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Holiday Blockbuster Review Round-Up: “Aquaman”, “Bumblebee”, and “Mary Poppins Returns”

Today, we’re going to be rounding up three of the biggest December releases, all of which hit theaters this week. One is the superhero origin story Aquaman. Another is the franchise prequel/spinoff Bumblebee. The other? It’s the long in the making sequel Mary Poppins Returns. Surprisingly, these are of varying quality. One is fun but not quite good enough to recommend. One is not nearly as good as some have said, leaving me right on the cusp of a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The other is as good as advertised, to my utter shock. You’ll see which is which next…

Here we go:


One of the silliest superheroes is now one of the silliest superhero movies. Yes, Aquaman, once the butt of many a joke on the show Entourage, has become a legit blockbuster. Continuing the course correction that DC and Warner Brothers have been on since Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were met with distain, this is a lighter comic book flick. Nowhere near as good as Wonder Woman, it still represents DC and WB moving in the right direction. They’re not there yet, as you’ll see below, but this is a better angle to pursue than the dour one they started out on.

The film is an origin story for the title character, also known as Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa). A half human, half Atlantian heir to the throne of Atlantis, his father was a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), while his mother was Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Having spent his life on land, periodically trained by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), he only finally ventures down to his other home world when Mera (Amber Heard) informs him that his half brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is plotting a war against the surface. Thus begins an adventure that takes Aquaman and Mera across the globe, down to Atlantis, and to many other exotic locations, both above and under the water. It’s a standard issue origin story, just with some odd visual quirks. Jason Wan directs and co-writes with the team of Will Beall, Geoff Johns, and David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. The large supporting cast includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the villain Manta, along with Julie Andrews, Michael Beach, Djimon Hounsou, Ludi Lin, Dolph Lundgren, Graham McTavish, Randall Park, John Rhys-Davies, Leigh Whannell, and more. Rupert Gregson-Williams composed the score, while Don Burgess handled the cinematography.

While not a bad movie by any stretch, this is still a bit disappointing. The periodic bursts of creativity and weirdness can’t fully hide the fact that this superhero epic doesn’t offer anything new. It’s mostly fun, but could have been way better. I loved the octopus that plays drums during one sequence, though those pleasures are so quickly gone, you’re mostly left with the stuff that doesn’t inspire as much joy. In many ways, it’s a combination of Black Panther and the Star Wars prequels, which makes for uneasy bedfellows. I’m interested in a sequel that dispenses with the origin, allowing Wan and company to lean into more lunacy. That’s the winning formula here. Had Wan not felt the need to throw in an action scene every ten minutes, making an already bloated time feel repetitive, things might have been a little steadier.

Aquaman is dumb fun, but it’s just a little too dumb for its own good. Your mileage may vary, but the thrills it offers are just slightly too sporadic to warrant a recommendation. Those who say it’s amazing are nuts, just as those who say it’s terrible are way off base. It’s a decent movie, one that sparks at times and suggests something better. If you love this character, it’s not a bad vehicle. Hopefully next time, the film that he comes equipped to play around in will be a little stronger. If nothing else, it’s a far cry from Justice League, that’s for sure…


This isn’t really a hot take, but I hate the Transformers movies with a passion. Seriously. They’re easily my least favorite franchise out there in the blockbuster world. So, to find myself saying that Bumblebee, a prequel/spinoff from the series, is kind of great, is really something. What initially was just a franchise full of casual racism and metal CGI objects clanging into each other, now is something with an actual heart. Suddenly, the series has a future worth looking forward to. Kudos to all involve for course correcting here at last. Less is more with the Transformers, as Bumblebee perfectly showcases.

The movie is a period piece, set in 1987. As a prequel to the other Transformers outings, it also functions as a reboot of sorts. Sent to Earth as a means of hiding out/surviving, Bumblebee lands and immediately is in a fight for his life. Losing his voice in a battle, he eventually finds shelter in a small California beach town. Specifically, he takes up shop in a junkyard, posing as a yellow Volkswagen Bettle. At the same time, soon to be 18 year old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is going through the struggles most teenagers go through. Hoping to find a car for her birthday, she actually discovers the broken down VW bug that is Bumblebee. She fixes him up and in short order has a friend. Soon though, the government, led by Agent Burns (John Cena) is on the hunt for him, paired up with some Decepticons looking to bring Bumblebee to justice. An adventure for Charlie ensues. Travis Knight directs a screenplay by Christina Hodson, with supporting players here including Pamela Adlon, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, as well as Dylan O’Brien contributing Bumblebee’s voice, alongside other voice work from Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux, not to mention Peter Cullen. Cinematography here is by Enrique Chediak, while the score is contributed by Dario Marianelli.

