Mary Poppins Returns

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.

★★★

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep

Director: Ol Parker

Writer: Ol Parker


I really don’t want to be that guy. I know that this movie wasn’t made for me. I know that the people it was made for love it to bits. I know that I’m the boring spoilsport at the karaoke party who’s sulking in the corner while everybody else is singing, dancing and having tremendous fun. I know that the movie is fully aware of how silly, cheesy and imperfect it is and embraces it all with total zeal and complete shamelessness. This is a movie without pretension or delusions of grandeur; there is no artistry to be dissected and scrutinised, no hidden truths or deeper meanings to be unearthed, and no profound or introspective thoughts or feelings to be taken away so that people like me can flex their movie critic muscles. All this movie wants is for you to lay back, let your hair down, open your mind and just laugh, sing along and embrace the joy, the glam and the ABBA of it all. Believe me, I get it. And I hated it all the same.

I really don’t want to be the guy who hates Mamma Mia. I like ABBA. And I like musicals. And I like many of the actors involved, both new and returning. But watching these movies is like being a teetotal introvert alone at a boozy music festival, even the most honest attempt to embrace the discomforting noise and clutter and humour the chaotic revelry is going to leave you drained from the monotony and effort. ‘Then why would you even bother going?’ you might ask. Well, I came for the music but, instead of ABBA, I got the amateur cover band made up of X-Factor rejects. What followed was a song-and-dance cataclysm that got more unbearable with every flat note, every clumsy dance routine and every obnoxiously garish sound and visual. I know that the goofiness and crudeness is kind of the point and for many it is part of the film’s charm, but all I can think about was how swept away I was by The Greatest Showman. Like Mamma Mia, that movie was stupid, clichéd and corny as hell but it was all done with such passion, creativity and honest-to-god effort by such a talented team (including actors who can actually sing and dance) that I couldn’t help but be charmed. What I find most grating about the Mamma Mia movies above all else is how feckless and insincere the whole thing feels.

Here We Go Again is pretty much everything I loathed about the first film sans Meryl Streep (who wasn’t all that great in the first place; she barely hit a note in ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and deserves far more attention for her heartfelt rendition of ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’). Donna has died and her loss has left a gaping hole in the lives of those who lived on that idyllic Greek island with her. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is working to re-open the inn in her mother’s honour (having renamed it the Hotel Bella Donna) and is frantic as the opening night approaches and she’s trying to put the finishing touches on the big party she’s planning. Her mother’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) arrive to show their support and share with her stories of the Donna they knew as a young woman back when she looked like Lily James (James, with her sunny presence and decent singing voice, is one of the film’s better qualities). In these flashbacks we are treated to the tale of how the free-spirited Donna first came to the island back in the groovy 70s, made it her home, and on the way met and slept with the three men who may or may not be Sophie’s father: the bashful Harry (Hugh Skinner), the adventurous Bill (Josh Dylan) and the dashing Sam (Jeremy Irvine), standing in for Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård and Pierce Brosnan respectively.

Having used up most of ABBA’s most recognisable hits in the first film, Here We Go Again scrapes the barrel for whatever overlooked tracks and B-songs it can find to shoehorn into the story. We’re first introduced to young Donna as she sings ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, a song that’s sure to get a staff member at her university sacked, we get young Harry singing about how sleeping with Donna would be his ‘Waterloo’ (whatever that means), and we’re treated to a version of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ that isn’t nearly as dramatic as it should be in that moment due to Irvine’s atonal voice (which, if nothing else, is at least consistent with Brosnan’s performance). Most of these musical numbers are forgettable; the more memorable performances tend to be those that replay hits from the first film including ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Super Trouper’. And still, even at their most elaborate, the staging and choreography in these scenes is so conventional and uninspired they fall far short of the extravaganza that an ABBA musical ought to be. And then there’s Cher who enters the scene dressed all in white, radiating like a beacon of light just when you thought all hope was lost, to sing ‘Fernando’ with Andy Garcia. She barely adds anything to the story and the choreography is still too lacklustre and restrained for a star with her presence and energy, but damn did it feel good to listen to someone who could sing for a change.

Given how fantastically difficult it is for any film of any kind to be made, I don’t like accusing filmmakers of being lazy. Very few, if any, go into this industry because they want to make an easy buck. However if the effort that went into a film is not self-evident, it’s difficult for me to feel like any care or passion went into its making. This is what I was getting at when I said the film felt feckless and insincere. It feels like nobody, either in front or behind the camera, saw this movie as anything more than an excuse to spend a few weeks in sunny Greece and get a paycheque out of it. It feels like the filmmakers knew the movie would make money no matter what so they just didn’t care enough to try and turn it into something special; to cast actors who can sing and dance, to push the limits of what’s possible in the spectacles they can produce, to write a story that has something meaningful to say about love and heartbreak, youth and growth, joy and sadness, and the many other things ABBA used to sing about. That they had fun together is clear, but the fun isn’t infectious because there’s no personal or emotional investment in anything that’s happening on screen.

