Film Reviews

Mary Poppins Returns Has Emily Blunt & Not Much Else

In the age of IP, we’re all getting used to everything old becoming new again, regardless of whether there’s an actual reason beyond money. Disney has embraced this more than most and is now moving to a place where it will release three live-action remakes a year, with  Dumbo, Lion King and Aladdin all due in 2019. The best of these efforts, like Maleficent’s very Wicked-esque “Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view” angle, at least offer a new wrinkle on the familiar. The worst might as well just be cosplayed shot-for-shot remakes.

Mary Poppins Returns is something slightly different. Rather than serving as yet another remake, it’s an actual sequel with entirely new dialogue, characters, and songs. The original Mary Poppins was Walt Disney’s crowning achievement and the only one of his films to be nominated for Best Picture in his lifetime. That was 54 years ago, though, and P.L. Travers wrote several other Mary Poppins books. With Disney and Travers long since dead and their frosty relationship already profiled in Saving Mr. Banks, there is an opening for a sequel loosely adapted from the later novels, a task Disney assigned to screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) and director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods).

Thus, Mary Poppins Returns, a story about Mary (now played by Emily Blunt) being called upon to once again save the Banks children. This time, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are adults on the verge of losing the family home, a particularly tough blow since Michael’s newly widowed and struggling to care for his three kids (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson). What a perfect moment for a supernatural nanny to fly in on an umbrella and save the day. Exactly as before, her method is mostly to sing songs transforming ordinary tasks into magical adventures, thus imparting the life lessons the kids will need to solve the problems before them.

Sounds fine enough, a perfectly workable premise for a sequel and loose structure for a bunch of musical numbers. Add in multi-talented Lin Manuel-Miranda as Jack, the successor to Dick Van Dyke’s cockney chimney sweep from the original, and you’re left wondering what’s there really to complain about.

However, all of these Disney recreation projects are in some way challenged to chase the magic of a past era and group of artists who all arrived together at just the right moment to make something people loved. None have been more transparent in that chase, though, than Mary Poppins Returns. This is a movie which sets the record for longest gap between live-action sequels at 54 years, yet it is wholly determined to pretend as if hardly any time has passed in the world of filmmaking. It’s a 2018 movie which wants to pretend like it’s still 1964, transporting us into a nostalgia machine and reveling in the way Disney musicals used to look even though many of those old techniques now look quite, well, old.

What was groundbreaking in 1964 is represented here as if the nostalgia will instantly conjure some lost magic

It’s charming enough, but Mary Poppins Returns needs to be more than just a glorified cover version of a classic. If it is to truly match the heights of the original it better have some damn good songs.

It, sadly, does not. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s new compositions are uniformly average despite capable singing and spirited dancing from all involved. Apart from an incredibly regrettable attempt to force in a Hamilton-like rap sequence for Miranda, none of the songs exactly embarrass themselves, but they don’t stick in the head either.

There are nine total, not including reprieves, and at least two could have easily been dropped from the movie entirely, which is partially why the film feels too long. “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” which Mary sings to the children when they despair about their dead mom, is the clear highlight, which is why it ended up shortlisted for a Best Original Song nomination (along with “Trip the Light Fantastic”).

Still, Emily Blunt gives it her more than capable best effort and certainly does enough to distinguish herself from Julie Andrews’ Oscar-winning performance. Rather than imitate an icon, Blunt opted against re-watching Mary Poppins and instead rooted her performance in the Mary of the novels where she is a far harsher presence than Walt Disney ever cared for. As a result, while Blunt’s performance is undeniably virtuoso-like it’s also in service to a character who isn’t altogether likable – pompous, vain, and almost entirely bereft of emotion.

The rest of the performers, including stunt cast guest turns from Colin Firth and Meryl Streep, provide passably entertaining turns. Miranda’s ever-present “aww, shucks” grin proves grating over the time. The little Banks children are assembly line child performers.

THE BOTTOM LINE

So much time, money, and effort has clearly been poured into this, but the spark of ingenuity which lifted Mary Poppins has long since extinguished, painstakingly recreated here with obvious love but precious little soul. There are moments of charm and Emily Blunt’s never not watchable, but unlike the original, you won’t walk away humming the songs. It’s a day later for me and I can barely remember any of them.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT

  1. Dick Van Dyke shows up for a cameo at the end. Julie Andrews was similarly asked to return, but declined, not wanting to steal any of Emily’s spotlight. In her place is Angela Lansbury in a small, but lovely role.
  2. The musical score teases a full reprisal of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” so often it’s mildly stunning it never actually happens.
  3. Skip Mary Poppins Returns and just re-watch The Simpsons’ “Sharry Bobbins” episode, the true sequel the world needs:

What’s your take on Mary Poppins Returns? Let me know in the comments.

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16 comments

  1. Yeah…I was on the fence if I should watch it because I was sure that it would fail to capture the heart the original had, all summed up in “Feed the birds”. What tempted me was the notion of seeing live-action with traditional animation mixed again. Dated or not, I LIVE for this stuff, and traditional animation still allows a certain kind of creativity in shape and movements CGI just can’t match. But then I listened to the soundtrack and…yeah. It was obvious that they tried to copy the Sherman Brothers. They shouldn’t have. What was needed was good songs! Mary Poppins is easily the Sherman Brothers best work, Feed the Bird is one of the best songs Disney ever released. This one is just generic and boring.

