"...a blissfully genuine two hours of emotional uplift..."

It's a Jolly Hologram of Mary

(010519)  During the finale of the 1964 film Mary Poppins, the character of Bert (Dick Van Dyke) offers this final wish: “Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don't stay away too long.” Walt Disney Pictures hopes that 54 years – the longest span between a motion picture and its theatrical sequel – won’t classify as “too long” but I’m not sure. Arguably, the best way to describe Mary Poppins Returns is “old-fashioned.” For some, that will be a selling point. For others, it will be the opposite. The movie, directed by today’s reliable purveyor of big-screen musicals, Rob Marshall, relies strongly on the original for everything from tone to song style to costumes and set design.

Although Mary Poppins Returns is appropriate for children, there’s a question of appeal. Was it made for today’s kids or for those who were kids in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Marshall’s approach is to lean heavily in nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with that and watching this movie is like entering a time capsule. To the extent that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, those involved in this production heap adulation upon the only movie for which Walt Disney earned an Oscar nomination during his lifetime. Yet, for all that Mary Poppins Returns seeks to resurrect the spirit of its predecessor, it is unable to recreate a musical atmosphere on the same level. Most of the new film’s songs are vanilla, as easily forgotten as “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Chim chiminey” are impossible to dislodge from the memory. .
The narrative is flimsy – just a clothesline upon which the seven (or so) musical co-productions from composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman can be hung. That’s the way it often goes with musicals and the original Mary Poppins was no exception. One of the reasons for the deeply-rooted acrimony between Poppins’ creator, P.L. Travers, and Disney is that she felt he did a disservice to her characters by introducing songs and animation. Disney died two years after the release of Mary Poppins but Travers resisted overtures by his successors to pursue a sequel until she passed away some three decades later. Mary Poppins Returns could never have been made during her lifetime and since it is so rigorously faithful to its predecessor in form (including a new hand-drawn animated sequence), one would assume she might have hated the sequel as much as the original.

Mary Poppins Returns unfolds in 1935 – a quarter century after the original. When the now-grown Banks children, Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), find themselves in danger of losing their family home, Mary (Emily Blunt) descends from the sky to lend her no-nonsense abilities as a nanny and problem-solver to the situation, taking Michael’s three motherless children under her wing. This time around, with Bert no longer in the picture, her human best friend is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a London lamplighter who is always available to lend a hand.

Michael, whose life was thrown into chaos with the death of his wife, finds himself deep in debt to a bank whose chairman, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), pretends sympathy while hiding ulterior motives. When Michael asserts that this father owned shares in the bank, Wilkins offers to stop the foreclosure if proof can be provided by Friday at midnight. Otherwise, the Banks must vacate the premises. As Jane and Michael search high and low for the missing papers, Mary provides a refuge for the children, taking them on magical journeys, such as a visit to her upside-down sister, Topsy (Meryl Streep), while singing all the way.

The Elephant in the Room is the fact that Mary Poppins isn’t being played by Julie Andrews. A large part of the film’s success rests squarely on Emily Blunt’s prim, proper, posh shoulders. There is no substitute for Julie Andrews’ Mary, and Blunt knows this more than anyone. She puts her own spin on Mary, hewing far closer to her original book incarnation than Andrews did. Her Mary is stricter, sterner, and less openly warm, but she nevertheless projects an air of genuine care and concern for her charges. Blunt is perfect in the role regardless, instantly endearing with her razor-sharp wit and her air of quiet superiority. Her Mary is in some ways slightly more complex and open to speculation about her true motivation and origins, feeling intentionally more grounded than Andrews even if it was Andrews’ fairy-like otherworldliness that made her Mary so enduring. In order not to overshadow Blunt, Andrews purportedly turned down the opportunity for an “important cameo.” (Angela Lansbury, who made a splash in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, fills the part nicely.) Since there’s no depth or back-story to the character, Mary is developed almost exclusively from the performance.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has a less imposing job since he’s not directly replacing an icon. He’s filling Dick Van Dyke’s function without taking on the role. Jack, although very much like Bert, is an apprentice not a re-cast. Speaking of Van Dyke, he has a well-publicized cameo late in the film playing Mr. Dawes Jr., the son of Mr. Dawes Sr. (whom he played from underneath makeup in 1964). Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw are likeable as the adult humans beset by problems, Colin Firth doesn’t need to go too far over the top to provoke jeers from the audience, and the participation of Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, and David Warner offers its share of pleasures (with Walters stealing every scene in which she appears).

It goes without saying that Mary Poppins Returns pales in comparison to the original. However, by remaining so faithful to the first movie’s tone and style, Marshall risks having made a movie less for younger viewers than older ones seeking to recapture a lost youth. I could easily see Mary Poppins Returns being popular amongst Generation X-ers and Baby Boomers while their grandchildren are less enthused. Suffice it to say that despite the film’s faults (which are very much on display), it’s almost impossible to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns without a smile. Much like Mary herself, who never explains anything and who’s mission is to turn the mundane into the magical, Mary Poppins Returns is a blissfully genuine two hours of emotional uplift that (almost) never raises questions as to why it exists. Or why it took 55 years to revisit the world’s most famous nanny. The film might not be practically perfect in every way, but it’s close enough to do the trick.

Directed by:  Rob Marshall
Written by:  Screenplay by David Magee. From a story by David Magee, Rob Marshall & John DeLuca. Based on the book "Mary Poppins" by P.L. Travers
Starring:   Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michael Banks
Released:  121918
Length:  130 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

MARY POPPINS RETURNS ©  2018 Walt Disney Pictures
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.