Netflix Mini-Review – The Letter for the King: Who Loves the Knight-Life?

Netflix brings us an adaptation of a 1960s Dutch children’s book.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

The kingdom of Dagonaut  has been allied for millennia with the kingdom of Unauwen against the land of Eviellan. For over a thousand years, Eviellan managed to fight them off using their magic, but they finally lost due to the ruthless conquest led by Unauwen’s Prince Viridian (Gijs Blom). Tiuri (Amir Wilson) is a knight candidate in Dagonaut who was adopted by Sir Tiuri the Valiant (David Wenham). On the night of Tiuri’s final test for knighthood, he breaks his orders when a man named Vokia (Jan Bijovet) comes to the door begging for aid. Vokia takes him to a wounded knight (Ben Chaplin), who gives him a letter to deliver to King Favian of Unauwen in order to prevent a massacre. Tiuri takes the letter and vows to deliver it. Along the way he is aided by Lavinia (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis), the daughter of the mayor of Mistrinaut (Andy Serkis) and chased by Jaro (Peter Fernandino) and the Red Knights of Viridian as well as his fellow knight candidates Iona, Jussipo, Foldo, Arman, and squire Piak (Thaddea Graham, Jonah Lees, Jack Barton, Islam Bouakkaz, Nathanael Saleh). 

LftK - 1Cast
I like the colorful outfits. 

END SUMMARY

I had never heard of the series this was based on until this TV adaptation came out, but apparently that shouldn’t have surprised me too much since the English language edition didn’t come out until 2013. In the Netherlands, though, this is apparently a major work of young adult fiction. I do get the feeling from reading the summary of the source material, however, that there were a lot of adaptational changes. For example, Tiuri is adopted from Eviellan in this series, which apparently isn’t the case in the original. The biggest change, apparently, is that magic is explicitly real in this series, whereas the original series is just medieval fiction. I’m not saying that the change was caused by Game of Thrones, but you can’t prove it wasn’t.

LftK - 2Cave
Nope, definitely doesn’t resemble any other fantasy series.

I’m not sure about the description of the characters in the original series, but given that it was a book from the Netherlands in the 1960s, I’m guessing that the cast in the show is much more diverse than their literary counterparts. Rather than just being token changes, though, there are a few parts where the alteration is written in as a way of adding character development. For example, Iona is a female knight candidate and has a large chip on her shoulder about it, leading her to be more aggressive and intense than the other candidates. It’s nice to see some updates to series that don’t overpower the narrative but also are used for extra world building. 

LftK - 3Iona
Don’t mess with Iona.

The performances in the show are excellent and the setting is well-designed, although I question exactly how far horses can run in a day (just like in every other medieval series). The system of magic, not so much. It’s kind of a spoiler, so I won’t go into it, but there’s a few big twists that make me think they just wrote “magic does this” on several pages where anything else would seem ridiculous. The biggest problem with the show, though, is that it has a number of very slow parts and some of the “twists” seem like cop-outs. Overall, though, I thought it was worthwhile. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Mary Poppins Returns – A Practically Perfect Presentation of the Paradox and Perils of Perpetuating Past Performances or, A Good Sequel Showing Why Great Sequels Are Hard (Spoiler-Free)

Mary Poppins returns (surprise!) to deal with another generation of the Banks family.

SUMMARY

It’s the 1930s in Britain and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the prank-loving boy from the original film, is all grown up with three children of his own: Annabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson). He’s recently lost his wife and, while his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) tries to help him, it’s revealed that he’s deeply in debt and in danger of losing his home to the very bank that he and his father worked at, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, headed up by William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth). Fortunately, his household receives a visit from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Bert’s (Dick Van Dyke) apprentice Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) to help get the family through this trying time with magic, music, and the occasional strange relative.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 1Mirror.jpg
And looking damned good for someone who’s at least 50… centuries.

END SUMMARY

Mary Poppins is a hard movie not to love. The songs are so catchy that I bet you can hum two right now, the animation was unbelievable for its time, the performances by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and David Tomlinson are all so defined that they’ve basically become archetypes since the 60s, and the style and tone of the movie are the epitome of whimsy. It’s got a rare 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is an example of a movie where even the imperfect things (e.g. Dick Van Dyke’s Fake Accent) only served to make it more unique and enjoyable. This pretty much doomed any sequel from the beginning, because it’s so hard to follow something that had this many solid elements blended together perfectly.

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This was the Google result for “whimsical.” 