Based on the reception these films have received, it’s clear that my opinion is in the minority. It looks like many, many people are perfectly happy to watch A-List stars who can barely hold a tune belt out catchy pop songs in bell bottoms and jumpsuits and there’s not much I can really say to that. There’s for sure something to be said for joyful escapism, which isn’t something I would begrudge anybody in this day and age. What’s more, it seems that some of the things I vehemently dislike about Mamma Mia are amongst the very reasons why people find it so charming and lovable and there is no criticism I can make that will change how they see the film. These movies clearly do something that works for a large and diverse audience and if I don’t know what it is by this point I doubt I ever will. As someone who didn’t have any patience for the tangential subplots and musical scenes that detracted from the story, the blandly delivered songs and tediously repetitive format, and the derivative and empty plot that manages to go absolutely nowhere, this movie was exhausting. The only thing I took away from Mamma Mia was a headache.

Brooklyn

Cast: Saorise Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

Director: John Crowley

Writer: Nick Hornby


The journey of an immigrant is an arduous one. The prospect of traversing a great distance over the ocean to a new land in pursuit of a better life is a daunting one that requires a profound amount of resolve and will to follow through. To embark upon this journey means to leave their homes and even loved ones behind and to place their faith into the hope a better future. The journey doesn’t even end when the boat pulls into the harbour as the immigrants must then adapt to this new world and overcome the cultural, linguistic and even prejudicial barriers in place. This is the journey that Brooklyn attempts to portray through the eyes of a 23-year-old girl in the 1950s seeking a new life for herself in New York. It is a story that embodies such feelings as fear, loneliness, diffidence, uncertainty and isolation. It is a tale that is effective in its simplicity and empathy as it depicts this character in her search for a place where she can belong.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a smart and capable girl living in an Irish town where her prospects are very limited. She is given the opportunity by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) to move to New York where she will be given a job and a whole new life. She takes this chance even though it means leaving her family and home behind. Whilst living in America with the fiercely Catholic Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) she suffers from a severe case of depression and homesickness as she finds herself in a world completely alien to her own. Everything changes when she meets and falls in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), a confident and charming Italian boy who helps Eilis to find joy and comfort in her new home and a sense of belonging. However a personal tragedy occurs that brings her back to Ireland and, while there, she finds her old, familiar life waiting for her along with a new job and a kind, handsome Irish boy called Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Eilis becomes conflicted by the choice she must now make between her life in America and her life in Ireland.

Saoirse Ronan, one of the best young actresses working today, makes this film. In her previous roles she has displayed an uncanny gift for accents but this role gives her the chance to perform with her native Irish voice and it is a treat to see. As Eilis she conveys an effective sense of vulnerability as she struggles to adjust to her new life and a wilful spiritedness as she grows and matures as a person. This film shows her character at a tough point in her life where she is faced with a difficult choice between two vastly different lives. On one hand is her life in America where everything is new and exciting and where she has built a life for herself that makes her happy. On the other hand is her life in Ireland where everything is comforting and familiar to her and where she can be with her loved ones. Ronan does a stellar job of portraying this character’s fear and ambivalence as she struggles with the conflicting agonies of her choice.

Equally worthy of praise is Nick Hornby’s screenplay which provides a beautifully sensitive portrayal of Eilis’ journey and growth as a character. The film does not shy away from depicting the grief and anguish that comes with leaving one’s home to make this kind of journey or the despairing depths of her isolation as Eilis becomes torn between her two homes. The story allows Ronan to really flourish as an actress as her character undergoes a great transformation from a meek and delicate girl to a vigorous and self-assured woman. Her experiences with love and loss are handled with such humanity and compassion that her journey becomes all the more heartrendering and affective to behold.

Brooklyn is a moving and emotional portrait of a woman’s search for love, happiness and a home. The journey she undertakes is as turbulent and tempestuous as the waters of the Atlantic and she suffers much grief and sorrow along the way. Her heart belongs to two different lives that threaten to tear her apart as she struggles to reconcile her American values with her Irish heritage. The film allows the audience to understand the pains and heartaches of Eilis’ choice, making her ambivalence all the more empathic and relatable. Even if we are fairly certain what choice she will make in the end, it doesn’t make the struggle any less difficult. When she finally makes her decision at the end, she does so with a heavy heart knowing fully well what her choice means and what it is she’s giving up. The result is a touching and heartwarming film that is as captivating as it is moving.

★★★★★