It’s truly a risky move when Hollywood tries to tinker with a beloved and indelibly memorable classic film like Disney’s “Mary Poppins”. After all, the 1964 original touted a catalog of unforgettable songs and, most importantly, presented Julie Andrews in a stellar turn as the quintessential Mary Poppins who was “practically perfect in every way”.
That said, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a surprisingly delightful new chapter for author P.L. Travers’ iconic magical nanny. Actress Emily Blunt more than capably continues Poppins’ adventures by bringing a mix of the familiar spoonful of sugar embodied by Andrews’ take on the character, but adds a bit of saucy, sassy spice that’s more in keeping with Travers’ original vision of her literary creation before she was “Disney-ized”.
This sequel, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into The Woods) manages to respectfully bring numerous familiar elements and atmosphere reminiscent of the original film to please nostalgic purists, while also adding just enough original touches to bring Mary Poppins as a moderately fresher new figure to audiences, both young and old.
The story is set in 1930’s Depression era London a couple of decades after Mary first landed from the clouds via her umbrella to aid the Banks family on Cherry Tree Lane. The Banks children she cared for years earlier, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are now adults with problems of their own. Michael especially is in dire straights as a recent widower raising his three children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and little Georgie (Joel Dawson).
Michael is an artist, making ends meet by working as a part-time teller at his father’s old employer, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Overwhelmed with the responsibilities of raising his three children without his supportive wife, he forgets to pay the mortgage on the family home. His unscrupulous boss at the bank, William Wilkins (Colin Firth) has designs on repossessing the Banks’ home in five days unless Michael can pay the mortgage in full or find his father’s long forgotten shares in the bank.
Just as the financial and domestic turmoil starts to reach a breaking point, as if on cue, Mary Poppins returns with her bottomless carpetbag and talking umbrella to help the family find its way back from the brink, emotionally and more.
The overall narrative of “Mary Poppins Returns” is more or less familiar territory derived from the classic original. However, the tone of this film has a bit more weight within it as Michael and the children must deal with the tangible loss of their mother, wife and home; and the children’s unexpected burden to grow up before their time.
Nevertheless, there are new bright spots to give the heavy circumstances a new “spit spot” shine. Key among them is Lin Manuel-Miranda as Jack, a charismatic lamplighter who once worked for Bert the chimney sweep from the original film.
Miranda’s Jack is an energetic and lively presence amid much of the more dour events surrounding the adults and children. A nice touch is the budding romance that slowly begins to bubble between he and Jane, thanks of course in part to Mary Poppins.
The musical sequences are wonderfully well staged, as would be expected by director Marshall, whose experience with this musical genre is his forte. Visually, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a delight from the opening credits’ oil painting backdrops and magical underwater sequences after Mary and the children take a trip down the bathtub drain; to a wondrous animated journey through a Royal Daulton bowl glazed landscape.
Though the musical numbers are lively and thrilling to watch; the accompanying songs entertain but lack the unique originality that enriched the 1964 original film. There are no songs like “ A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Feed The Birds” or the splendid “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” for audiences to sing or hum the melody long after the film ends.
The one number that does indeed stand out is “A Cover Is Not The Book”, a fusion of live-action and hand drawn animation, complete with tuxedo clad penguins ( an obvious nod to the original film ). Here Blunt and Miranda are spectacular as Miranda gets to quasi-rap without losing the tone of the era; while Blunt grabs a bowler hat and cane to wonderfully sing and show a bit of naughty sass in a number that could be classified as a Vegas revue Disney style. It’s truly a showstopper, along with Miranda’s “Trip The Light Fantastic” accompanied by his bicycle riding lamplighter mates that’s reminiscent of the original film’s Dick Van Dyke led “Step In Time”.
However, amid all the songs and nostalgic set pieces that run throughout “Mary Poppins Returns”; it’s the performance of Emily Blunt that makes the film work. Those expecting a carbon copy of the irreplaceable performance of Julie Andrews should check their assumptions at the door. No one can, or should, try to precisely mimic Andrews in this role. Instead, Blunt infuses her prim proper Poppins with enough of her own P.L. Travers’ inspired spin to create the aura of Andrew’s Poppins with a bit of playful sassiness that redefines the character ever so slightly. Blunt’s version of Poppins is empathetic and kind, but also firm, occasionally rude and with a touch of ego to boot.
Blunt’s Poppins isn’t above enjoying an admiring glance at her own beautiful reflection in a mirror. Or, when the surprised adult Michael and Jane see her for the first time in decades exclaiming, “It’s wonderful to see you”.
An unfazed Mary simply replies “Yes, it is… Isn’t it”.
Musical cameos by Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke add to the wonderment. Van Dyke’s all too brief but delightful song and dance moment shows he’s lost very little in terms of energy and entertainment style since his turn as Bert in the original film.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is a wonderful bit of family entertainment that harkens back to the earlier classic with a nostalgic reverence. It’s not meant to be judged on the comparative merits of the original, nor should it be. Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins isn’t Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins, nor should it be.
This is a film that delights in the joy and magical wonder of P.L. Travers unique and wondrously magical nanny and continues her journey. It pays effective homage to those who love the original film, while reinvigorating Mary Poppins for a new generation of fans.
This Mary Poppins may not be practically perfect in every way… but, it comes pretty darn close with delightfully entertaining panache.