Mary Poppins Returns (2018). It’ll take more than a spoonful of sugar to swallow this sequel.

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Film review, by Jason Day, of Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1965 film about a magical Nanny who transforms the lives of a family. Starring Emily Blunt.

Musical

star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching

Synopsis

Twenty years after their lives were first impacted by the magical Nanny Mary Poppins, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) are grown-up and in dire financial straits. His wife died a year ago leaving him a widower with three children. Despite working as a clerk at a bank, he hasn’t enough income to pay the mortgage and they send solicitors to repossess his home on Cherry Tree Lane.

Jane continues their mother’s Labourite spirit and fights for the rights of the working class, worshipped from afar by gas lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

When their financial situation worsens, a random kite-flight summons Mary’s return…and she sets about sorting the household, ‘spit-spot’.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

Quite possibly, I was the most excited cinema patron of the year when the Christmas release date for this Nanny-knows-best sequel was announced.

Not that I’m a huge fan of the original Julie Andrews-starring blockbuster but – oh hell, I might as well admit it. I LOVE Mary Poppins!

How practically perfect of Disney to go ahead and film the further adventures of P.L. Travers’ magical child carer and cast Emily Blunt in the role, I thought. Great actress. British. Smart choice.

Quite why it took me so long to get to the cinema to see it is explained by the shared love for Poppins I share with some of the nursing lecturers at the University of Northampton, where I work during the day. It took a few weeks but we arranged a ‘nurses watch nannies’ trip to the local multiplex and Win, one of the Senior Adult Nursing Lecturers, absolutely adored the film. She roared with laughter throughout and, like me, really enjoyed seeing old timers David Warner as Admiral Boom (a veritable whipper-snapper aged only 77), Dick van Dyke playing the son of Mr Dawes Jr., one of the roles he played in the first movie (age 93 but still sprightly enough to tap dance from a chair to a table) and Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady (age 92 and fabulously throaty voiced). I’ll also admit here, that Win and I both grabbed each other’s hands when we heard Lansbury’s inimitable voice – such joy!

She also admired the story arc, with the grown-up Michael Banks assuming the infantile role and his more mature children left in charge of the running of the house (the children note that they have make their food budget stretch by purchasing day old bread, as their late mother did). Michael, she felt, was suffering from arrested development and needed Mary Poppins to help with his psychological progression to becoming a proper father.

I don’t disagree with any of her views but for me, all of this proves that Mary Poppins Returns has a distinct lack of originality and that the writers and producers couldn’t be bothered to push the boat out a bit and give us something that was truly magical.

Let me explain, for there are many good things about this film and there are scenes and sequences that better the first movie. And it is so head-bashingly, relentlessly cheery that only someone with the hardest, blackest of hearts could walk away feeling annoyed it is essentially a scene-for-scene remake of the original movie. Usually in such situations, such a person is me, but Mary Poppins Returns conclusively proves that I do have a heart…somewhere. DAMNIT!

So, about those good points…firstly, the choreography is tighter at times, especially during the lamplighters sequence and later BMX bike ride through London.

The mix of animation and live action, charming if clumsy in the first film, is again used here but benefits from the advances in film technology over the past half century. This means that the movie’s stand-out sequence, the journey into the chipped Royal Doulton bowl and Music Hall set piece are actually better than anything in Mary Poppins. The lyrics to ‘The Cover is Not a Book’ are as clever, cute and energetic and moving as anything the Sherman Brothers penned. Coupled with the gorgeous, Blackpool-rock coloured costumes, this brief segment of the film delights the eyes and ears from start to finish.

“Clever, cute, energetic…the movie’s stand-out scene.” Mary (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) at the Music Hall. Image: Disney.

Win and I felt differently about Mary being more like the character in Travers’ books. Mary is more imperious, sharp and curt than sweet and twee Julie, a character evolution I think worked but I don’t think Win was entirely sold.

She is in fact quite blunt, an apt word when she is played by this actress. I have reviewed Blunt films before and praise her as a performer. Her drunk act in The Girl on the Train (2016) was pretty much the only thing worthy of that film and her stressed, pregnant mother in the silent A Quiet Place (2018) was remarkable in its subtlety. And she sang commendably and made her make in the star-heavy Into the Woods (2014).

Here, I felt her Mary Poppins was unsubtle, too forced as if she is over-doing ‘an Andrews’. Perhaps this is to make up for the fact that her pleasing singing voice is nowhere near Andrews’ perfect, thrilling soprano range.

She is matched by the excitable and energetic Lin-Manuel Miranda as chirpy cockney lamplighter Jack, as much fun as van Dyke was and proving that Americans will probably always struggle with working class English accents.

Someone who never struggles with accents is Meryl Streep, here cast as Topsy, Mary’s Russian cousin, who purrs and enchants in a single scene that apes the ‘Uncle Albert’ sequence from 1965.

Before I forget, I must also note that the original Jane, Karen Dotrice, appears in a cameo as an elegant woman who passes the Banks family on Cherry Tree Lane. It’s her first theatrical film appearance in 40 years (the last was The 39 Steps in 1978).

But back to what I made me dislike the film – lovely though it is, the ‘switched-up’ story annoyed me. I felt that Disney have hoodwinked me and other audiences by making slight tweaks and tucks to what is a facsimile of their original movie.

Is this cheap film production? Well, not when you splash $130m on it (which is about what the first movie took at box offices around the world). Is it viewing audiences as imbeciles who wouldn’t pick up on this? Or the fact that the musical numbers, by and large, are cut-price and lightweight – as if they comprise the B-Side of the original’s soundtrack.

Perhaps that is too harsh a thing to say, but one thing that did irk me is the one thing that Win really admired – the story arc. For me, I have problems with films that depict children as being smarter than adults. Especially when the film is set during a time long before any Children’s Rights Act.

Modern day child actors are schooled in a culture where children and young people have a voice and rights and, consequently, a more mature attitude to life and work – and rightly so.

But that creates a difficulty got modern day films depicting the past, especially when a strata of society who had minimal rights and visibility, are given the reigns of power. I hate to be a stick in the mud, but this just doesn’t work for me. I can’t get into the ebb and flow of these narratives.

How can a modern director create a film where political savvy children are beguiled by magic? It’s like trying to make a teenager believe in Santa Claus. Robert Stevenson, the director of Mary Poppins, was born in 1906 to middle-class parents and thus grew up in the household he created. He created magic on film because that was the order of the day on set, from him, from Walt Disney, from the Sherman Brothers and from every other adult on and behind the set.

In short, I feel that Mary Poppins Returns loses some of its magic by reversing things and having the children in charge.

Good Lord, have I forgotten what it is to be a child? Have I lost the magic in me? Re-reading this review, I sound so serious about a fluffy confection like Mary Poppins Returns. Maybe I need Mary Poppins to come and visit? Now, just where is that old kite of mine…

For more, see the official webpage.

Cast & credits

Director: Rob Marshall. 2hrs 10 mins/130 mins. Walt Disney/Lucamar Productions/Marc Platt Productions. (U).

Producers: Rob Marshall, Rob DeLuca, Marc Platt.
Writer: David Magee.

Camera: Dion Beebe.
Music: Marc Shaiman.
Sets:

Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Wishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Karen Dotrice.

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