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.
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
- 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.
- The musical score teases a full reprisal of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” so often it’s mildly stunning it never actually happens.
- 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.