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.
Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson
Director: Rob Marshall
Running Length: 130 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The journey to make Mary Poppins in 1964 was so fraught with tension and hard feelings that it’s no wonder it took 54 years for a sequel to make its way into theaters. If you don’t believe me, check out the entertaining Saving Mr. Banks for a little history lesson…however revisionist it may seem to be. What child didn’t grow up seeing the titular magical nanny educate the Banks children and bring order to their family while teaching the biggest lesson of all to their workaholic father? I vividly remember seeing it not only in my house but at school on special occasions when they’d get out an old reel-to-reel projector and gigantic screen.
Over the years the popularity of P.L. Travers creation never really went away, even inspiring a long-running West End and Broadway musical that’s now making the rounds in a community theater near you. You can’t keep the old girl down and in 2018 she’s returned in an all new sequel that’s a surprisingly spry near-equal to its half-century old predecessor. The Walt Disney Company took a huge gamble in dusting off this treasured property and turning it over to director Rob Marshall and it has paid off handsomely; Mary Poppins Returns is a true movie event, a hard-working winning combination of fantasy, music, and heart-tugging emotion.
It’s been thirty years since Jane and Michael Banks spent a wondrous few weeks with Mary Poppins but life at #17 Cherry Tree Lane has moved on. Having recently lost his wife, Michael (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) now lives in his family home with his three children and gets the occasional visit from Jane (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and continued the fight for equality for all. When the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and gives them less than a week to come up with the money all hopes seems lost…until a familiar figure appears from the sky.
Making her grand entrance clutching a kite, Mary Poppins (the divine Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place) has lost none of her dry wit and charming aloofness. She soon sets up shop with the new generation of Banks children while keeping her eye on Jane and Michael as they scramble to find a lost set of bank bonds that could get them out of debt. While their father worries about their future, Mary Poppins helps his children adjust to the present through adventures in undersea realms, at the upside-down dwelling of Mary’s cousin Topsy (a wack-a-doodle Meryl Streep, Hope Springs), and in the painting on a porcelain pot.
Having directed the film versions of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, Marshall knows his way around a movie musical but this is far and away his most accomplished and polished work to date. With the old-school appeal of a Hollywood song and dance spectacular, Mary Poppins Returns is the kind of throwback everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience they just don’t bother to make anymore. Disney and Marshall had the good sense to give audiences exactly what they want in a sequel to a cherished classic…and then some. While not a remake of Mary Poppins per se, it does seem to hit the same beats as that earlier film even down to a splendid animated sequence and a visit to one of her zany relatives.
Even if Marc Shaiman’s songs don’t stay in the brain quite as well as the tunes created by the Sherman Brothers, they feel like they exist within the same universe and are performed with exuberance by Blunt and company. There’s no ‘Feed the Birds’ level accomplishment here but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ stirs the right amount of feelings and ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ is a clever bit of wordplay that the Sherman Brothers would get a kick out of. Streep’s oddball ‘Turning Turtle’ is something only she could pull off and Whishaw’s plaintive ‘A Conversation’ gives the actor a nice jumping off point early on in the film. Marshall and his co-choreographer John DeLuca also nicely avoid the trappings of filming huge musical numbers for the screen by letting the audience see the entire company dancing rather than always cutting into close-ups. ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ arrives late in the game but is a true show-stopper.
If the film makes one miscalculation, it’s in the misappropriation of time given to Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Jack, a lamplighter friend of Mary’s that’s a stand-in for Bert the chimney sweep from the first film. Whereas Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was someone that occasionally popped up in the action, it feels like Jack is shoehorned into the plot at every turn and it begins to take away from the time we want to spend with Mary and the Banks family. At times, Jack becomes the driving force of play and that made the movie feel like it was veering too far in the wrong direction.
Still, it’s hard to argue that Blunt commands the movie in no uncertain terms whenever she’s even close to the screen. I personally think Blunt is the perfect choice for any part she turns up in but here there’s a real chemistry between actress and role that is rarely seen. No one is going to erase the performance of Julie Andrews from our memory and Blunt doesn’t even try to recreate that particular take on the role. Smartly choosing to give Mary an updated look that sets her apart from her 1964 appearance, Blunt’s Mary is just as staunch as Andrews but doesn’t soften quite as easily. She’s also riotously funny with her droll line readings and incredulity at the state of affairs she encounters upon her return. Andrews won an Oscar for her work and I expect Blunt will get a nomination as well.
Filling out the cast is Colin Firth (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) playing a rare villain role as a bank manager eager to claim the Banks house, Julie Walters (Paddington) as put-upon maid Ellen, David Warner (Waxwork) as Admiral Boom, and Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) as a wise Balloon Lady with a magical touch of her own. Then there’s Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) dancing up a storm and keep your eyes out for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice, making a cameo outside of Cherry Tree Lane.
Bound to rake in some serious money this holiday season, Mary Poppins Returns is that rare sequel that feels like it wasn’t done for the money but for the greater good. I know it’s all about the bottom line but this is one film that feels like it could heal what ails you…even if just for two and a half hours.