Mary Poppins Returns Review
Voting took place at my old elementary school this year, and the experience of walking through that building after so many years closely resembled the experience I had watching Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. With chairs and desks much closer to the ground than I remember, many of the same faces on staff, and little changes here and there to the décor like the names underneath the appropriately amateurish artwork lining the hallways, I enjoyed seeing the old amongst the new, knowing that the students there now are probably having as much fun as I once did.
With little changes here and there, Mary Poppins Returns does a fair enough job making the classic’s formula its own. Though not one part of it surpasses the 1964 Julie Andrews film (which would certainly be no easy task), its electrifying song-and-dance numbers, a blend of tenderness and somberness from star Emily Blunt, and even a delightful display of old school animation, makes Mary Poppins Returns the most magical movie the Mickey Mouse company has put out in a long time.
Set 25 years after the events of the original Mary Poppins, the basic outline of the first film – with the lovably proper nanny floating down from the sky by means unknown, taking the Banks children out on fantastic, whimsical adventures, and gliding right back up into the clouds once it seems her work is done – happens here for a new generation of Banks and audiences.
Living in the same house on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now a widower, is struggling to uphold all the responsibilities for his three children – Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and young Georgie (Joel Dawson) – after the death of his wife. Sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), who’s more practical and also a labor organizer (stepping happily into the shoes of her suffragette mother), wants to help, but there really isn’t a way for her to do so – Michael has misplaced the documents necessary to pay off his debt to the infamous Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (run by a dastardly and greedy Colin Firth).
Despite a chummy opening courtesy of cockney lamplighter Jack (a charming Lin-Manuel Miranda), the 25-year jump places us right into London during what the film immediately identifies as the “great slump.” It’s a pseudonym intended for the city’s economic depression, but the gray skies and damp street contribute to the far eerier atmosphere of this film as a whole. Things obviously aren’t great at the Banks either, and Mary Poppins Returns succeeds just as well in its depiction of this family in crisis (an astonishingly touching ballad sung by Blunt is one of the year’s best songs), as it does in its more exuberant and entertaining segments.
But just as it happened 50 years ago, the clouds in the London sky will soon part, and there she’ll be, floating down from the sky in all of her practically perfect glory, and in her perfectly snug gloves. Emily Blunt is no Julie Andrews, but as soon as she touches the ground and begins barking manners at all of the Banks, kids and adults alike (one of her first acts is reminding Michael that he is not a codfish) she makes the role her own. With her crisp annunciation, and unbending posture, she commands the Banks’ household with perhaps an even tighter no-nonsense approach. It’s fantastic.
With that said, Mary Poppins Returns is in no way a one-woman show. The Hamilton creator Miranda is as charming a presence as Jack as Dick Van Dyke was back in the day as Burt – which is appropriate given the heartwarming fact Jack was Burt’s former apprentice. There are hardly any licks in the cast – the actors playing Banks children keep it admirably cool – which also includes two tear-inducing cameos from Disney legends Van Dyke, as well as the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Angela Lansbury.
Van Dyke’s tiny appearance seals off a film which never becomes the original Mary Poppins but beckons to it constantly. Right as the pic starts out, the elderly woman who feeds the birds can be seen (if you look closely) still sitting outside the bank, and Admiral Boom, now in a wheelchair, is still cheerfully sending each house on Cherry Tree Lane into chaos every hour. Many of the original film’s iconic moments are given a new, entertaining spin (for instance, the Chimneysweep-led “Step in Time” soon becomes a lamplighter-led “Trip a Little Light Fantastic, and an epic 20-something minute animated adventure alludes to “Jolly Holiday”).
Mary Poppins Returns is magical, and as the kids and the nanny herself eventually declare, it’s “nonsense, foolishness, and makes no sense.” But I loved almost every minute of it.
There isn’t a moment in Mary Poppins Returns that I would put above the 1964 classic, but there also isn’t one worth throwing away in this magical, if formulaic production.