Not only is this shockingly good, it functions as a solid coming of age story, not just as a franchise reset for an until now awful series of film. Who would have thought that The Edge of Seventeen with robots was just what the doctor ordered? Steinfeld provides a real heart at the center, Cena delivers a few hilarious lines, and from the director’s chair, Knight handles it all with a really nice touch. Things get duller when the Autobots and Decepticons start fighting, but when the focus is on the title robot and Steinfeld’s protagonist, it’s actually quite nice. This is popcorn fare through and through, but tremendously effective at being that.

If you ever liked a Transformers movie, the odds favor you liking Bumblebee even more. Those of you who, like me, worshipped The Edge of Seventeen, well, this places like a cinematic cousin to that. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Knight figured out how to crack the code with Bumblebee. If he’s going to be the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, that’s an excellent choice by Marvel. This flick is evidence of that. In terms of the blockbusters hitting theaters this week for the upcoming holiday box office, this is the choice option. I’m as shocked as you are, but here we are…

Mary Poppins Returns

Confession time: I think the original Mary Poppins is only alright. It’s charming, but not on the level of other Disney classics. Give me Bedknobs and Broomsticks all day, everyday. So, I didn’t go in to watch Mary Poppins Returns last month with high expectations. Usually, that sets you up for a rather pleasant surprise. Instead, I think it showed how the Disney emperor here doesn’t really have any clothes. Mary Poppins Returns is sometimes delightful, sometimes boring, and ultimately a bit underwhelming. It’s decidedly a minority opinion, but color me a little bit disappointed by this supposed holiday season savior.

Obviously, this is a sequel to Mary Poppins. A few decades after the original, we find ourselves in London during the Depression. Jane Banks (Emily Watson) and Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw) are now all grown up, with Michael now having three kids of his own. A widower, Michael is in danger of losing his house. Suddenly, when all seems lost, the family is once again visited by the mysterious nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). A caregiver with uniquely suited skills, she sets out to help the family discover happiness once again. Along for the adventure is a friend of hers in lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), plus plenty of fantasy characters as well. For just about anyone on the screen, finding joy and wonder ultimately will become a priority. Rob Marshall directs a script he co-wrote with John DeLuca and David Magee. Showing up in supporting roles are Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Meryl Strep, Dick Van Dyke, Julie Walters, and more. Marc Shaiman is responsible for the music, while Dion Beebe is the cinematographer.

Emily Blunt is as good as advertised in Mary Poppins Returns. She may well be headed to her first Oscar nomination (more on that later). The film itself has some real highs, but also more lows than the hype would have you believe. Musically, it’s a step down from Mary Poppins, while much of the middle section drags. The scenes actually featuring Blunt as Poppins are good, but despite top billing, she’s very much a supporting player. The adult Jane and Michael just aren’t interesting, while Jack is a poor substitute for the original’s Bert. There’s plenty of charm at times, but when it’s not on display, honestly…this can be pretty boring.

Oscar wise, Mary Poppins Returns is an across the board contender. Disney is campaigning it in a ton of categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Marshall), Best Actress (for Blunt), Best Supporting Actor (for Miranda and Whishaw), Best Supporting Actress (for Streep and Watson), Best Adapted Screenplay (for DeLuca, Magee, and Marshall), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song (times two), and Best Visual Effects. There’s a chance that this ends up with double digit nominations, depending on the mood of the Academy when voting actually begins. Time will ultimately tell if Oscar falls for the magical nanny or not, but watch out for Blunt as a threat in Actress.

Mary Poppins Returns is going to have a ton of fans. Those of you who have a soft spot for Mary Poppins are already ahead of the game. As mentioned above, with how terrible the world can feel these days, having something happy and nice like this is worth something. Ultimately, the dullness that so much of this exhibits for those who don’t worship at the alter of the original prevents me from recommending it. Blunt damn near overcomes that though, so keep that in mind. It’s set to make all the money, so far be it from me to tell you to stay away. If nothing else, just know that it’s not the second coming.

All three of these films will have hit theaters by this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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