MARY POPPINS RETURNS Review

My wife and I took our four-year-old daughter to see this despite her having seemingly no interest in the trailers or TV spots that have been on heavy rotation-especially over the past week or so. Admittedly, this was partly for the reason both of us wanted to see this fifty-four-year-later sequel to Mary Poppins and didn't want to have to go through the hassle of finding a babysitter the weekend before Christmas, but it was mostly due to the fact that despite the lack of interest in the promotional materials that sometimes you just have to trust your parents know better than you and, lucky for us, our little four-year-old girl decided to indulge us on this particular matter (the slush and popcorn might have factored in, but I digress). The point being, that once director Rob Marshall's (Chicago, Into the Woods) Mary Poppins Returns began and Emily Blunt's incarnation of the practically perfect nanny showed up and began teaching the new generation of Banks children (as well as reminding their parents) that while imagination may not always be approved of, that it's more than necessary to make life fun and largely bearable, the little one was more than hooked by the magic of the titular character. And so, while Mary Poppins Returns is admittedly more of a re-hash or re-imagining of that first, 1964 film than I would have either thought or hoped it to be it is also a reminder of how powerful and delightful the imagination can truly be. Though my personal experience with the film may not be as heartening as those who take their teenagers to the theater and see their faces revert to a state of child-like wonder; to experience the kind of magic and possibilities Mary Poppins brings to the table and exerts with pure enthusiasm strike our daughter in such a clear and distinct way-especially during the numerous musical numbers-was quite something. The Julie Andrews picture was always one of those movies that was always on whenever we needed it to be growing up and taking on the burden of crafting a follow-up to that respected classic (the only live-action film Disney saw garner a Best Picture nod in his day) there was a degree of respect built-in for even attempting as much and while Mary Poppins Returns could have certainly done a little more to stand on its own it is so excessively charming, appropriately cute, and full of original songs and creative executions that it's hard to argue the film is anything but perfectly pleasant in every way.

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), in no surprise to anyone, returns in Mary Poppins Returns .
Photo by Photo Credit: Jay Maidment - © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
And so, while technically a sequel rather than a re-make or some re-configured re-boot, Mary Poppins Returns is very much indebted to the original and the film knows that and makes sure you, the audience member, aware of that as well whether you've seen that original once or a hundred times. As we come back to 17 Cherry Tree Ln., we are introduced to leerie or what is otherwise known as a lamplighter, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), as he is more or less filling in for the Dick Van Dyke character of Bert who was so famously a chimney sweep. Jack, while singing "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky" shows us around the city once more, getting us comfortable and familiar with the space we'll be taking up over the next two hours until we arrive on the iconic lane where Admiral Boom (David Warner) and his Mr. Binnacle (Jim Norton) are still firing off the canon twice a day. More importantly, their house with a ship on the roof is right next door to where one of the Banks children still lives with his family. It has been some twenty-years or so since the events of that original film and little Michael (Ben Whishaw) is all grown-up and working as a banker at the same institution (Fidelity Fiduciary Bank) where his father worked before him, but who has recently been widowed and left with three children of his own in Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaniel Saleh), and little Georgie (Joel Dawson). Michael's sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), no longer lives in her parents' house, but seems to visit quite frequently as of late so as to check on her brother as well as her niece and nephews. Jane spends the majority of her time being an activist like her mother though as, amid the Depression, Jane rallies with other workers to fight for fair wages. Ellen (Julie Walters) is still around as the supportive housekeeper, but who tends to create more work for Michael than she does save him a hassle. The first striking difference in the original and this sequel though, is that David Magee's (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi) screenplay introduces the crux of the plot by having lawyers from the bank in which Michael works show up at the Banks' house in the form of Gooding (Jeremy Swift) and Frye (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) to inform Michael of a repossession notice. After the loss of Michael's wife, Kate, the family's been struggling to come to terms with their new normal, and because Kate handled the finances, Michael became behind on the payments; forgetting to pay them on time and although he offers to write a check to catch up, the lawyers inform him he has until that Friday to pay off the entire loan or he will have to move out. This sets in motion a solid story device that immediately triggers a sense of suspense, but it also triggers the arrival of our titular hero to once again look after the Banks children and see them through a critical stage of transition in their lives.

