Mary Poppins Returns Review
The kind of cinematic magic that was captured in 1964 with Mary Poppins really is one of a kind. The songs, the colourful scenes, and of course Julie Andrews as the eponymous nanny. The thought that anything close to living up to that was doubtful, and yet we have Mary Poppins Returns, with the longest release gap between a film and its sequel, to charm and delight us once more.
It has been 20 years since Mary Poppins last visited Cherry Tree Lane, and the Banks children Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) are all grown up. Michael is a widower with three children of his own; John (Nathanael Saleh) , Anabel (Pixie Davis), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), and is about to lose the family home due to debt. What the family needs is a miracle, but maybe a magical nanny will do as Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes down Georgie’s kite string to help the family once again with a little assistance from Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a London Lamplighter.
This film is a joy to watch. The kind of experience that will have you smiling for the rest of the day and fighting the urge to start dancing as you travel along the street. One of the biggest worries I, and many others, had was whether Emily Blunt could live up to such a cherished memory. I could not be more pleased to say that they could not have cast anyone better in the role. She decided to base her performance more on Mary Poppins’ character from P.L. Travers’ books and as such has more of a dry wit and edge than Julie Andrews (as much as anyone in a Disney film can have an edge) but nevertheless she has an ethereal charm and all the wonder and magic to her that we felt in Andrews. In short, she makes the role her own but you never doubt her as the character that we’ve always known as she leads the children through their adventures. Where in the first one she united the family here she is helping them rediscover joys in life, particularly the children, who in some ways have grown up too fast.
Filling out the rest of the cast are fun and solid performances from Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, who is heart-breaking as a father trying to keep his family together in the aftermath of a tragedy. In Julie Walters, Colin Firth, and Meryl Streep we have both a mini Mamma Mia reunion and a trio of scene stealers. Lastly Angela Lansbury pops up at the end in a small role of the Balloon Lady, a character from the book. She’s a nice little whimsical touch, especially as Lansbury’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks for Disney featured “The Beautiful Briny”, a song that was originally written for Mary Poppins.
The other great joy of the film is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack. The screen lights up whenever he's in frame. Full of so much talent and charisma in the vein of an Old Hollywood star he can make the world feel a little better just from his smile. We start the film with him and “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” and you are just immediately swept along. There is something about Mary Poppins as a character that feels so wholly tied to London. This is in the location, obviously, but also in the old music hall quality that some of the songs have. In fact, the song “Step In Time” from the first film was directly inspired by Cockney sing-a-long songs such as “Knees Up Mother Brown”. That is very much carried over to this film and even emphasised in the sequence where Mary Poppins, Jack, and the children jump into a Royal Doulton china bowl. This sequence is also the first time a Disney Studios film has used hand drawn animation since 2011’s Winnie the Pooh.
This film echoes back elements of the first one; both thematically and musically especially. A few aspects on the story side feel a little forced; jumping into a bowl where they jumped into a chalk painting before, lamp lighters instead of chimney sweeps, a visit to a cousin who turns upside down instead of a floating uncle, and Mrs Banks in the original film was a Suffragette so Jane Banks in this one is a campaigner for workers' rights, but all of the musical call-backs work very well and happen in all the right places to tug on your heart strings. This was probably helped by the fact that Richard M. Sherman, who along with his brother Robert B. Sherman wrote the songs to the first film, served as a music consultant. The new songs also work wonderfully, catchy and full of energy. The song “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” features a dance number by Jack’s fellow lamplighters that feels so classically Disney magical that good old Uncle Walt would have approved. At least until the BMXing starts, which is so modern as to be a little jarring but by then the film has built up so much goodwill that I can easily let it go.
The result of the drama about the Banks family losing their home is resolved in a move that is not so much Deus ex Machina as it is Deus ex Dick Van Dyke. Yes, we are dealing with the realm of children’s films here and as such not every story conflict needs to have a complex outcome, but this just a little too easy and maybe even cheapens some of the “your family is all you need it doesn’t matter where you are” moments that precedes it. But that really is the only thing in the film that felt a little flat compared to the rest of it which is so entertaining and joyful.
Mary Poppins Returns in a worthy continuation of the original classic film, it is great fun and whilst not quite Practically Perfect In Every Way, it is easily the best family film of this holiday season.