In a lot of ways, Mary Poppins Returns is the same film as Disney’s previous live action endeavor this year, Christopher Robin. They both involve grown-up protagonists from previous films receiving visits from the magical heroes of their childhood. They both involve very serious, very sinister businessmen threatening the hero with financial ruin. And they both involve journeys to revive the sense of childlike wonder inside a boy who once thought it impossible it would ever be lost. The difference, however, is that while Christopher Robin is single-handedly one of the most depressing films of the year (although I wouldn’t say bad), Mary Poppins Returns remembers that it’s supposed to be fun. From lavish musical numbers to a general sense of whimsy to a truly astonishing turn from Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns keeps its story generally sweet and altogether joyful, from beginning to end.
It’s been thirty years since the redemption of George Banks and the mending of the Banks family. With London in the midst of the Great Slump (their name for the Great Depression), the now-grown Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is at the end of his rope. Living in his childhood home with his three children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), and recently widowed, Michael’s debts have caught up with him, and the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank is threatening to repossess the house and kick them out on their butts. Too stressed to properly watch after his adult-like children, and in need of free time to search for bank shares to pay his debts and save the house, Michael needs a miracle. And he gets one, in the former of his former magical nanny: Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). And through a series of adventures, lessons, and nonsense with the aid of lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), perhaps Mary Poppins can save the Banks family once again.
I cannot stress, in a film like this, the importance of fun. Mary Poppins, both original and sequel, may deal with serious subjects, including strained parental relationships, the death of a spouse/mother, financial and class struggles, and the ups and downs of life, but the entire point is that if you can see the fun in life (represented by the magic nanny with the flying, talking umbrella), then it can all be palatable and worthwhile. While Rob Marshall has struggled in the past finding the balance between these emotions (as well as finding the most striking visual style to portray them) ever since Chicago, he manages to strike the right tone here, bringing both the whimsy and the skill the story requires. It understands that Mary Poppins is a figurehead to mending relationships between troubled parents and unruly (or overly-ruly) children. It understands that the adults aren’t bad, just in need of the same guidance that children often require. Unlike, say, Hook or Christopher Robin, Michael isn’t portrayed as a stuffy suit who has no sense of fun or hope – he isn’t mean, aggressive, or overtly depressed, by any means. He’s just sad and stressed, and trying to find the best way to deal. Heck, unlike his own father, he doesn’t even raise his voice or forcefully discipline his children until the third act. By allowing an air of melancholy to float just outside the frame, but keeping the action focused solely on the brightly colored setpieces, Marshall manages to keep the story in the mindset it was always intended for – creating a “spoonful of sugar” to help with the medicine, if you will. And what sugar it is – technically, this is a wonderfully put-together film. The musical score and songs by the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman in particular is a true delight, with a series of great songs surrounded by a truly fantastic score. What’s best about the music is that it isn’t just a rehash of the original – instead, memorable tunes are woven into the score at emotionally pertinent moments as a sort of Easter Egg, like “A Spoonful of Sugar” when Mary Poppins first returns, “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” during a significant moment at the bank, and especially a reprise of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” when Michael inevitably gets his childlike wonder back (calm down, you knew it would happen). This allows the audience to reflect on the original without dwelling on the past, and instead focus on the glorious new songs crafted for the film, including “Can You Imagine That?,” “The Royal Doulton Music Hall/A Cover Is Not The Book,” “Nowhere To Go But Up,” and especially “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.” Similarly, the choreography on display by the cast, and put together by Marshall, is fairly fun to watch, even if it never reaches the grandiose heights of the ’64 original (although being honest, Miranda as a dancer is no Dick van Dyke, no matter how game he is). Meanwhile, the sets and costumes are impeccable, even if the CGI can be a little too overbearing at times – not that I want to be too hard on the special effects; for the most part, the flying and underwater sequences, and especially the animated sequence are amongst the best of the year. I mean, at the end of the day, this is a bright, fun, entertaining film.
Unfortunately, just being bright, fun, and entertaining isn’t quite enough to make for a perfect film, and especially not a sequel to one of the greatest films of all time. It becomes quite clear, on multiple occasions, that Marshall and the current heads of Disney know the basics of Mary Poppins, and can blend it together to create a competent imitation dish (a tasteful Krab Dip, if you will), but it doesn’t quite understand the magic ingredient that puts things over the edge. I think the biggest issue it faces can be found in those very songs I praised one paragraph above. Yes, the songs are great – they’re catchy, they’re upbeat, and they’re performed with great gusto. However, there’s no depth to them. They’re songs just for the sake of songs. In the original Mary Poppins, whenever Mary sings, the song is designed to teach a lesson so parents can understand a new facet to parenting – “Spoonful of Sugar” teaches kids (and parents trying to pass along the advice) that finding the upside to the worst parts of life can brighten things up, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a reminder that the silliest things in life can bring the greatest joy, and “Feed The Birds” is a call to remember to care for even the tiniest, most vulnerable living creatures. Here, the only “lesson” song is “The Cover Is Not The Book,” and it’s a lesson that had already been established in the plot twenty minutes prior (more on that in a minute). “Can You Imagine That?” “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” and the rest of the Shaiman/Wittman songs are all fun and easy to sing along to, but their themes mostly investigate the notion, “Isn’t Mary Poppins magical?” It’s a small critique, but it makes a big difference – if the songs appear soulless, might it not imply that the film itself is just empty calories?
In fact, most of the film’s flaws fall along this incredibly similar critique: the attempts to fulfill a studio checkmark as opposed to tell the best story possible. For example, there is an extended animated sequence taking place inside of a “priceless” porcelain bowl that goes on for twenty minutes. The scene starts out well enough, with entertaining musical numbers and illustrious animation, but there sequences climax with an extended chase sequence involving an evil wolf and his lackeys. The wolf, in a clever turn, is supposed to represent bank president William Wilkins (Colin Firth), and is supposed to continue the lesson for the children that “the cover is not the book,” and that this friendly-seeming banker may actually be evil (not a surprising lesson, but bear with it). However, not only is the chase a drag to watch, feeling like a forced waste of time than an interesting moment – it’s a lesson we’ve already learned! We’ve already heard the “Cover Is Not The Book” song from Mary Poppins and Jack, and we’ve literally seen Wilkins turn evil – we watched him reveal his fake smile and throw the proof of the bank shares into the fire. This renders that entire sequence completely pointless. The same complaint goes towards Meryl Streep’s number in the film, “Turning Turtle.” Supposedly this film’s Uncle Albert moment, in reference to when Ed Wynn shows up in the original for seemingly no other purpose than a fun adventure set to “I Love To Laugh,” Streep shows up as Cousin Topsy, who sings a fun ditty with the children. Except, while the original’s lesson of remembering to laugh is important for George Banks and Mr. Dawes, Sr., Topsy’s sequence and lesson bear no importance to the rest of the plot. If you cut it, you lose nothing from the overall story. And if you can cut something from a movie with no impact (or worse, an improvement), then that sequence needs to be cut – even if it stars as charismatic and entertaining a star as Meryl Streep. There’s also an uncomfortable and misguided attempt at romance between Jack and Michael’s sister Jane (played here by Emily Mortimer), which feels like an idiotic note from Disney HQ. The original Mary Poppins didn’t need a romantic subplot to get by, and neither does Mary Poppins Returns – it feels like a lazy and reductive cash grab, and it is beneath this film. And speaking of Jane, she is introduced in the opening scenes as a labor organizer, a takeoff on her mother’s passion for the suffragette movement, only for this plot to be instantly dropped after the first fifteen minutes. This is disappointing, because with the time period they’re working with, there’s a lot of material that could be covered – at least enough to create an effective subplot. These missteps are not dealbreakers, but they are frustrating when it comes to the quality of an otherwise-solid film.
But let’s get back to the good, shall we? Because I’m not sure I’ve seen a film all year where the actors are all as game as Mary Poppins Returns (not terrific, but game). And that credit truly starts with Blunt. Let’s take a minute to explore how difficult it had to have been for Emily Blunt to take on this role: she had to take on one of the most iconic roles of all time, which won an Oscar for Julie Andrews, a woman who is a true Screen Legend and who is considered one of the greatest singers in the world, as well as a top notch dancer. Blunt is an actress who has been repeatedly held off the A-list by fate and circumstance, despite having real charisma and talent, and whose singing voice can be described as “better than most.” To play this role is a fool’s errand, which makes it not just a triumph that she knocks it this far out of the park, but a bloody miracle. It’s like Rudy if Rudy not only got into the big game, he started, played every position, and won the Heisman based on his performance. Everything about Blunt in this film is fascinating, from her cold, but loving presence to her stern delivery to her vocals and dance abilities, and her hilarious ability to gaslight the children (one of my favorite running gags in both films is the fact that after taking the children on fantastic adventures, she then shames them into thinking they’d imagined the entire thing). I mean, if you want proof that Blunt is a knockout in literally every form, listen to the way she sings the phrase “music hall,” which I have decided to make my new lifestyle. Simply put, Blunt is practically perfect. Outside of the titular performance, every other actor exists on a sliding scale of greatness. Lin-Manuel Miranda is incredibly game as Jack. His theatrical charisma carries him through in most of his musical sequences, and while he’s not as memorable as Bert in the original (although who is?) he has an earnestness that will entice you throughout (and he gets a patter song, because Disney and Miranda know their audience). Oh, and his accent is about on par with van Dyke’s, in case you were wondering. Meanwhile, three of my favorite performances come from Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, and Pixie Davies as Michael, Jane, and Annabel Banks, respectively. Whishaw brings a tragic charm to Michael, who is a scatterbrained widower. He brings an emotional heart to his scenes, including an early, mournful song titled “A Conversation.” And thanks to the old Paddington charm, when he bursts out in song during “Nowhere To Go But Up,” it’s a true delight. Meanwhile, Mortimer portrays Jane as a sweet, but dependable adult, saddled in some of the best fashion that side of the 60s (she’s like a PG 1940s version of Annie Hall or Blake Lively’s character in A Simple Favor). Mortimer brings a sensibility to the plot, and while her purpose is mostly to react to things, there is no one in Hollywood who reacts as well as Mortimer. And Davies remains my favorite of the child actors, delivering lines with a funny, adorable charm that never reaches Child Actor territories, instead creating an adorably realistic character like her Aunt Jane and father Michael long before her (onscreen brothers Saleh and Dawson are both cute and hold their own, although neither is as memorable as Davies). Julie Walters plays housekeeper Ellen, a character who is apparently from the original film, and while you could cut her from the plot without losing anything, it is difficult to say any film isn’t instantly better whenever Walters is onscreen. Ditto for Streep, utilizing a strange Eastern European accent for no reason other than Rob Marshall never told her not to (although it’s Streep, so she’s never bad). Meanwhile, Colin Firth may not be the perfect choice for pompous, mustache-twirling bank manager Wilkins, but it is so exciting to see Firth have a chance to play the bad guy for once that I’m not even bothered by it (and he voices an animated wolf!). Then there’s Angela Lansbury, who is presumably in this film to bring in the Murder, She Wrote crowd, and who can nail a ballad as the Balloon Lady even at age 93 (everyone stan a Queen). There’s a litany of great voice actors appearing in smaller comedic roles – like Edward Hibbert as Mary Poppins’ Umbrella – and doing great homage to David Tomlinson in the process – Chris O’Dowd as a dog coachman named Seamus (seems pretty accurate), and Mark Addy as Clyde the Horse. And most important of all, there’s the return of Navckid Keyd (do the anagram) from the original, this time playing the role of his character’s own son, and who literally steals the movie with a five-minute scene. It is truly remarkable that, at the age of 93, he can still move, sing, and tap dance like that. He’s a living legend, and there’s a reason my audience of decidedly non-applauders (perhaps a good thing in a film audience) clapped not for “Trip a Little” or “The Cover Is Not The Book,” but for Keyd’s two-minute long song. Honestly, there are no weak links.
Mary Poppins Returns is a syrupy nostalgia-trip with one of cinema’s greatest characters. Unlike the performance of its lead actress, the film is not quite “practically perfect,” but that’s ok. It’s got its heart in the right place, and knows how to balance the spirit and the magic in all the right ways. I really do have to hand it to Marshall, this cast, and the film in general – the bar for this film was impressively, impossibly high. And yet, while they may have nicked it on reentry, they damn well near cleared it effortlessly. I can’t help but be impressed by the final product on display here, and I’m so happy that, after a year of fairly downbeat movies releasing in a time of general malaise, a film like Mary Poppins Returns can descend from the clouds and remind us all that movies can, once again, be fun.