Mary Poppins Returns
Cast: Emily Blunt, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh
Director: Rob Marshall
Even if you’ve never watched Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, chances are that you would’ve heard (and probably hummed) A Spoonful of Sugar at some point. The image of a nanny floating down from the sky, holding her parrot-headed umbrella aloft, an oversized carpetbag in the other hand, brought incredible joy to multiple generations of moviegoers. Of course Disney was going to bring her back, even if it took more than half a century to do it.
I think you will find that how you feel about Mary Poppins Returns may be related directly to how attached you were to the original 1964 film. I’m a big fan; I still know the words to most of the songs. Perhaps for that reason, this sequel – as slick as it is – doesn’t quite measure up. There are plenty songs but none of them are instant classics. The new film isn’t so much about Mary Poppins in the first place; frankly she isn’t on screen a lot. But crucially the problem is that despite sticking closely to the beats of the earlier film – too closely, some might say – this movie feels heavy-handed and overtly manipulative. It doesn’t have the same lightness of touch that was its predecessor’s hallmark.
It’s true. Mary Poppins Returns is a relatively ‘higher stakes’ affair and frequently overwrought. Set some 20 years or so after the events of the original film, it focuses again on the Banks family residing at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Michael and Jane Banks, the kids from that film, are adults now. But a pall of gloom hangs over the home – there’s the grief of losing a loved one, there are children who’re expected to be more mature than their years, and there’s the threat of homelessness looming over the family’s head. Mary Poppins, when she does arrive, has her work cut out for her.
Speaking of the magical, mystical nanny, Emily Blunt is a great choice as Mary Poppins; she’s an inherently charismatic actress with great screen presence. But it’s a tricky character: Mary Poppins is strict yet also warm, she expects discipline but she’s mischievous too. Julie Andrews somehow succeeded in embracing the many paradoxes and making the character her own. Blunt tries, very hard too, singing and dancing and delivering snappy rejoinders aplenty, but she can’t seem to lift the part off the page.
To be honest, the film spends more time on the Banks family than on their nanny anyway. Ben Whishaw as grown up Michael Banks gets some moving moments, and Emily Mortimer is pleasant enough as his sister Jane. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda who’s especially charming as Jack, a cheery lamplighter, and an obvious hat-tip to Dick Van Dyke’s memorable chimney sweeper Bert from the earlier film.
At the cost of repeating myself, one of the key reasons the new film doesn’t hold a candle to the earlier film is its underwhelming score. Director Rob Marshall (also credited as one of the film’s choreographers) stages some eye-watering set pieces like a tub bath that turns into an underwater adventure, and a stunning blend of live action and animation inspired from the earlier film. But alas the songs don’t have a particularly memorable quality to them. The only one with earworm potential is Trip a Little Light Fantastic featuring Miranda and a troupe of his buddies.
If the old Mary Poppins means a lot to you, I suspect the new one might come up short. The uplifting tone gets suffocating at some point, the messaging hammered into your head throughout. It’s terrific to look at and there are some charming cameos too, but ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ is not a word I’d use to describe it.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Mary Poppins Returns.
Rating: 2.5 / 5