Review – Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Wishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Colin Firth
Emily Blunt has spent the last few years of her career continually challenging audience perceptions of her as an actress, impressing in thrillers (Sicario), action films (Edge of Tomorrow), musicals (Into the Woods) and horror movies (A Quiet Place) on the way to becoming one of the most versatile actors going around. Arguably her greatest challenge yet, Mary Poppins Returns sees her step into one of the most iconic roles in the history of cinema, a role indelibly linked in the mind of audiences with its original star. But in doing so with great distinction, Blunt demonstrates that she might just be practically perfect in every way.
The Banks children, now all grown up, have fallen on hard times. With Britain struggling through ‘the Great Slump,’ Michael (Ben Wishaw), a recent widower with three children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), has been informed by the bank that if he can’t repay a loan in full in five days the family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane will be repossessed. Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), who is following in her mother’s activist footsteps as a key organiser in the labour unions while helping out with the children where she can, decide that their only option is to cash in the shares in Fidelity Fiduciary Bank that their father left them, but to do so they have to find the share certificate. Into this context arrives Mary Poppins (Emily Blundt), who seems not to have aged a day, to again look after the Banks children, young and old, and help them rediscover the joy in life.
If you are going to entrust anyone with the responsibility of helming a sequel to such a beloved musical, Rob Marshall is a safe choice. Marshall is relatively unique in contemporary Hollywood in that, in an era where classical studio musicals are few and far between, he is somewhat of a specialist, having started out as a dancer, choreographer and director on stage before building his film reputation on musicals like Chicago, Nine and Into the Woods. While Mary Poppins Returns is his first original musical, he pulls together all the desired elements with an assured hand and delivers a well crafted, classical feeling show.
While bouyant and visually sumptuous, featuring lavish and inventive costuming by Sandy Powell, energetic song and dance numbers, and even some old fashioned hand-drawn animation, the thing that takes you by surprise is just how melancholy the tale is. Like many of the best classic Disney films, Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t shy away from sadness. An early song sees Michael, alone in the attic, singing to his deceased wife about how sad and hard life has been since she passed away. It doesn’t get much realer than that. Just as the film contrasts the greyness of London with the vibrant pastel colours of magical fantasy, Marshall and his co-writers David Magee and John DeLuca understand that a little bit of sadness is required to really make the happiness pop.
Mary Poppins Returns is a noticeably more plot driven film than its predecessor. While Mary Poppins was nominally about the titular nanny helping a father reconnect with his children, it is 90 minutes in before that narrative focus really comes to the fore. Here, on the other hand, Michael’s predicament is established from the beginning and drives almost everything that happens. Even the more fantastic departures, such as the centrepiece sequence in which Mary and Jack take the children on an adventure into the painting on a Royal Doulton bowl owned by their mother, have a clear narrative motivation – John and Anabel are considering selling it to help their father repay his debt. The effect is that the sequel is more focused, lacking the sense of imaginative wandering the first did.
Blunt manages to capture the essence of Mary Poppins – the kindness, the sternness, the mild vanity – without resorting to an impression of Julie Andrews. Lin-Manuel Miranda is likeable as our guide through the film, Jack the lamplighter, sporting a cockney accent only slightly more convincing than Dick Van Dyke’s. Colin Firth is positively hissable as the duplicitous villain, William Weatherall Wilkins, head of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. There are also a couple of delightful cameos towards the end which will warm your heart.
To judge the songs of Mary Poppins Returns against the Sherman brothers work would seem unfair, given the latter have had half a century to ingrain itself in the popular consciousness. But Marc Shaiman’s new songs are strong. They are consistent with the Sherman brothers originals in terms of musicality, tone and, most notably, function, with clear parallels emerging. Bert’s ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ becomes Jack’s ‘Lucky London Sky.’ Mary Poppins serenades the children with ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ rather than ‘Feed the Birds.’ ’Step in Time’ becomes ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ with the dancing chimney sweeps replaced by dancing lamplighters. The rousing final number, ‘Nowhere to Go But Up,’ ends the film on a high, as did ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite.’
As a belated sequel – 54 years to be precise – with some extremely big shoes to step into, Mary Poppins Returns is a brilliantly executed piece of imitation. It does not reinvent. It does not alter or subvert. It does not really add anything to our understanding of this character or this world. It replicates. But much like The Force Awakens did when it reopened the Star Wars saga in 2015, it does so in a way that is really quite satisfying. It allows you to feel anew those same feelings that you had when you first saw the original. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely, magical film that will leave you with a smile on your face, but whether it can achieve even a fraction of the longevity of the original is another matter entirely.
Review by Duncan McLean
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