How can a person watch a movie like Mary Poppins Returns and not expect to compare it on some level to the Disney classic film of 1964 with Julie Andrews in the title role? How does a studio even dare to attempt to make a sequel to that very same classic film and risk the wrath of those devoted fans who treat that first go around with everyone’s favorite nanny as sacred?
It’s been a couple of decades since Mary made her last appearance, but circumstances in the Banks home requires for her to return. Michael Banks is an adult now. He’s a widower with three children, and times are hard. His sister, Jane, spends a lot of time helping Michael manage his home along with their cook Ellen. However things are not well with the family finances. Michael took out a loan and unwittingly fell behind just enough for the bank (the very bank both he and his late father worked for) to declare the loan in default and now require for it to be paid back in full or the home he lives in, and grew up in as a child, will be repossessed by the bank. Enter Mary Poppins to try to pick up the pieces just as she did decades earlier. This time she is joined by a man named Jack who works with the street lamps in London, and who also happens to be related to the very Bert she shared a jolly holiday with during her previous visit. The Banks children in her charge (so thinks Michael) are Anabel, John, and Georgie, and almost immediately Mary takes them on a variety of adventures that include a visit to the sea, a lovely park illustration on a soup bowl, and even a trip to visit her second-cousin many times removed who lives upside-down on a ceiling every second Wednesday. Through a series of misadventures the Banks family manage to save their home (Well it is a Disney movie!), Michael remembers what it feels like to be a child again, and Mary leaves.
Now to you careful reader, does the description of the movie (and I deliberately left out any serious spoilers) sound familiar? Does it remind you of, oh say, some classic 1964 film with a similar title? Sitting in the theater there were times where this critic’s mouth just fell open (like a codfish) at the number of times this movie fell into the same rhythm as its predecessor. From the opening musical scene with Jack, to the very first musical number that Mary has, even a visit to the bank, as well as the magical visit to a park complete with musical numbers, not only did the story beats match up with the 1964 film, but even many of the songs were composed in a manner to keep the same “vibe” as those composed by the Sherman Brothers. To go even further, a lengthy animated sequence, featuring talking animals, actually borrowed a number of ideas from earlier Disney animated films, thereby cementing the very notion that this studio went out of its way to imitate an already classic and beloved movie.
Guess what? I still loved it. Despite all of these criticisms that I just mentioned, I found this movie to be undeniably enjoyable. The story feels like a messed up carbon copy, but it does have a couple of unique elements that gives it a sense of uniqueness to it, most especially the loss of Michael Banks’ wife. There is a beautiful sequence that Mary teaches the children about how things are not really lost, and at a pivotal moment that lesson is passed on to the father. As for Michael, only at times does he slightly resemble his late father George. The rest of the time he’s a loving father who is doing what he feels is best at trying to protect the children. Ben Whishaw (Q in Skyfall) gives a vulnerable performance as both father and widower to his family. He also has a couple of nice singing moments, but it isn’t until towards the end of the film that he finally has the chance to let loose and let his voice fly, which it does as high as a kite (Do you see what I just did there?)
Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks is perfectly charming, but sadly she is there to serve as a supporting role to Whishaw’s Michael. There is also a hint of a sub-plot regarding her being paired up with another character in the movie, but it never seems to go anywhere.
The children, Pixie Davies as Anabel, Nathanael Saleh as John, and Joel Dawson as Georgie, are truly wonderful. They are also out of step with the children from the first movie in that these children are almost too adult. It seems that Mary’s work is cut out for her, as these children also need to believe in magic if they are to be of help to their father.
This takes me to Mary Poppins herself. How do you stand-up to the greatness of Julie Andrews? Julie was already a successful Broadway star, but because she was still an unknown in movies she did not get the chance to reprise her role as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady because Jack L. Warner opted for Audrey Hepburn instead. Because of that Walt Disney was able to cast Julie and in doing so cemented her entire movie career. So, how does one deal with that? With grace and poise, which is what Emily Blunt does here. She brings a different quality to the title role, but the essence of that marvelous character is still there in the way that she speaks, and even in the slight way she scolds others. But can she sing? Oh yes, she can sing! She may not have the amazing coloratura quality that Andrews had at that time, but she can carry a tune more than competently and with a lovely quality to the voice. I wasn’t reacting much to the movie until she finally comes on and starts interacting with the Banks family. She comes in with a bang and from that moment on I loved her in this part.
The foil for this movie is Colin Firth, who plays Wilkins, the nephew of Mr. Dawes Jr. (President of the financial institution that employed both Michael and his father). Firth is quite duplicitous here as Wilkins. Even when his true motives are revealed he still presents himself with a charm that would make you want to trust him. Again this is the one unique element to the movie as the original film didn’t have an adversary per se, so having him here does give the movie a rather interesting fresh take on the Banks family dilemma.
Unfortunately the casting for this movie isn’t all a hit. Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack just did not work for me. I found his singing to be solid, and his acting was believable as the type of character Jack is supposed to be, much in the same vein as Dick Van Dyke’s portrayal of Bert. Nonetheless there was just something about Miranda that I could not get into. I’m sure there are plenty of other people whose opinion of Miranda’s performance will differ from mine, and that’s okay. I can only chalk it up to being completely subjective in my reasons for not liking him. There were no negative qualities to how he played the role of Jack. There was just something in how he played the part that left me cold.
Lastly, there is the appearance of Dick Van Dyke. Now I’m sure there was some talk about maybe keeping his appearance as a surprise, but with his face and dancing showing up in some of the trailers it was hard to keep his part in this movie as a secret. Playing Mr. Dawes Jr., he pretty much replicates many of the qualities that he used as Mr. Dawes Sr. back in the 1964 movie, but this time he does so with a slightly livelier step despite being 93 years old!!!
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the production of this movie. First the music, with songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, make a deliberate attempt to recapture some of the feelings that the Sherman Brothers created in 1964. This is not an easy challenge for any composer or songwriter, and yet some of the songs they present here do have their own memorable qualities. It’s too soon to tell if they’ll be immortalized as well, but the tunes are catchy. I must also make mention of the animated park sequence. Director Rob Marshall fought tooth and nail for this to be a hand-drawn sequence, and to his credit he was right to do so. To go for a CGI look would have destroyed that animation charm that has made Disney famous in the first place. The entire sequence is beautiful to look at and with any luck might resurrect that art form in future animated projects.
Mary Poppins Returns feels like someone took the original movie, changed some names, added and deleted a scene or two, and then re-shot it. I found myself shaking my head at times with not only how it was mimicking the original 1964 movie, but also in being able to predict how it would get copied for this movie. And yet, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself white watching it. The copied story beats and elements felt forced, but it’s the majority of the performances that make this movie work. For the most part this cast is really solid, and Emily Blunt is simply a revelation. She has already proven she has strong acting chops, but here she is absolutely magical. No, that’s not right. She’s practically perfect in every way as the world’s most wondrous nanny. Sadly I wish I could say that this movie was also practically perfect in every way, but it isn’t. It’s still amazingly good and will be a hit with families for this coming holiday season. The performances, led by the lovely Emily Blunt, are glorious. The story, however, feels like a warmed over rehash from the original Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins Returns receives 4 out of 5 umbrellas!!!
Mary Poppins Returns opens nationwide Wednesday, December 19, 2018.
Special thanks to Fingerpaint Marketing for making this Press Screening possible.
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