Though some flaws prevent it from being 'practically perfect in every way', Mary Poppins Returns is an enchanting trip down memory lane.
For those who thought the 14-year wait for The Incredibles sequel was long, Disney is really pushing the limits now. 54 years after the release of Mary Poppins, we have been given a sequel that no one asked for, yet everybody is glad to receive. However, given the original film’s 1964 release, the cast of that film are a fair bit older now, and film technology has progressed massively: seeing live actors next to animated characters is no longer the novelty it once was. With this in mind, how similar, or not, was Mary Poppins Returns to its predecessor, and is this a good thing?
Though the gap between films spans over 50 years, the second film takes place roughly 25 years after the first. We now see Cherry Tree Lane during the ‘Great Slump’ of the 1930s, where we find a grown-up Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer), Michael mourning the recent loss of his late wife and struggling to afford to keep the family home for himself and his children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson). Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to help solve all of their problems, familial and financial, as well as to show the children how to be children again, as the death of their mother forced them to grow up very quickly. In the absence of Bert (played by Dick Van Dyke in the original) who is off travelling, joining Mary and the children on their adventures is lamp-lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). With musical numbers galore, the film is a race against time to save the family home from repossession, with evil bank manager Mr Wilkins (Colin Firth) doing everything in his power to claim the house for the bank.
The film is certainly enjoyable. Blunt and Miranda deliver outstanding performances, and with a two-hour running time, fairly lengthy for Disney, the story runs smoothly without feeling too dragged out. The film definitely plays on the audience’s nostalgia, for though a child who hasn’t seen Mary Poppins would enjoy Mary Poppins Returns, there is something magical about going back to No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane and being visited once again by the quintessentially English nanny floating down from the sky on her umbrella. With all-star appearances from the likes of Angela Lansbury and the one and only Dick Van Dyke, there is a strong sense of returning to the past, with a slightly modern twist. However, call me a traditionalist, but the film felt a little too modern at times. Emily Blunt takes the hard-line, yet fair, nanny so wonderfully originated by Julie Andrews, and makes her a little more fun and free, not afraid to shake her skirt around or give her singing voice a slight roaring quality during a couple of the musical numbers in a way that Dame Julie never would have. However, contrasting this freedom is also a briskness Blunt displays in the nursery, accompanied by a sense that she is often forcing her crisp voice and perfect enunciation, speaking in a heightened received pronunciation that Julie Andrews achieved effortlessly.
In other ways, though, the film is a carbon copy of the original. The journey that Mary Poppins takes the Banks family on is much the same the second time round, with only a few details changed, and for nearly every song in the 1964 film, there is a replacement number in the 2018 incarnation. For ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ there is ‘Can You Imagine That?’, instead of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ we hear ‘A Cover is Not the Book’ (seeing the return of the animated penguins and other animals), and the dance sequence of ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ is almost a direct rip-off of ‘Step in Time’. Though Marc Shaiman’s soundtrack is pleasant enough, there is a certain simplicity and charm missing in his music that is what makes the Sherman Brothers’ original songs so beloved. Apart from a select few, many of the musical numbers in Mary Poppins Returns are entertaining but ultimately forgettable, which cannot be said for those of the 1964 film.
With this being said, Mary Poppins Returns is great fun, and Emily Blunt has to be applauded for having such enormous shoes to fill, shoes she steps into with elegance and style. Leaving the terrible yet iconic cockney accent of Dick Van Dyke behind, Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a convincing cockney ‘Leerie’, the term the gas lamp-lighters go by, and given his impressive theatrical background, it will come as no surprise that his musical performances in this film are terrific. Disney masterfully tugs at our heartstrings, reminding us why we love Mary Poppins so much. Though there are hints of the original music in Shaiman’s overture, when the motifs of ‘Feed the Birds’ and ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ play towards the end of the film, you can’t help but beam in nostalgic bliss. The flaws of this film can be forgiven with its warm, magical quality; Mary Poppins Returns is a return to our childhood, which is very welcome indeed.
Mary Poppins Returns, directed by Rob Marshall, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, certificate U.