By Dan Cava
December 24, 2018
Mary Poppins Returns picks up the story of the Banks family and their practically perfect nanny 25 years after the events of the original film, Robert Stevenson’s 1964 masterpiece Mary Poppins. The Banks children, Jane and Michael, have grown up and Michael has three children of his own. A year before the event of Returns’, the children’s mother has died and, although they have the support of Jane, Michael and the family are still reeling from the loss. Their grief is compounded when a nationwide economic downturn, “The Great Slump,” threatens to remove them from their beloved family house. Luckily, Mary Poppins reappears to look after the Banks children, young and old, once again.
Originating author P. L. Travers wrote eight Mary Poppins books so, in theory, at least there was unused material available for a sequel. Perhaps wisely, the screenwriters here use the original Mary Poppins movie as their primary reference, so many of Returns’ details are reworkings of the ‘64 film and resitichings of ideas from the books. Returns, then, is something of a hodgepodge, a collection of semi-delightful and somewhat disconnected ideas. The heavier themes are new– financial ruin, the loss of a wife and mother– and at odds with the wholesome zaniness that defined the previous film. Returns gives its story higher emotional stakes while accelerating everything to what I’m sure was deemed to be an appropriately modern pace. The result is a sequel that is both too much sugar and too much medicine; a well-intentioned but weighed down misfire that only occasionally bursts with joy or reward.
Mary Poppins movies (if that category even exists) rise and fall on their songs, and Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t get much help from its hit-and-miss soundtrack. The original Mary Poppins songs are inseparable from our nostalgia, so it might seem fair to give these new songs at least a year to settle in. Yet even at this early stage, I doubt any of these melodies are destined to be classics. Unlike Disney’s recent Frozen or Moana, there’s no signature tune or lyric. No song is bad outright, they’re just far more forgettable than our previous experience of Mary Poppins has led us to expect.
This sequel is at its best when it’s at its silliest, particularly in the movie’s first half. Returns’ inaugural adventure is a winningly surreal underwater trip into the household bathtub, and the supporting song, “Can You Imagine That?,” is a playful jab of the limits of logic. Mary initiates a journey into a world of old school hand drawn animation, a refreshing 2D throwback. “A Cover is Not the Book” is both nuts and clever, an anarchic ode to literature and non-judgementalism with a slyly naughty list of did-they-say-that double entendres.
But nothing approaches the effortless frivolity of “Supercalifalgilisticexpialidocious” or the cheery clarity of “Jolly Holiday.” A handful of new songs act as unsuccessful callbacks to better moments in the first Mary Poppins. Meryl Streep’s “Turning Turtle” loosely recalls “I Love to Laugh,” yet suffers from a bizarre central metaphor and a lack of central melody. Returns’ intended showstopper “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is meant to be an ode to “Step in Time,” with lamplighters instead of chimeysweeps; but both the song and the choreography pale by inevitable comparison.
A lot of care has gone into recreating the London environment we remember. The production design is lavish. Mary’s outfits have always been stars of the show, and Emily Blunt presents one stunning iteration after another of the uncannily gorgeous nanny. Director Rob Marshall gets a ton of mileage out of Mary Poppins’ iconic outline, that umbrella holding, hat-laden silhouette straight out of our collective memories.
Unfortunately Marshall seems eager to cut away from even his best shots. Fast-paced editing worked beautifully in Chicago, where the aggressive vibe supported that story’s nasty energy. But as the original Mary Poppins demonstrated, the core joy of classic musicals is the chance to simply watch the actors. Wider lenses and longer takes allow us to see the choreography, not as a dance of a dozen cameras, but as the movement of skilled people in a cool place. Marshall, despite his resumé of recent movie musicals, maintains a cluttered restlessness. With the exception of the rather Chicago-like “A Cover Is Not the Book,” Marshall’s shooting style doesn’t gel with the material.
Still, the actors make good work of their performances. Emily Blunt reflects but doesn’t duplicate Julie Andrews. Her performance is more caustic Poppins, her accent a touch more Elizabethan. It’s an effective choice, as her smile becomes more dazzling in contrast to her imperiousness. Blunt’s Mary Poppins retains that mysterious magnetism, where her sternness makes her wildness all the more irresistible. Blunt honors the roots of the character while making Mary her own. It’s an extraordinary achievement.
Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the Dick van Dyke-like role of Jack the lamplighter. Miranda has never had a killer voice, but his unique tone and verbal dexterity (and questionable accent, an unintended but fitting homage to van Dyke’s Burt) all add the necessary charm. Ben Whishaw is delicate and moving in the thankless role of the widowed Michael Banks. His sorrow filled “A Conversation” is one of the more moving moments. Emily Mortimer is a cinch with adult Jane’s good naturedness, and it’s always nice to see Meryl Streep and Colin Firth no matter what they’re doing.
Mary Poppins Returns’ wonderful cast and beautiful design make the sequel’s overall mediocrity all the more disappointing. Alas, with a Christmas time arrival a full fifty-four years after her initial on-screen advent, it is not a jolly holiday with Mary after all.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5