It’s today or never.
Not all live-action/animated hybrids from Disney of yesteryear live up to the nostalgic memories of youth (I’m looking at you Pete’s Dragon), but Mary Poppins is an exception. Maybe it was revisiting it after seeing the underrated Saving Mr. Banks for added context concerning craft and motivation or maybe it’s simply that its message, adventure, and fun combine to form a film that literally stands up to the test of time. Let’s face it: you don’t retain the same reverence through multiple generations over five decades if history somehow got it wrong. So unlike Pete’s Dragon or The Jungle Book, going back to the Poppins well (author P.L. Travers stonewalled the studio from following up their hit during her lifetime) fifty-four years later can’t help feeling like a cash-grab.
Yet we look at Mary Poppins Returns and want to see it succeed because you couldn’t recast Julie Andrews‘ Oscar-winning role better than with Emily Blunt. Nor could you find a better triple-threat performer to fill Dick Van Dyke‘s shoes than Tony-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda. As long as the studio got decent tunes to recall the vibe of old, utilized new technology for better-looking effects in similar narrative fashion (although the original’s are still gorgeous to behold in high-definition today), and found a decent thematic message to ring true above imaginative flights of fancy, this project is a home-run before the cameras even begin to roll. And with a quarter of a billion dollars earned already (twice its budget), the maneuver proved a shrewd box office success.
Unfortunately, however, financial spoils and experiential praise aren’t enough. Charismatic performances aren’t enough. And neither is nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong: children will delight in the magic put onscreen because it follows its predecessor’s blueprint adequately and supplies the sort of twenty-first century production value they’re used to these days. Let them sing-along with Mary (Blunt) and Jack (Miranda) to discover how you shouldn’t judge books (or people) by their covers. Let them see how kids their age can be precocious and responsible rather than mischievous brats forever dismissed. The through-line of grief is sufficiently dark to leave a mark and teach a lesson about memory and love too. But it won’t take long before those same children grow older and realize how poorly executed the whole is.
I don’t want to blame director Rob Marshall because he’s shown that these crazy big-budgeted worlds aren’t his strong suit. Chicago was sparse and kinetic and exciting—stagey with aesthetic purpose rather than stagey from the sheer weight of so much stuff. He ultimately does a decent job mimicking Robert Stevenson‘s style and ensuring that everything goes off without a hitch here. The reason it feels so stiff then is Disney’s desire to keep hiring him for projects far-beyond his theater roots. I therefore lay the blame at screenwriter David Magee‘s feet instead since he’s the one choosing to lean so heavily on blurring the line between sequel and remake. He’s the one drawing identical beats that force it into copycat motions rather than onto a fresh path.
While this mirroring does lend Poppins the room for added vanity (a trait Travers felt was missing from the first adaptation) and sarcasm due to the cycle of hard-headedly blind Banks family patriarchs, it also ensures we drift off into reverie for those old scenes it’s cribbing from instead of making new memories. It doesn’t do the script any favors either that Magee fridges the now-adult Michael Banks’ (Ben Whishaw) wife to inadvertently comment on the character’s absentee mother’s suffragette work being akin to death. Not only that, he also writes the deceased as a saintly woman who excelled at crafts, readied her children to be self-sufficient, and more or less mothered Michael by taking care of the “important” things. She was ostensibly a real-life Mary Poppins.
So after a year without her, 17 Cherry Tree Lane is a shambles. Ellen (Julie Walters) is great comic relief, but often causes more trouble than she solves when attempting to clean. Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) have pushed aside childhoods to watch over little Georgie (Joel Dawson). And Michael has given up his painting to take a teller job at the same fiduciary bank that almost broke his father while also borrowing a loan from them that’s now overdue with the house as collateral. If he and sister Jane (Emily Mortimer)—who’s taken up the activist crown from their mom by fighting for the workers’ unions—don’t find the certificate of shares their dad willed them, all the memories made in that home will disappear.
It’s the perfect moment for Mary Poppins to overtly nudge them onto the correct emotional and psychological avenues necessary to remember what matters most above material possessions. Is it weird that she arrives to replace a wife rather than nanny? You bet it is. But that’s the road these filmmakers decided to take and thus the one we’re left accepting. So while Michael and Jane search for the money, she takes the three kids on adventures with Jack. This is actually where Returns trumps the first film because each romp has a much more pressing connection to what’s going on. They clean up after the too frazzled and worried to escape their tunnel vision adults and meet new eccentrics as a result of their own mounting stress.
The latter stems from their idea to sell their late mother’s prized possession to help pay Michael’s debts. Being children, however, means that precious item inevitably gets broken. Unlike Uncle Albert, meeting Mary’s cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) is therefore necessary to fix their accident. And journeying into the animated world of the Royal Doulton Music Hall (painted on the broken ceramic bowl) has them confronting villainy in the form of a conniving wolf voiced by Colin Firth (who also plays Michael’s equally shady boss Wilkins) rather than frivolously dancing penguins. This parallel leads to a darker hue and thus a much tenser fable than feeding the birds did. It’s crucial too since Michael’s lesson is spelled out in act one. We need the kids to learn something too.
The result is much less screen time for Blunt’s Poppins than you’d probably expect. Besides her mugging for the camera when leading the children along, she’s often gone or at the very least watching from the background. She lets Jack (Miranda is perhaps too theatrically rubbery when compared to the more severe drama displayed) and his fellow lamplighters do the heavy lifting when her wards can’t, rolling her eyes to assist them only when their mortality proves a hindrance to their goals. Blunt is great in the role regardless, though. There’s a sharper edge to her rendition than Andrews had and it’s a welcome change of pace. This is especially true since these kids’ autonomous strength is a far cry from the previous generation’s playful scamps.
In the end it looks pretty, has some nice laughs, and earns a subsequent soundtrack listen to see exactly how well Marc Shaiman honored the Sherman brothers’ legacy. A great cameo from Van Dyke almost has us ignoring how Michael Banks is saved by the very thing his lesson learned in Mary Poppins said not to do and a surprise Angela Lansbury gets you smiling before the credits have a chance to roll. Add these numerous tiny successes together with a scene-stealing Whishaw lending the whole an authentically complex heart and it’s tough to call the film a failure. So I must go back to that feeling of it being a cash-grab instead. Does it do what it set out to do? Yes. Did we need it? No.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures