Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

mary poppins returns

What have you two tired adults done with Jane and Michael?: Disney/Lucamar Productions

Like everyone who’s reviewed this what I’m going to ask is (brace yourself) is MARY POPPINS RETURNS practically perfect in every way? Not quite, but its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and its style and intentions are quite admirable. The original is one of the most pivotal films of my childhood and Returns is a thoroughly in-keeping and worthy continuation of the same world and characters.

Twenty years after first wishing for a nanny from the sky, Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) now adults with responsibilities, worries and tragedy in their lives once again find themselves in need of their magical guardian’s help. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes back to a very different Banks household looking at an uncertain future.

So let’s get the important bit out of the way: Emily Blunt is very good. She is, as many have pointed out, posher that Julie Andrews (except for one alarming music hall number where she comes over all Cockney) but she’s got the same mischievous glint in her eye and even arguably a little more of a melancholy undercurrent to her take on the character.

Filling out the adult cast (the three kids are cute and appropriately wide-eyed), Lin-Manuel Miranda is the best possible player to get in to lead the more technically complex song-and-dance numbers as lamplighter Jack and has a seemingly bottomless well of warm charisma to spare. It is Ben Whishaw though who acts everyone else off the screen, funnily enough much like David Thomlinson in the original: both bare the brunt of the dramatic heavy lifting and undergo a transformation as the story is told, though Michael has much more understandable reasons to be less indulging of his children than his father did. Jane does unfortunately feel under-served by the script and Mortimer is given little to do beyond hints at a future romance and token gestures to her inheriting her mother’s passion for campaigning.

The songs are pretty good: very hummable, nice orchestration and a layered musical and lyrical build accompanying some spectacular musical numbers. My favourite by quite a way was the bathtub/ocean extravaganza “Can You Imagine That?” closely followed by the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”-riffing “Nowhere to Go But Up”. It’s also got not one but two songs dealing quite explicitly with grief, which was unexpected. I will say that Meryl Streep’s song (and scene) is just awful and she’s clearly only there as another eccentric “cousin” of Mary to try out another accent and to add prestige to the poster.

In a world of unnecessary CG-animated remakes this film is now the only place we can find traditional hand-drawn Disney animation in a new release. As much as I enjoyed the new takes on THE JUNGLE BOOK and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and appreciated TANGLED and ZOOPIA on their own terms, I’ve missed this. It’s even the slightly jerky, scruffy outlined but completely alive animation the studio were using in the 60s, which is a treat for fans of that era.

Aside from the wealth of imaginative visuals and ambitious mounting of the musical numbers, I wouldn’t say there are too many surprises in store(the cameos were spoiled by the marketing). You can see pretty clearly the story’s trajectory, along with inciting incidents and jeopardy to come from the off. But it’s such a cozy, well-meaning $150 million musical blockbuster that you’ll hardly care.

I’m not sure what children will make of it, whether parents are still showing them the original or if whole families are being dragged along at the behest of misty-eyed adults. I watched Mary Poppins Returns with my parents, but they’ve been showing me the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke one ever since I was able to gawp at a screen. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, but a certain level of craft and affection for the material helps as well. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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