As stated, the idea of even taking on the challenge of constructing a follow-up to that 1964 original seems so daunting that only those slightly out of their minds might be crazy enough to take it on, but as much as it is clear from the get-go that Mary Poppins Returns is very much indebted to the first film it is also clear the sequel has been crafted by those who really care about and have a reverence for the original film. What would be the most daunting aspect of such a task though, always seemed as if it would be crafting the songs and accompanying sequences that would inevitably and immediately be compared to the likes of classics such as "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". It is in being able to anticipate as much and outlining a sequel in which a counterpart of sorts for each of those singular songs from the original is crafted that Mary Poppins Returns is able to both draw inspiration from as well as create enough of a fresh vibe of its own that the new songs and inspired dance numbers are a perfect balance of new and old. We're reminded just enough of what came before in order to ease us into what is new, but once invested are taken in enough of a new direction that nothing on display here ever feels cheap or akin to a cop out. For instance, the aforementioned "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky" is very clearly a riff on the original's "Overture" as well as the way in which "Chim Chim Cheree" served as something of an introduction to and framing device for the film-being reprised at certain points throughout. One could equal, "Can You Imagine That?" to "A Spoonful of Sugar," The Royal Doulton Music Hall/A Cover is Not the Book" to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" to "Step in Time," "Turning Turtle" to "Love to Laugh," and "Nowhere to Go But Up" to "Let's Go Fly a Kite," but while there are certain correlations between each and even certain moments where the melody mirrors that of what came before there is still an essence to these new songs that allow them to move past where they drew their inspirations from allowing them to become something of their own beast. And while, as a whole-"Trip a Little Light Fantastic" might rank as my personal favorite due simply to the fact I'm a sucker for big, old-school musical numbers that are as bombastic in their lyrics and musicality as they are their routines and settings it is the moment that Mary Poppins Returns stops to take a breather and offers something like, "A Place Where Lost Things Go," that we feel a true connection to the original without being able to pinpoint exactly why or draw comparisons to something specific. Rather, that the film is able to conjure this emotional reaction through its own character dynamics that have organically built off of the original film does a lot to ensure this feeling of security and trust in a fifty-plus-year-later sequel that very easily could have squandered all the continued good will of that original film.

The Banks clan along with lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Marry Poppins help to save the Banks home from being repossessed by the bank.
Photo by Photo Credit: Jay Maidment - © 2018 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The single gray cloud that hung over this project prior to seeing the film was that of the involvement of director Rob Marshall. Marshall, who seems to be something of Disney's go-to-guy as of late broke onto the scene in a big way with 2002's feature film version of Chicago and followed it up with the critically acclaimed Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, but the guy has had a rough run as of late turning in what is maybe the worst Daniel Day-Lewis movie with 2009's Nine, the worst Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 2011, and then the somewhat successful, but largely disappointing Into the Woods four years ago. It would seem Into the Woods would be the greatest indicator for what to expect from Marshall's Mary Poppins sequel, but thankfully Mary Poppins Returns is more of a complete film with a full, immersive story featuring genuine stakes and real character dynamics where consequences are faced in all regards and the happy ending feels truly earned through the journey we go on with these characters. In short, there is a real sense of investment in the production whereas-with some of Marshall's past work-there has been a strong sense of simply going through the motions. Of course, the cast Marshall has rounded-up to fulfill this new vision of the P.L. Travers mythology doesn't hurt either and largely comes from relationships formed on Into the Woods, so I guess that movie was good for something. While obvious now, even before the project was announced it seemed there was never any other choice for who would (and could) carry on the role of Mary Poppins outside of Emily Blunt. Blunt has established herself as one of the most reliable and versatile actors of the present generation never mind her deep-rooted Britishness that lends itself to how she is able to both inherit this role from the great Julie Andrews while at the same time creating a very different performance than that of what Andrews gave; still, Blunt's version very much stays in line with what Andrews did. In Returns, Blunt's Poppins has more of an edge to her in regards to how she manages the very different situation she encounters in the Banks household, but it is appropriate and-if Saving Mr. Banks is any indication-more in line with the character Travers envisioned in her source material. The fact one of these children she once looked after has grown up to lose his wife and is set to lose his house any day isn't exactly the stuff of lighthearted musicals, but it is in the inherent escapism of the genre and the inspired ways in which these elements are brought to life and inform the characters while encouraging the audience to remember to maintain a balance of intellect and imagination, of logic and fancy that Mary Poppins Returns truly hits its own stride. Everyone else is fine too, of course-including Colin Firth and Meryl Streep-and it is truly a treat to see Van Dyke (at the age of ninety-three) dancing on the big screen again even if it's only for a moment, but this is Blunt's film through and through and it is through her iteration of Poppins that the film brings the past into the future in a way that feels classic without feeling dated.