By Alan Hurst
Diehard fans (and that includes myself) of the original 1964 classic can relax. The potential only teased at in the various theatrical trailers we’ve seen since September is legit – Mary Poppins Returns is good. It’s not better than the original (I don’t think anyone thought it would be) but it’s an entertaining, tuneful, colorful and perfectly enjoyable sequel to the Walt Disney’s crowning achievement as a producer.
Set during the depression (or the Great Slump as it’s described here), it is at times darker and more foreboding than the 1964 version dared to be, but it still pays homage to the original in both look and feel, with some beautifully filmed and staged sequences and a cast that is more than up for the daunting task of filling the shoes of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Set 25 years after the original film ends, it returns to tell the story of an adult Jane and Michael Banks (nicely played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw). Michael is now a widower with three young children and he’s having trouble keeping everything together since his wife passed away. He has borrowed against the family home (still 17 Cherry Tree Lane) and is soon going to lose it for lack of repayment. Jane has picked up her mother’s penchant for progressive causes and spends her time supporting the formation of unions and working in soup kitchens when she’s not helping Michael with his children. Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) just in time to help the children rediscover the joy of being children and, at the same time, learn some valuable life lessons that help them, their father and aunt move forward.
Structurally, the film is very similar to the original – the script follows the same sort of arch and each of the major musical numbers has a counterpart in the 1964 film. Instead of jumping into chalk drawings and landing in the English countryside for a merry-go-round ride and horse race, they are whisked into a Royal Doulton bowl for a carriage ride and performance at an English Music Hall. Instead of a tea party on the ceiling at Uncle Albert’s, they visit Topsy (Meryl Streep), a cousin of Mary’s whose home turns upside down every second Wednesday. And instead of flying kites in the park at the end of the film, this time it’s all about balloons. This would feel like a cheat if the sequences weren’t the visual treat they are. All the fantasy-based numbers give the film a colourful jolt, particularly the wonderfully staged final scene built around the song “Nowhere to Go but Up”. The use of colour, music and special effects are dazzling here and it’s one of the better songs in the score.
The 1964 film was a technical marvel in many ways – set design, painted backdrops – but especially in its mix of animation and live action. Thankfully director Rob Marshall and his creative team have been able to leverage the best of today’s special effects, but they still relied on hand drawn animation for some of the fantasy sequences. They are beautifully done. There is also incredible attention to detail on the set design. We get to see much more of London this time, but it’s darker, damper and colder than the original – a perfect setting for the depression. It helps make the bursts of colour that come with the musical numbers that much more of a treat. Of course nothing will ever top the design of the original (the tour of the rooftops just before “Step in Time” is one of the great cinematic treats), but Mary Poppins Returns still feels very right.
The screenplay – while missing some of the wit and magic of the original – is serviceable and takes on a few more of the adventures created by author P.L. Travers’ in her original stories. But there are no great surprises here, and you know from the beginning few minutes how things are eventually going to turn out, but the story doesn’t drag (at least it didn’t for me) and there are no disastrous missteps.
The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman had a lot to live up to – the Sherman Brothers songs for the original are iconic and were such an integral part of the film’s success. That isn’t the case here. Some of the ballads just aren’t memorable, but others do what they need to. The two best songs are “A Cover is Not the Book” and “Trip a Little light Fantastic”, both used in two of the film’s best production numbers.
In terms of the cast, the big question for anyone walking into Mary Poppins Returns centers around Emily Blunt. Is she able to make you forget Julie Andrews’ practically perfect performance in the original? No, but that’s OK. She makes the part her own – she’s funny, stern, energetic, and she even gives Mary some moments of introspection. She also has a lovely voice and she’s a good dancer. Andrews, of course, was a much better singer and her Mary, although just as stern, was also a bit warmer. But Blunt deserves all the praise she’s getting for her savvy, more sophisticated interpretation.
Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame plays Jack, a lamplighter, who is a friend of Mary Poppins. It’s the same type of role that Dick Van Dyke had in the original when he played Bert the chimney sweep, although this time there isn’t even a hint of romance between Jack and Mary. Jack has eyes for the grown-up Jane (a nice twist). Miranda is excellent – he has an ever-present twinkle in his eye and he’s a treat to watch in the musical numbers, particularly the extended dance portion of “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.
As for the supporting cast Meryl Streep has a fun few minutes as Mary’s Eastern European cousin and Colin Firth emerges as the film’s villain. Firth is usually so likable and it’s a kick to see him go to the dark side. Julie Walters also has some fun with her role as Ellen the maid. But it’s two veterans who pop up near the end of the film who really raise the film’s emotional impact. It’s no secret that Dick Van Dyke returns as the son of the banker he played in the original film. Both the character and Van Dyke are in their early 90’s and the little song and dance he does is sublime. Angela Lansbury – also in her 90’s – has a lovely scene and song in the last few minutes as a knowing old woman who sells balloons. Like Van Dyke, her few minutes really raise the magic and nostalgia quotient.
For me there was a huge sense of dread when this project was originally announced, but as I sat watching Mary Poppins Returns I very quickly gave over to what Marshall and his creative team had achieved. I’m not sure this is going to require as many viewings as the original has over the years, but there is no question I’ll be hunkering down for another viewing or two over the holidays.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.