Film Review – Mary Poppins Returns
Mary Poppins Returns
In a time of unnecessary sequels, reboots, and remakes, it’s refreshing to come across one that actually deserves to exist. Fifty-four years after the release of Mary Poppins (1964) comes its sequel, Mary Poppins Returns (2018). Once again, we find that magical nanny – who’s practically perfect in every way – coming to London to help the Banks family, roughly thirty years after she left them.
Directed by Rob Marshall with a screenplay by David Magee, Mary Poppins Returns carries much of the spirit of the original film, where imagination and wonder helps the Banks cope with difficult circumstances. This time, little Michael and Jane Banks have grown up into adults (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, respectively), and have taken responsibility of their home on Cherry Tree Lane. But things have not been going well for them. Michael has been recently widowed, now looking over three kids of his own (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson). Also, because of financial reasons, the bank – headed by Colin Firth’s greedy head of operations – has threatened to repossess their house.
Just as Michael and Jane begin to lose hope, in comes Mary Poppins, played exquisitely by Emily Blunt. Mind you, Mary Poppins will always belong to Julie Andrews, but Blunt does an exceptional job of filling in the part while making the performance entirely her own. This Mary is a bit more stern than we remember, who’s quick with the snarky comments when someone misbehaves. But oh, does Blunt radiate off the screen. She has such great screen presence about her. Every time she appears – even when she is not the main subject of a shot – we can’t help but turn our attention to her, waiting to see what she’ll come up with next. Blunt is not the singer Andrews is – she doesn’t have the range or the ease of going up and down in scale – but that doesn’t hinder her musical scenes. In fact, the way she performs the music is helped by the fact that she doesn’t try to sing like Andrews, instead giving it her own unique twist.
The majority of the plot revolves around Michael and Jane trying to figure out a way to save their home, while Mary takes the kids and whisks them off on tiny adventures. Mary Poppins was structured episodically, and Returns handles its narrative much in the same way. The musical sequences are lively and bright, and much of them will feel familiar to fans. The most noticeable one is an extended sequence which – once again – combines real life photography and hand drawn animation. Instead of jumping into a street chalk drawing, this time we’re brought into the animated world depicted on a vase painting. As someone who grew up loving hand drawn animation, seeing it back on the big screen felt a bit like seeing an old friend again. I don’t know if this will be the start of a revival given the CGI world we now live in, but to see it here for a bit was a nice respite.
Along for the ride is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a cockney lamplighter who clearly is meant to be the replacement of Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweeper, Bert. Miranda is also a joy to watch and is given plenty of opportunity to display his singing and dancing skills. He has two standout showcases – one being the “Cover Is Not the Book” song during the animated sequence, and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” where he and a number of other lamplighters go on a high-energy dive through the foggy London streets. Oh, and his accent is far more believable than Van Dyke’s was. Jack and Mary make for a good on-screen couple, albeit non-romantic. They complement each other well, allowing the other to take the spotlight like two jugglers perfectly in sync.
While Blunt and Miranda are great in their roles, the one that stuck to me the most was Ben Whishaw as Michael. Although he doesn’t have nearly as much screen time or chances to sing, Whishaw nails every scene he’s in. This Michael has forgotten all that Mary had taught him as a child. His heartbreak over losing his wife is a gut punch of emotion. Hearing his voice crack under the strain left a lump in my throat. Michael loves his family dearly but isn’t sure what he can do to save their home, and it’s that very quality that makes him so endearing. He makes us want to reach out and help him in anyway we can.
The performances all around are wonderful, and the set pieces are fun and creative in how they conjure up environments like something out of a dream. But the disappointment lies in how forgettable a lot of the music is. The music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is serviceable, and at times quite good – “Can You Imagine That,” and “The Place Where Lost Things Go” are my favorite – but none of them will cause us to leave the theater humming. Part of what made Mary Poppins an endearing classic is because the Sherman Brothers’ music was so catchy. When I say the phrase “a spoonful of sugar” or “chim-chim-cheree,” the melodies are already back in your head. Mary Poppins Returns lacks this key ingredient.
Although I won’t be remembering the music all that much, I really liked Mary Poppins Returns. It’s earnest, enthusiastic, and – despite being a sequel to a popular film – is heartfelt in its approach. I don’t know if it’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but it’s pretty darn good.