Take the nostalgia goggles off and the original Mary Poppins still holds up as a perfect musical. Its music and characters are nothing short of iconic. The idea of making a sequel five decades later was baffling…until the recent wave of Disney remakes and reimaginings, that is. Does Mary Poppins Returns carry on its predecessor’s legacy, or does it flop like a holey kite? Let’s review.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Rob Marshall
Written By: David Magee
Twenty years after Mary Poppins flew into the Banks family’s lives, little Jane and Michael are all grown up. But life’s far from cheery as Michael and his kids cope with the loss of their mother and the Great Depression looms over their heads. Mary Poppins reappears to share her much-needed magic with the next generation — and hopefully rekindle some childhood happiness in the first. With the help of some new and familiar faces, she just might succeed.
Practically Perfect Casting
It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Julie Andrews playing the character of Mary Poppins. Miraculously, Emily Blunt succeeds. I like to think of her as a regeneration of the character in the vein of Doctor Who. New style, new face, slightly new personality, but still the same beloved Mary. Lin Manuel-Miranda as Jack the Lamplighter fits right alongside her as Bert’s charming counterpart, even nailing his over-the-top Cockney accent.
Ben Whishaw is the unsung hero of the movie. I marvel at his struggle to maintain his youthful optimism in the face of adult hardship and grief. Meryl Streep’s singular scene as Mary’s Russian cousin Topsy provides creative laughs and choreography in her upside-down house. Dick Van Dyke returns as the elderly banker Dawes Jr, but just as energetic as he was fifty years ago. My one wish is that the trailers hadn’t spoiled his and Angela Lansbury’s appearances. They come at crucial points where the impact would have been even greater if we weren’t already expecting them.
Flights of Fancy
P.L. Travers made her hatred for the first film clear. Undoubtedly she’d loathe seeing her tales retold in a similar manner. Then again, it took a biopic leaning in Disney’s favor to make her resemble someone reasonable when it came to adapting her works for the screen. I bring all of this up because Mary Poppins Returns‘ fantasy outings borrow heavily from the other Poppins books. Once more, Disney strings the Banks’ disconnected adventures together with a narrative and plenty of musical numbers. This method works as well as it did before; however it falters a bit this time when it comes to stepping out of the original’s lengthy shadow.
I appreciate the addition of new elements to ensure this wasn’t a retread of the first film. I rolled my eyes when I learned a mother’s death played a part in another Disney picture. However this movie does something unique in showing how her passing has affected the family and their attempts at coping. It rarely reaches the emotional depths of “Feed the Birds” or Mr. Banks’ lonely walk, but I admire the sentiment. We have a villain this time around in Colin Firth‘s unscrupulous banker. I’m still getting used to the idea of a Poppins movie with a clear villain when the first one had no true bad guys.
But by far the best sequence is the trip through the animated china bowl. As much as I enjoy computer animated films have come, we’re drowning in a sea of them. Seeing hand-drawn animation on the big screen again is like a breath of fresh air. Disney even brought some of the old guard from the 90’s renaissance out of retirement for it. Here’s hoping this won’t be the last we see of them.
It Always Sounds Precocious
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman nail the Sherman Brothers’ style of music. Only time will tell if these tunes will reach the popularity of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, but I hope they will. The best numbers are bouncy and playful with its lyrics. “Can You Imagine That” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, the big songs pushed by the trailers, are enjoyable. But my favorites are the literally uplifting finale “Nowhere to Go But Up”, and “A Cover Is Not The Book.” The latter is a lively music hall pastiche performed by Mary and Jack. It also showcases Miranda’s impeccable rapping skills, which is always a win. Though what amazes me the most is how some of the innuendo-laced lyrics got by Disney’s censors.
The music isn’t afraid to slow down occasionally and let the feelings flow. After their animated escapade comes to a frenetic end, Mary sings a lullaby to the children about where all lost things go. It’s sure to turn on the waterworks, but not as much as the one-sided conversation Michael sings with a music box belonging to his late wife. It happens fairly early on but it perfectly expresses the feelings of grief and helplessness after a tragedy. The score also incorporates snippets from the first movie at important moments, which lend to or distract from the scene depending on your view.
The best thing I can say about Mary Poppins Returns is that it’s The Force Awakens to its predecessor’s A New Hope. Sure, it borrows from the past to evoke nostalgia and reacquaint audiences, but it still stands up on its own. It’s a labor of love made by people who clearly wish to pay tribute to the original. This sequel was made more for today’s children than it was for my generation or those who also grew up with Mary Poppins. But if you follow the song’s advice and take a look under this story’s cover, you’ll find there’s something charming in it for everyone.
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