Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

There’s a new Disney sequel or remake every quarter it seems, with at least five slated for release this year (Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and Lady and the Tramp). While hopes are high for Beyonce’s The Lion King, as we call it in my house, Disney’s track record isn’t promising when it comes to these recycled classics. They may generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the studio, but most have been greeted with indifferent reviews and audiences.

The one that stands out from the bunch is Pete’s Dragon, which succeeded by embracing a new vision inspired by but not beholden to the original. Elements of the 1977 film are present in the 2016 movie, namely a magical dragon and a boy named Pete, but almost everything else, from the story to the style to the look, is its own. Instead of exhausting itself trying to find clever ways to work in the source material, the movie creates a unique vision with breathtaking results.

I’m guessing this sequel to Mary Poppins might have fared better with a similar approach. Delightful to look at and brimming with top notch talent, this film is one I really wanted to enjoy. However, director Rob Marshall strains to make something new out of the old, leaving us with a movie that looks shiny and familiar but that never truly ignites the imagination.

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to Cherry Tree Lane to tend to the Banks family, only now young Michael and Jane are all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw), a recently widowed father of three, is also in danger of losing the family home. With a week to pay off his loan, he scrambles to find certificates of some bank shares while the bank president, Wilkins (Colin Firth), counts down the hours. In these desperate times, he could use some help from his magical nanny, if only to calm his frayed nerves.

In floats Mary Poppins, not a moment too soon, and so another adventure begins. Except it doesn’t really. The story moves along, winding its way through London as the new generation of Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) tries to be helpful, either by staying out of their father’s way or getting very much in it. They are joined by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary’s friend who fancies Jane (Emily Mortimer).

The main conflict is not enough to bind the story together though. Every non-house related thing, whether taking a trip to mend their mother’s old bowl or washing up for the night, seems incidental. It’s as if the plot is serving the flashy, YouTube-ready set pieces instead of the other way around. Even Mary gets sidelined, an observer along with the children rather than the source of their wonder and adventure. Emily Blunt is the understudy peering from the wings, waiting for a moment to break through. There just isn’t much for her character to do. And what she does do fails to match the excitement of, say, digging through her bottomless carpetbag or piecing together or a torn nanny advert.

I could forgive the story’s bland execution if the musical numbers turned out to be real show stoppers, but the film disappoints here as well. Each is a flight of fancy on its own, with Blunt and Miranda bearing down to deliver the razzle dazzle, but I couldn’t remember a single song if I tried. There is one about the Royal Doulton Music Hall and something about a cover not being a book, but I can’t even say if they are parts of the same piece or not.

The problem with the music is really the problem with the whole movie. Mary Poppins Returns is too reverent of and reliant on the past. Every song, every character, every detail references the 1964 original. The dance spectacle “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a perfunctory homage to “Step in Time.” There’s Mary dancing with penguins, the admiral firing off canons, the kids ambling through the animated countryside. Sometimes the movie does a simple swap – labor organizers for suffragettes, lamplighters for chimney sweeps. With each nod to the classic, the story loses more of itself, becoming a facsimile of the first film but without its heart or imagination.

The best example of this is “Turning Turtle,” in which Mary takes the children to visit her eccentric cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep). They happen to call on her on the second Wednesday of the month at precisely the time her entire home and workshop turn upside down, leaving everyone to hang on for dear life. It’s an amusing sequence and echoes a similar physics-defying scene with loopy Uncle Albert. His uncontrollable laughter causes him and his guests to levitate whilst taking tea. But whereas “I Love to Laugh” combines whimsy with the characters’ emotional ups and downs, Topsy mostly sings about how crazy things look when flipped around.

The cast does its best to outshine the material though and wring every drop of tenderness out of the script. They infuse their otherwise bland characters with plenty of charisma, which is to be expected when the likes of Blunt, Miranda, and Whishaw get together. The art department also deserves special praise. The film’s look is absolutely sublime, and I could wallpaper my house with the paintings from the opening credits. Nineteen-Thirties London never looked so dreamy and inviting. The bold, crisp sets have the confidence the film lacks, and I only wish the visual richness carried over to the movie’s other aspects.

“A Conversation” by Ben Whishaw:

“Can You Imagine That” by Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“The Royal Doulton Music Hall” by Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“A Cover is Not the Book” by Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” by Emily Blunt:

“Turning Turtle” by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, Tarik Frimpong, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh:

“Nowhere to Go but Up” by Angela Lansbury and cast:

Released: 2018
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: David Magee
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, David Warner, Jim Norton, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Noma Dumezweni
Time: 130 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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