Synopsis – Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.
My Take – Mary Poppins, the lead character of children’s books from author P.L. Travers, was a hard character to bring to life, as we practically no nothing about her past and from where she gains her magical powers from. All we had to do is accept the fact that she will be visiting children in an emotionally disturbed household and take them on adventures, all the while teaching the members of the household a thing or two about life.
Perfectly captured in the 1964 Disney film by director Robert Stevenson, the now 54 year old film has gone to become one of the most beloved musical fantasies to ever grace the silver screen. It went on to be nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won five including a Best Actress nod for its lead, Julie Andrews, for her portrayal of the most ideal nanny for every household with children. Having seen it only recently, I must say the film is practically perfect in every sense, so making a sequel could have been a disaster.
Yet, after half a century in development hell, a sequel is finally here with director Rob Marshall, known for his musicals like Chicago, Nine and Into The Woods, at the helm with Emily Blunt taking over for Ms. Andrews as the ageless Poppins. Did Disney take a risk by reigniting ‘Mary Poppins’ so many years after the original? Well yes! But does the risk pay off? Delightfully yes! While remakes and sequels to classics usually end up making up dents in the memory of the original’s memory, here, director Marshall successfully balances nostalgia with contemporary, while retaining the original’s old-school magic.
Blunt, who also had an important role in director Marshall‘s 2014 film, also acts as a marvelous successor, and once you move on from the fact that you won’t be hearing any of your favorite tunes from the original, it is a delightful film full of heart and whimsy. As suggested in many reviews, it doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of the original, but there’s enough here to suggest no one wanted to veer too far from the premise.
Set 25 years after the events of the first film, the story takes place in 1935 London during ‘The Great Slump’ and follows the Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) who have now grown into adults and still remaining in the same house on Cherry Tree Lane. While Jane, like her mother, has become a labor organizer, Michael is a struggling artist and is still grieving over the death of his wife a year previously. With help of the devoted old housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), he is now solely focused on raising his three young children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies) and little Georgie (Joel Dawson), Michael has taken up a job as teller at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad worked, under its new President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth).
Things take a dive for the worse, when the same bank comes to repossess his house as he has been behind on his payments. It is this troubled set of circumstances that brings Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) floating in on her umbrella to the delight of the children and Mary’s friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a scruffy local lamplighter, who was formerly an apprentice to Bert the Chimney Sweep (Dick Van Dyke), and gets off to setting everything right.
But does she really save the day? That’s something you might find yourself asking as Mary and her talking parrot umbrella bring back the magic and wonder into the Banks family’s lives and it’s a lot of fun along the way, weaving in iconic elements from the first film, particularly to do with flying kites. Here, director Marshall who co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, has created a worthy sequel that is delightful and a joy to watch. A seamless blend of old and new is typical of director Marshall‘s approach, and by using the original film as his template, he’s honed it and updated it, taking care to strike plenty of nostalgic notes en route.
For example, Mary Poppins’ “off we go” kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. The 2D animation here is a wonderful example of harking back to the days of the original film and is bright, colorful and a joy to witness on a cinema screen. In a time when no shortage of films try their utmost to feel classic or old-fashioned, this film comes close to achieving what others attempt by leaning hard into texture, warmth, sets that feel too perfect to be real, and colors so vivid that they look as though the preface techno ought to be applied.
We also get to see Miranda‘s Jack leads a giant group of bicycling lamplighters in a musical number, and dancing breaks out. What also works well is the art direction and the use of color. Deep, vibrant blues and bright reds stand out against the gray tones of buildings and overcast skies, and Blunt‘s wardrobe is exactly the kind of swoon worthy period touch that makes being in London in the 1930s worth it. Meryl Streep also performs “Turning Turtle” in her Topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.
While much of this plays like fan fiction, director Rob Marshall makes sure to bring a tear or two by recalling moments from the first film (through music and props). His biggest coup is getting Dick Van Dyke to sing and dance at the 11th hour. Van Dyke doesn’t disappoint (he’s the best part of the film), but he’s on so quickly you wish he had been re-introduced earlier.
Perhaps part of the reason why the character of Mary Poppins still remains so intriguing is that she upends our expectations about stories of nurture. Typically, stories about love given to children take into account parental insecurities, so that the parents and the children both have their problems and their needs. That’s what the story of the children and Michael is like. Michael has his own grief, and it complicates his parenting, so everyone has to understand each other’s limitations. The parent must learn to be the parent, but the parent is on his own journey. But Mary has no history and no attachments, and she will soon be gone and largely forgotten. The adult Michael and Jane, for instance, while they remember her from their childhoods, seem to have dismissed their time with her as a series of childish fantasies they once had about magic. The classic line that she is “practically perfect in every way” is not just about her perfect manner, kindness, magic and beauty (a friend recently pointed out how odd it is that the Banks children in the original film wanted no ugly nannies).
Mary is perfect because she is not a person with needs of her own; she is perfect love and guidance. She represents both a parental fantasy of giving your kids exactly what they need while keeping them in line and never making a mistake, and a child’s fantasy of a parent with nothing to think about in the world except for you.
However, the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Che-ree”), and left us others singing. The new songs all contribute to the story and to the viewer’s enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theater.
Performance wise, Ben Whishaw makes Michael’s grief so palpable in one early scene that he doesn’t have to return to it very explicitly or very often in order for it to hang over the story. However, Emily Mortimer‘s character is less carefully drawn, but she makes it work with whatever she can. Colin Firth is absolutely delightful as the big bad banker. Lin-Manuel Miranda is lovable and smiley as Jack the lamplighter, his soaring and strong vocals are stunning. Here he works well as Jack, who drafts on Miranda‘s naturally generous and game persona, even though we never do learn much about him and what story he gets is more than a little under baked.
In smaller roles, Dick Van Dyke, Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, David Warner and Angela Landsbury leave a strong mark. However, this is clearly Emily Blunt‘s film, who is often the best thing in everything she touches. She has a sly, confident charm, just right for a character who exists only to improve the lives of others and then move along. Thankfully, she doesn’t try to imitate Ms. Andrews‘ precise bearing, and does her own thing which gels well with the original character. It’s a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation. On the whole, ‘Mary Poppins Returns‘ is a gorgeous, charming and endearing film, uplifted by Emily Blunt‘s inspired performance, and is sure to delight a new young generation who have never heard of the classic.
Directed – Rob Marshall
Rated – PG
Run Time – 130 minutes