Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep
In 1964, Walt Disney bestowed upon the world one of his best-loved films of all time that has been a classic for decades since: Mary Poppins. Based on the books by P.L. Travers, it starred the wonderful Julie Andrews as the titular nanny and the ever-entertaining Dick Van Dyke as jack-of-all-trades and friend to Mary, Bert. Fifty-four years later (and now holding the record for the longest amount of time between a film and its sequel) we have Mary Poppins Returns, in which Emily Blunt takes over the role of Mary with Lin-Manuel Miranda as Bert’s somewhat counterpart Jack. With the ’64 film being such a beloved film amongst people of all ages, is the return of Mary Poppins every bit the spoonful of sugar the original was, or is it much less than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?
Set around thirty years after the events of Mary Poppins, we now see the Banks children all grown up, with Michael (Whishaw) recently widowed and raising his three children, Annabel (Davies), John (Saleh) and Georgie (Dawson), with a little help from sister Jane (Mortimer) and housekeeper Ellen (Walters). Michael has found himself in debt with the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, whom Michael and Jane’s now-deceased father once worked for and owned shares in. With their childhood house now in danger of being repossessed, Jane and Michael must locate their father’s certificate of shares in the bank in order to pay off Michael’s debt. As Michael grows ever-concerned about his children’s future, Mary Poppins (Blunt) drops back into the Banks’ lives to help them get things in order and inject a little bit of fun into the lives of Michael’s children, much in the same way she did for Jane and Michael thirty years ago. Along with lamp lighter Jack (Miranda), Mary keeps the children occupied while Jane and Michael deal with more adult problems.
Considering this film is a direct sequel to the ’64 original, it would be quite right to expect a similar amount of entertainment and childlike fun that the first film produced in bucketloads. However Returns is lacking in both aspects. You might think that a fifty-four-year gap would mean plenty of time to create something that has all the magic of the Julie Andrews film while standing on its own two feet and having its own unique feel. But, alas, this is not the case. Just like a child who has had too many sweets, Returns is on its own sugar rush: the colours and singing and dancing are all there, but going a million miles-per-hour faster than the original. It starts off relatively slow, as we’re introduced to the Banks children as adults and Jack has his own little ditty about the lovely skies of London (chimney smoke and industrial pollution aside, of course). But as Mary returns and we go through similar adventures and characters as the original – from a music hall similar to the funfair and the home of Mary’s cousin Topsy that flips upside down in a similar way that Uncle Albert floats when he laughs – it starts to become an onslaught on the senses.
It’s clear to see what writer/director Marshall has tried to do, along with co-writers David Magee and John DeLuca, in attempting to recapture the magic of the original film, but it was always going to be a difficult task. Rather than take their own route through something different, they’ve followed the basic formula of the original when it comes to the story and then tried to add more modern musical elements to the songs. For example, every song is incredibly lyric-heavy and none are catchy, certainly not in the way A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or even the slower Stay Awake or Feed the Birds were/are. As much as the new songs, such as Can You Imagine That, A Cover is Not the Book and The Place Where Lost Things Go, are written for children in what is a children’s film, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s songs are not memorable in the way the Sherman brothers’ songs were and very much still are (one can’t help but think that perhaps Pasek and Paul could have been a better fit, still riding high on their success after creating the music and lyrics for 2016’s La La Land and 2017’s The Greatest Showman, of which the songs from the latter have proven to be record-breakingly popular with people of all ages). Between the songs and the very average storyline it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to genuine entertainment, so much so that some may prefer to watch Dick Van Dyke attempt a cockney accent again for another two hours, which, although rather painful, is easily forgiven when his talent for entertaining shines through. In fact, Van Dyke’s cameo is probably the only part of the film guaranteed to put a smile on the face of anyone in the know – his performance is incredible for a then-92-year-old, and he even had to have extra make-up as he looks younger than his age. He provides a true hit of nostalgia and temporarily perks up the film, even if it comes a bit too late to save it.
Performance-wise the film boasts some remarkable talent but it lets them down entirely. Blunt in theory is indeed the perfect choice outside of Julie Andrews to portray the very British stiff-upper-lipped Poppins, and her talents as a triple threat (singer, dancer and actor) very much fit the bill, however there’s been too much effort put into trying to fully morph her into 1964 Mary. Her accent makes her sound like she’s trying too hard to be Andrews – she would possibly have benefitted from relaxing it a little and finding her own voice. It’s also possible that this effort has resulted in the lack of having the magical glint in her eye in the same way Andrews did. Blunt certainly puts her all into the role, but it’s a role that unfortunately she hasn’t made hers. It’s a similar story for Miranda; although Jack is not Bert, he also very much is Bert, right down to Miranda’s apparently bad cockney accent being a tribute to Van Dyke’s. Jack should have been made into his own character rather than being a new Bert. Miranda is an incredible performer and his talents as a musical star have been fully utilised, however it’s not really suitable for a children’s musical – this isn’t Hamilton, after all. Whishaw and Mortimer very much come across as adult versions of the Banks children, however Michael as a character is weak and doesn’t pack the same emotional punch David Tomlinson did as Mr Banks in the original, and again it’s a similar story for Mortimer as Jane – it’s nice to see Jane following in her mother’s footsteps, supporting women’s rights and equality, but even that seems so forced into her character. Michael’s three children, whilst played by three very talented youngsters, are just Jane and Michael from the first film repeated and are used as the vehicle to drive the audience through the lacking plot. There is just such a lack of originality when it comes to the characters and it bleeds into the rest of the film.
Ultimately all Mary Poppins Returns does is create a burning desire to re-watch the original film and remind ourselves of the magic that continues to enthral audiences to this day. It could be argued that the sequel is seen differently through the eyes of a child, perhaps they will enjoy it more than adults, but if you’ve experienced this film in a cinema with children and seen first-hand just how restless they can get throughout the film, you may be inclined to disagree. It is a shame of course, as any fan of a film will always root for a sequel to be just as good, if not better, than the original, but unfortunately it’s just not the case for Mary Poppins Returns. There is a lot of talent involved, but it’s almost like too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough of them with an original idea for the recipe.