You have to hand it to the Disney marketing department. Or is it the marketeers? After announcing the new cast two years ago, then leaking some behind-the-scenes snippets while it was in production, then an online teaser trailer, clips that gave away nothing, releasing poster artwork early, then promoting a making-of fluff piece disguised as news on 20/20, whetting the appetite for seeing Mary Poppins Returns was practically an art form. They did it so well. Of course, it helps if you own ABC TV and the product you’re promoting is a sequel to one of the most beloved, magical musicals of our childhood.
But that could also be a problem. Most who were children when the 1964 original was released are now parents, probably even grandparents. Mary Poppins the movie, not so much the books, has become such an integral part of our modern culture, being critical of the original is not even an option. You just don’t do it. However, a new part two, fifty-four years later could be met with skepticism. Even though Mary Poppins Returns is a continuation, not a sequel, for some the new film will undoubtedly be met with the cynicism usually reserved for remakes, even though that’s exactly what the film is not. Comparisons are not inevitable, they’re practically mandatory. But fight the urge to compare as much as you can. Here’s why.
Now presented in letterbox widescreen, unlike the standard ratio of the original, Mary Poppins Returns, a nod to the title of the second Poppins novel, Mary Poppins Comes Back, takes place roughly thirty years after the Banks family ran into that nearby park and flew their kite. The parents have passed away. The children, Jane and Michael, are now the adults. Jane (Emily Mortimer, well cast and immensely likable) has left the family home on Cherry Tree Lane and lives in another part of London. Michael (Ben Whishaw, the voice of Paddington Bear) remained. He now has his own children, Annabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson). Sadly, as we soon learn, mum has also passed away, so Michael is now a single father, and he’s mishandling the bills.
The theme is to look at things from a different point of view, but the plot revolves around a bank foreclosure and whether Michael can come up with the money he loaned against his house. There’s a time limit, which gives the story a ticking clock. Either present the money owed to the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank when Big Ben strikes midnight in five days or the bank president, a scheming Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth) will take the house. Enter Mary Poppins.
“I was flying a kite,” exclaims an excited Georgie to his father and Aunt Jane, “And it got caught on a nanny.” When the magical nanny (Emily Blunt) suddenly enters the house without an invitation, Jane’s eyes bulge and Michael’s jaw drops. “Close your mouth, please, Michael,” instructs Mary Poppins as she goes to check her reflection in the hallway mirror. “We are still not a codfish.”
Director Rob Marshall, who co-wrote the story and conceived the original idea, has his film hit all the corresponding beats of the original. Where the magical nanny found fun and games in cleaning the bedroom, here she reveals why taking a bath can be an underwater adventure; instead of a trip to an animated world via a chalk street picture, here it’s through the whirl of a china bowl; where Uncle Albert drank tea on the ceiling, Mary introduces the children to her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her upside down living room; where the chimney sweeps danced over the rooftops of London, here the lamplighters dance in the tunnels below; and where Jane and Michael created chaos and a run on the bank, the family race against a ticking clock to get back to that same building. It’s both new and comfortingly familiar at the same time. And most of it works.
The delightfully eccentric underwater sequence, reminiscent of the beautiful briny sea of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, only better, is a magical introduction to what lies ahead. The animated sequence, with its wise decision to have the characters hand-drawn rather than computer generated, is quite wonderful; the song and dance in The Royal Doulton Music Hall is a film highlight; the choreography of the lamplighters can’t help but recreate some of those memorable Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood Knees-Up Muvver Brown moves of the original; and the grand finale in the park, where instead of kites it’s balloons that fly, is gloriously old-fashioned.
The only moment when the film disengages is during the upside-down world of cousin Topsy. Meryl Streep’s character and her Eastern European accent are fine, but the sequence itself and the accompanying song fail to bring the magic, or the interest, as much as the rest of the film. But, then again, even as a child, I Love To Laugh in the original Uncle Albert sequence always seemed a dirge.
Lyrically, the new songs by Marc Shaiman echo a similar style to the Sherman Brothers originals where some wordplay and lessons can be found, but the melodies are not going to register quite so immediately as they seemed to in the original. But keep in mind, when those new songs in ‘64 were first heard, not all of them hit the mark on first hearing. I recall receiving the soundtrack as a Christmas gift in the early sixties before seeing Mary Poppins and thinking they were okay, but nothing special, except maybe the singalong with the long, funny title that began with Super. It was only on repeated play, then seeing the film, the repetition of clips on TV, and the requests heard on the radio that the original score suddenly became memorable. Give the new score some room, wait for the DVD and the endless repeat performances and you’ll find yourself singing along to Can You Imagine That, The Royal Doulton Music Hall, A Cover is Not A Book, and There’s Nowhere to Go But Up, just as much as you once did to A Spoonful of Sugar.
Here there are no chimney sweeps. This time its Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack the Lamplighter, a man whose job it is to turn on all the London street lights in the evening and turn them off again at dawn. His cockney accent, while considerably better than Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, without a natural flow won’t be fooling any Londoners any time soon. But within the context of the heightened world of Mary Poppins, it’s acceptable. Plus, like Dick Van Dyke, he’s such a talented and hugely appealing performer, you forgive him when the occasional vowel sound messes up from time to time.
Mr. Van Dyke himself makes an appearance, but to tell you why and how would be a spoiler. It’s not just a cameo, he’s an integral part of the plot. See the film with a packed house and be prepared for a loud roar of approval the moment he makes his entrance.
In addition to a funny Julia Waters as Ellen, the housekeeper, there are other guest appearances along the way, including Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady, David Warner as Admiral Boom, and look closely and you might catch the original Jane, Karen Dotrice, listed in the end credits as Elegant Lady. I missed her, but now that you know in advance what to look for, keep a vigilant eye.
But it’s Emily Blunt at the movie’s center, and the casting couldn’t be better. She’s more clipped in her enunciation than Julie Andrews, a little more uppity, but in some ways, it makes her sound closer to the P.L. Travers character as written rather than the ‘64 Disney version that diluted much of the nanny’s harshness.
As for how Mary Poppins Returns compares to the original; it’s everything you could hope for. Give it time, it will be a classic and solidify Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s position in the pantheon of all-time classic Disney performers. And for the stubborn whose mind is already made up and refuse to believe it could ever be as good as their memory of the original dictates, take the message of the film to heart and look at things from a different point of view; try to see it through the eyes of the wide-eyed child seated by your side who is watching it in the same way you saw the first one fifty-four years ago. It will be just as magical.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 130 Minutes