Practically perfect in every way… if you like that sort of thing. Mary Poppins Returns is the big, boisterous, feel-good musical for the 2018 holiday season. It fills the same role that The Greatest Showman occupied in 2017, and does a much better job as a well-rounded movie experience. If you don’t like the genre, though, this sequel 54 years in the making is unlikely to win you over as stylistically it’s as throwback as they come.
Set 24 years after the original, Mary Poppins Returns takes place during London’s Great Slump of the 1930s. The Banks children are all grown up, with recently widowed Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still living in the same house on Cherry Tree Lane with his three young children. Sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) has thrown herself into workers’ rights and charity work, but she’s not struggling as much as Michael and his family. When the bank, headed by Colin Firth’s William Weatherall Wilkins, forecloses on the Banks house, there’s additional stress on the family, who’ve cast aside their dreams, imagination and sense of wonder to cope with their harsh reality. Of course, it’s at this point that nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) floats in to help the Bankses in her own magical way.
Mary Poppins Returns uses the same approach other filmmakers have adopted to turn Disney animated hits into live-action movies. In other words, it doesn’t rock the boat. It takes what audiences fondly remembered from the 1964 Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke original, and repeats and repackages them for 21st Century audiences. So yes, there’s a lengthy sequence where our heroes are plunged into an animated world, another that involves ceiling shenanigans, a hyper-choreographed dance number with lamplighters (replacing the original’s chimneysweeps), and bank drama that ends with lost children on the streets of London.
Hell, just like the first Mary Poppins, the sequel feels two musical numbers too long, getting wrapped up in more whimsical, visually-striking adventure at the expense of advancing the plot.
Director Rob Marshall, who made the leap from musical theatre to film with the multi-Oscar-winning Chicago, and gave us Into the Woods as well, seems to have gone out of his way to make a movie that feels like a direct sequel from the mid-60s. Even the animated sequence – one of the film’s highlights – has the rough, hand-drawn style of Disney’s yesteryear.
The weird thing is, it still works. Mary Poppins Returns may tick off the exact same plot points as its classic predecessor but it doesn’t feel like a cold, calculated retread. The reason for this is the authentic-feeling performances from the entire cast.
As perfect as Emily Blunt is as the supremely poised, and touch unnerving, title character, and as expectedly likeable as Lin-Manuel Miranda is as lamplighter Jack (presented as an old apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert), it’s Ben Whishaw who is the emotional heart of the movie. Michael’s story is deeply affecting and has a credibility to it that lacks in so many feel-good tales of fatherhood. This isn’t a trite message about spending more time with your kids or being less hard on them. Mary Poppins Returns shows a sensitive man struggling with his family responsibilities, grief and society’s expectations of him.
Behind the glossy, fanciful surface there’s quite a bit more going on in Mary Poppins Returns, at least for adult viewers to chew on. Then again, audiences don’t have to dig that deep into this movie stew to find meat. There are far higher stakes for the Banks family this time around. And while it feels like a lot of the songs in the original Mary Poppins were nonsense (unless I’m misremembering them), essentially every musical number in Returns is a life lesson, offering such advice as how to cope with grief and get out of a funk.
Still, if you don’t like musicals, or the events of 2018 have turned your heart into a lump of coal, Mary Poppins Returns probably won’t win you over. It also remains to be seen whether today’s children – or audiences in general – are capable of getting caught up the film’s old-fashioned sense of wonder.
Regardless, Mary Poppins Returns is as good as this genre fare gets. It’s glossy, engaging, exceptionally polished from a technical standpoint, well-acted and stuffed with stars – including Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke and even Angela Lansbury. Julie Andrews may not be back, but in the hands of Marshall, Blunt and co., Mary Poppins has certainly returned, with the odd sense that no time has passed at all.
Last Updated: December 13, 2018