Mary Poppins Returns is destined to divide. Reading a sample of the reviews right now, it seems like that’s a lot of what it’s doing. Honestly, it’s to its credit that it can even do that. This film manages to try to avert most of what makes a sequel terrible, but also manages to commit two of the biggest sequel mistakes. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Emily Blunt takes over as Mary Poppins and she is wonderful. She’s clever, she’s mischievous, she can be very proper when she needs to be, but, mostly, she’s different enough from Julie Andrews’ portrayal that it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to copy what we’ve already seen while still being similar enough to believably be the same character. She’s a little more explicitly magical in this and smiles a lot more, but it still feels like it’s just the same character handling slightly different circumstances. The only time in the film where I thought “this is not Mary Poppins” is when she performs the song “A Cover is Not the Book.” It’s not that the song is bad, in fact I think it’s one of the more original songs within the film, but she performs it in the style of a Vaudeville Music Hall, something that, while appropriate for the time period of the movie, seems like something I could NEVER imagine Julie Andrews doing as Poppins. Other than that, though, she nails it.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 3Comparison.jpg
Admittedly, they don’t look alike. 

Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance as Jack is similar enough to Dick Van Dyke as Bert to complement Mary Poppins’ character, but it still is distinctly different. Bert and Mary seemed to have a history and a mostly unspoken level of attraction, whereas Jack is more akin to a fanboy finally meeting his idol, but in a good way. Jack’s style of performance is also different, favoring more song and dance over Bert’s physical comedy, and it works.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 4LinManuel
Jack was later shot by Aaron Burr. 

Another big change is the children. In contrast to the disobedient Jane and Michael Banks of the original, the three children we are show in this film are well-behaved and, for the most part, are almost more adult than the adults. They’ve been forced to grow up based on the fact that they’ve lost their mother and their father is more of an artist than an earner. So, unlike the original where Mary has to straighten out the Banks children while loosening up their father, she’s doing the opposite in this and it does play well for Blunt to be a little less uptight than Andrews was in her version.

MaryPoppinsReturns - 5Kids
Georgie’s the most mysterious in that he sometimes walks on the grass.

But, now, we get to the problems of the movie: First, the plot is much more serious. It’s a sequel, so there’s always a tendency to try and raise the stakes, but in this we have the quest to save the Banks home which doesn’t quite gel with most of the scenes. It’s not like there are multiple side-stories that feed into the overall narrative like in the original, this feels like they had 2 ideas for a movie and just jammed them in together. It doesn’t quite work. Also, not only is Michael’s wife dead, but so are Mr. and Mrs. Banks? It’s only been 25 years, people, and they were both in their 30s in the original! Hell, the actress who played Mrs. Banks, Glynis Johns, is still alive in real life. Just saying, it felt like they intentionally shrank the family so the plot felt more dire.

Second, the film has a lot of plot “twinning” with the original, by which I mean that there are a lot of scenes in this that clearly were put in less because they needed to be in the film, but more because they called back to a scene in the original. It’s another common sin of sequels: Trying to do the same thing over again. Sure, the characters feel a little different, but some of the scenes are very clearly just in there to match stuff from the original.

Third, some of the new characters don’t feel “whimsical” as much as “weird.” In the original, all of the magical characters, like the band that plays “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (btw, got it in 1 try) and Uncle Albert, the man on the ceiling, and even the chimney sweeps, all feel like they’re magical characters straight out of a fairy tale. In this… not quite as much. They all have a little too much darkness and reflection to them. A stand-out example of not quite working as well is, sadly, Meryl Streep’s character of Topsy, the upside-down fixer-upper. It’s not that Meryl Streep does anything wrong, it’s that the character needed to be performed by someone who has no intrinsic gravitas, which is the opposite of Meryl “I have 4 Oscars for drama” Streep. She’s great in comedies and portrays the character exactly as it was probably envisioned, but this just wasn’t the right fit. Also, her song is not great, which brings me to…

MaryPoppinsReturns - 6Meryl
WHY WOULDN’T YOU MAKE HER THE ELDER MRS. BANKS?

Fourth, the music is only okay. There are like 3 really good songs in this movie, but, of those three, only one doesn’t blatantly sample from the original Sherman Brothers music. I don’t mean to undercut Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, because they’ve both done great work (Hairspray), but they didn’t come close to matching the Sherman Brothers’ level of quality from the original. “The Perfect Nanny,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “I Love to Laugh,” “Feed the Birds,” Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Step in Time,” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” I can sing most of every line of these songs at almost any point in my life. I only saw Mary Poppins Returns last night and I can only remember 3 songs well. The sequel’s music just isn’t in the same league. It’s like Chumawumba trying to outsell the Beatles; it’s not that they’re bad, it’s that they were never really competing.

All four of these problems come not necessarily from the movie itself, but from the nature of making a sequel. If you try to completely ignore the previous movie, then you’re not paying the proper respect. If you don’t do enough on your own, then you feel like there was no point in making the sequel. That’s why it’s so hard to continue a story that’s complete. Sure, Godfather II, Aliens, and Terminator 2 all work great, but that’s because they’re either A) telling the rest of the story that was still going, B) switching genres, or C) doing a little bit of both in an inventive way. This film tries to tell the rest of the story and add some genre switch (romantic subplot and central villain), but it just never quite pulled away from the original enough. Again, it’s tough to do.

Overall, I do want to say that I enjoyed the movie even if it’s not the lightning in a bottle that the original represented. It’s definitely a movie that everyone should see, if only to make up their mind on whether it’s good or bad.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.