    1. I chose not to listen to the soundtrack before seeing the movie since I wanted to experience the songs for the first time in the context of the story and visuals. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so precious with it though because at least then I would have walked in knowing to expect barely passable imitations of the Sherman Brothers in their prime. Then again, if I knew that I probably would have just skipped the whole thing entirely.

  2. Merry xmas everyone. Ok i saw the movie with kids in toe. They loved it despite some bits (notably the alleyways and sewers) feeling a bit like it is directed by Tim burton using footage from batman returns. It was a good film a bit of a retread as they try to capture the same magic but progress the story in someways with the 30 year or so gap. I loved the fact that they yried to keep the same locations but this time without the cheap backdrops. The image of st pauls at the beginning appeared to have killed of the bord lady with someone like her passed out on the steps of st pauls. Lots of famous people cameoing which is nice. Still cant do a decent cockney london accent. I guess ray winstone wasnt available lol. What was all that explaining of leary? Did mary poppins really say boombastic? Cue shaggy to stage. The songs werent too bad. The reason i say that is because i happened to watch the original the day before and apart from the usual 3 songs the rest are forgettable. The Mr Banks songs and the suffragettes movie. Plus i cant believe how much stick the dad gets when the mum does absolutely nothing and lets the kids go wild. At one point she leaves them with the chimney sweep so she can go out. And what is wrong with the kids that no nanny wants them? They seemed like angels. Anyway liked that one of the kids made a cameo in this returns film. Loved DVDykes cameo too looking exactly like he did in the original. Such a shame julie andrews couldn’t be the balloon lady at the end. Sorely missed. I know she said she didnt want to overshadow emily but apunds like sour grapes to me.

    1. I’m glad your and the kids had fun with it. My niece and nephew went to see it a couple of days ago and offered a bit of a mixed review. The nephew liked it just fine whereas the niece got bored halfway through and thought all of the, as you put it, Batman Returns visuals were super scary.

      Generally agreed about the songs and how we might romanticize the original film’s soundtrack just because we remember the really good ones. However, I’d say the best songs in Mary Poppins Returns aren’t in the same league as the best from the original. The MPR tracks are simply good enough to keep the movie going.

      As for Julie Andrews, this must easily be the weirdest story of this year’s Christmas movie season:

      A major blockbuster is killing it at the box office right now.

      It has a wonderful Julie Andrews cameo.

      And that movie is NOT Mary Poppins Returns.

      WTF?

      Yep, Andrews does the voice of an incredibly important character in, of all movies, Aquaman. The character doesn’t show up until near the end, and she’s an entirely CGI creation. It feels like a God of War cutscene, but it’s still stupid-fun and her vocal performance is just the right mix of threatening and merely curious.

      1. Omg are you are kidding me? She said yes to aquaman and noy this. Outrage. That song avout judging books by cover i couldnt even understand what he was saying. Just got gor blimmey mary bobbins. As i live and breath. Give me strength.

      2. Like I said, it’s one of the strangest stories of this year’s Christmas movie season. There was a quote from one of the producers joking that they at least get to brag that if there’s one movie people want to see for a Julie Andrews cameo it’s Aquaman, NOT Mary Poppins Returns. It wasn’t a competitive situation, however, where they were competing for her time. It kind of just worked out that way, and Angela Lansbury is certainly a nice substitute to play the balloon lady. The moment you hear her voice it feels like home, to me at least. But, yeah, it would have been nicer for that to be Andrews.

      3. Dont get me started on Lansbury. Why they didnt use her for mrs potts in the live acgio beauty and the beast is beyond me. They got earl jones again for lion king and he is getting on. Emma thompson pales in comparison.

  3. That guy who played jack the streetlighter wrote the songs for moana including You’re welcome. So i am surpised the MP songs werent more catchy.

    1. His name is Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s an Oscar short of joining the EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), and through his musicals In the Heights and Hamilton – which he both created and starred in – he’s mainstreamed rap into modern Broadway. After Hamilton, he’s considered a big “get” to be in anything. It was certainly a huge part of the marketing for Moana. With Mary Poppins Returns, however, he’s just a performer, kind of there to watch and learn and see if he could be in a cog in the machine, leaving all of the songwriting to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Because he’s the Hamilton guy, they created a rap part in one of the songs, yet I agree with you – it ends up being frustratingly hard to understand. I mostly remember he keeps kicking that penguin out of the way.

      There really should have been a disclaimer in the closing credits:

      No live animals were harmed in the making of this movie. That animated penguin, on the other hand, well what are you gonna do? Total diva. Never learned his choroegraphy. We had to kick him around and we’re not sorry.

      1. Thanks for the background check on him. It sounds like other than name value his talent was wasted for this film.

  4. I thought it was pretty good for what they had to work with. I just reviewed it today in case you want to read my full thoughts on the movie. I’m gonna have to check out more of your blog.

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