MARY POPPINS RETURNS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Rob Marshall

Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryle Streep, Julie Walters, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, voices of Chris O’Dowd, Mark Addy.

Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson in Mary Poppins Returns (2018)It’s been fifty years since Disney released their endearing and enduring live action musical adaptation of P L Travers’ Mary Poppins, fantastical tale of the magical nanny who arrived to heal the Banks family in their time of trouble. Reportedly, Travers disliked what Disney did to her marvellous creation, and she especially hated the saccharine musical numbers. This prickly gestation period of bringing the character to the screen was explored in the film Saving Mr Banks, which starred Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Despite Travers’ reservations though, Mary Poppins became one of Disney’s biggest live action hits, and won five Oscars, including one for Julie Andrews’ performance as the iconic nanny, another for its clever visual effects, and even one for the catchy song penned by Robert and Richard Sherman.

Given her dislike of 1964’s film and her refusal to let Disney get his hands on her property while she was alive, one wonders what Travers would make of this belated sequel.

Mary Poppins does indeed return in this film which is set in 1930s London, some 20 years after the original, a time of hardship and economic depression. The two Banks children have now grown up and Michael (played by Ben Whishaw, from Skyfall, etc) is a grown man with a family of his own, but he still lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. But since his beloved wife dies a year earlier, the single father is trying to raise his three young children – precocious twins Annabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (newcomer Joel Dawson) – on his own, with the help of their helplessly inefficient but well meaning housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, in what is a familiar role for her at this stage of her career). Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) tries to help out when she can, but, like her late mother, she is involved in a number of activist pursuits, agitating for suffragette rights, equal pay for workers, etc.

Struggling to keep up with the household bills, Michael has reluctantly put aside his artistic aspirations and taken a job at the same bank where his father worked. He has fallen behind in keeping up with the payments on paying off a bank loan, and now the bank’s avaricious chairman (Colin Firth) is pressuring to foreclose and take the family home away. Unless Michael can desperately locate a shares certificate before the end of the week.

It seems like there are dark, troubled times for the Banks family. The time is right for some magical help from Mary Poppins to heal the family and give them a taste of her special blend of medicine and wisdom. And in the midst of a windy afternoon, Mary does that, drifting down from the clouds not having aged a bit since the Banks children last saw her.

Mary is now played by Emily Blunt (from A Quiet Place, etc), taking over the iconic role from Julie Andrews. To her credit Blunt doesn’t try to replicate Andrews’ perfectly perfect performance, but puts her own stamp on the role. She brings her own demeanour to the role, and an infectious energy, but comes across as a little bit colder than the eternally perky and optimistic Andrews.

Mary sets out to bring the Banks family closer together with the help of Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning hit musical Hamilton in his first major film role), a cheerful and eternally optimistic lamplighter whose job it is to bring some light into the gloomy streets of London.

Written by screenwriter David Magee, Mary Poppins Returns remains reasonably faithful to the spirit of the original, and follows the template established by the Disney film. There is even a wonderful animated sequence in which Mary and Jack take the three children on a spectacular adventure. There is some great animation here, although the CGI created animation still looks rather old fashioned in style in keeping with the look of the original film. But this is not a cynical grab for cash; there is a real sense of affection for the material and the characters here.

The film also features some new songs from the team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, although there is nothing here to compare to the catchy tunes from the original. There are brief refrains of some of those Sherman brothers tunes though to remind us of the original, which adds a nice touch of nostalgia to the film. There are a couple of superbly staged and choreographed dance numbers featuring s troupe of lamplighters. And like the original a kite has a lot to do with solving the problems of the Banks family.

Director Rob Marshall is a dab hand at staging big screen musicals (Chicago, etc) and he does a good job here in capturing the spirit of the original with a couple of big musical show stopping numbers.

Marshall has also assembled a great ensemble supporting cast. The film is driven by the effortless chemistry between Blunt and Miranda, who puts his musical theatre experience to good use here. Whishaw brings his usual gravitas and intensity to his role as the adult Michael who has lost touch with that childhood sense of whimsy. Meryl Streep pops up in a brief and strange role as Mary’s eccentric cousin Topsy. Dick Van Dyke briefly reprises his role from the original, but to keep his appearance a surprise he was initially credited under the anagram of Navkcid Keyd), and Angela Lansbury (who appeared in Bedknobs And Broomsticks, another Disney live action fantasy about a magical nanny) appears as an elderly lady who sells balloons and dispenses wisdom. (The producers originally hoped that Andrews herself would appear in this cameo before she declined the offer).

Older audiences who grew up with the original may feel that Mary Poppins Returns is somewhat familiar and lacks the freshness and zip of the original, while younger audiences who haven’t seen the 1964 film may well enjoy this wonderful mix of song and animation and positive values. This is a worthy, if belated, follow up.

★★★☆

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