Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
As far as childhood classics go, Mary Poppins isn’t one that I would rank amongst my most cherished. I certainly watched it enough times as a kid and I know it had some kind of lasting effect on me because, despite having never watched it as an adult, I can still picture it clearly in my mind and recall how most of the songs go. Maybe on some level I, like the Banks children, felt like I got what I needed from Poppins at the time when I needed it and that the next time I saw her wouldn’t be until I needed her again. Or maybe I just never got round to it because I was too busy rewatching Star Wars for the umpteenth time. In either case the long-awaited Mary Poppins sequel, which even over fifty years after the original film’s release was probably as inevitable as the Disney Company’s eventual conquest and dystopian, totalitarian dominance of all media and culture is in the near future, wasn’t something that I felt the world or I really needed. Still that’s never stopped Hollywood before so in swoops the magical nanny in the Banks family’s hour of need once again to offer her services as a caretaker, deliver some sage advice and sing a few catchy tunes.
Decades have gone by since her previous visit and Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are now adults living together in Interwar England with Michael’s three children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). The Banks family has fallen onto hard times since the death of Michael’s wife and the grieving residents of 17 Cherry Tree Lane are in danger of losing their home. Michael, unable to support his children as an artist, has had to take a job at the bank where his father worked but that alone won’t be enough unless he can find the certificate proving their ownership of the late Mr. Banks’ shares. Enter Mary Poppins (who, despite now looking like Emily Blunt, hasn’t aged a day) armed with her talking parrot umbrella and TARDIS handbag to offer her help in this desperate time. She gets to work immediately with the children and leads them on a whimsical, musical adventure as she imparts upon them such lessons as the necessity of doing their chores, the importance of good manners and, most importantly, how the death of their mother doesn’t mean that her memory and spirit are lost to them. Following them on this journey is local cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
Assuming the role created by P.L. Travers and made iconic by Julie Andrews, the always delightful Blunt delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Poppins. Walking that very fine line between being playful but serious, fanciful but elegant, and tender but stern, she manages to evoke and capture the very essence of the maturely childish (or childishly mature) and enchanting nanny in the vein of Andrews without imitating her. She makes the character her own, bringing this knowing smile and sly wink which never betray a thing as she maintains her graceful, dignified composure throughout, remaining at all times as unknowable and imperceptible as Willy Wonka or Totoro. Her performance is an astonishing achievement considering that the film allows her far too few opportunities to actually distinguish herself from her 1964 counterpart and carve out her own path. Nearly every plot development and diversion that occurs is so blatantly a rehash of something that happened in the first film that this purported sequel might as well be a remake. Mary leads the kids into an animated realm where musical hijinks with cartoon animals take place, heads out to meet an eccentric relative for a gravity-defying kerfuffle, and then her working class industrial sidekick launches into a lively song-and-dance number about his profession. It’s only by virtue of Blunt’s uncanny ability to elevate whatever material is handed to her that this incarnation of Poppins feels at all distinct from the one we know.
For a movie that so enthusiastically champions the wonders and possibilities of the imagination, the gratification of learning to see something from a different perspective and the delight and relief that can be found through escapism, Mary Poppins Returns is pretty unimaginative, formulaic and unadventurous. Despite all the time that’s gone by, this new movie feels like it’s trapped in the past and is desperately unable to move forward in any meaningful way, opting to instead retread familiar ground and revisit themes and ideas that the 1964 film already did an adequate job exploring. In the first film, the Banks family weren’t in any particularly sorry state but they all, the father especially, needed Mary Poppins in their lives so that they could be reminded of all the things that truly mattered. For a moment it seems like the second movie go a step further by showing how imagination and good-spiritedness can be used for more than fun and affection, they can be used as a source of comfort and healing in dark times and a means of understanding and solving our greatest worries. That would have been a great moral for the film to teach but it never follows through on that idea. Instead the movie’s lesson seems to be that if you worry less about your real world problems and seek amusement and distraction where you can, those problems will end up solving themselves.
This might not be a huge issue for me if the movie hadn’t done such a good job of establishing the woes of the Banks family and how badly they need a miracle like Mary Poppins to arrive on their doorstep. Usually when a children’s movie has an absent parental figure, it’s a cheap way of scoring some easy sympathy points while saving them the trouble of having to include an additional (usually female) character in their story. Here, the loss of the mother is a constant source of pain and despair for the family and the struggle to cope and move on together is one that the film is actually interested in exploring. There’s a very affective scene where Whishaw sits alone in the attic singing about his beloved where, even though I’m normally not a fan of non-singers being made to perform in musicals, his unpolished vulnerability is just right to get the tears flowing. With this and the additional trouble of the bank threatening to repossess their house, it seems to me that the last thing Michael and the kids need is to be distracted by cartoon musical extravaganzas and dancing lamplighters. They need solutions and fast. Having Poppins fly in to offer a few light-hearted diversions and then presenting the solution that the family needs in the form of a Deus-ex-Machina just doesn’t sit very well with me. It doesn’t feel whimsical, it just feels lazy.
Maybe this is the result of having a fantasy movie where the best scenes tend to take place in the real world. As with the original Mary Poppins this movie is jam-packed with musical sequences, yet few of the new songs that are featured are very memorable. It might not seem fair to say that when you consider that the songs from the first film such as ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ have had decades to cement their place in the public’s consciousness, but these are all songs that I remember quite well despite not having watched the film in years. In this case I can barely hum half the songs from the movie’s soundtrack. It’d be one thing for the songs to be unremarkable if their performances were at least fun to watch, but Marshall’s insistence on constantly cutting between wide shots, close ups and reaction shots without framing them in any imaginative way or letting them last long enough for the viewer to really appreciate the extravagance of the sets or the talent on display in the dance choreography puts a stop to any of that. The welcome exception is in the porcelain bowl escapade where Blunt, Miranda and their cartoon animal friends perform a vaudeville piece called ‘The Cover is Not the Book’, the catchy chorus of which does keep returning to my head. That whole sequence is a fun-filled romp where live-action and 2D animation compliment each other in all the right ways and that even manages to put Miranda’s rapping skills to the test as he goes on an elaborate tangent in his Dick Van Dyke cockney accent.
Overall, Mary Poppins Returns is little more than a mostly derivative, sometimes charming and occasionally fantastic distraction. Like half of Disney’s live-action output, it’s a movie that seeks to profit on the back of the nostalgia its title and premise inspire, but there’s a difference between reviving or reinventing a story and recycling it. There’s a way to revisit old stories and compliment, reflect and expand on them without going through the same motions all over again in such a way that it feels like nothing at all has changed and you needn’t have bothered. Disney did it before in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a sequel that followed the same basic story beats as A New Hope, but did so in order to establish a familiar continuity from which they could launch a new story with new characters and to demonstrate the way in which history repeats itself and stories and legends reverberate over time. Here it just feels like Marshall and screenwriter Magee followed the exact same story as before because they couldn’t come up with any better ideas. While it is able to recapture the wondrous past for a few fleeting moments, that it’s constantly looking backwards is the reason why it will never be a classic in its own right.