairy and a fairground ringleader named Mother Ginger, and the excesses of CGI are splashed all over. For a headquarters, the realms’ architects multiple the familiar onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral several times and then set them atop waterworks worthy of Niagara. The geographic references are confusing and the effect is bombastic. Meanwhile, the toy soldiers are conceived as an army of larger-than-life-size, blank-eyed tin dolls while the mouse king is creepily created from a seething swarm of smaller mice. There was always a dark and troubling element to Clara’s dream in The Nutcracker ballet; here the weird results begin to look like a horror movie.
Meanwhile, the creators of Grindelwald, a gloomy outing shot mainly at night or in basements, can conjure up a snake woman, a ferocious Chinese lion dragon and a ring of purgative fire, not to mention any number of fantastical beasts, but can’t pull themselves out of J.K. Rowling’s murky plot stuffed with dense backstory, opaque motivations and confused foreshadowing of the Second World War. No amount of people disappearing into buckets or reappearing through walls is going to rescue this mess.
Nor is Eddie Redmayne as the diffident animal lover Newt Scamander, although his quiet charm is one of the film’s few attractive elements. Similarly, Emily Blunt’s wonderfully crisp Mary Poppins is the best ingredient in Mary Poppins Returns. Turns out there are some things that computers just can’t generate.