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Mary Poppins Returns Movie Review

Mary Poppins (1964) movie poster Mary Poppins Returns

Theatrical Release: December 19, 2018 / Running Time: 131 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Rob Marshall / Writers: David Magee (screenplay & screen story); Rob Marshall, John De Luca (screen story); P.L. Travers ("Mary Poppins" stories)

Cast: Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Jack), Ben Whishaw (Michael Banks), Emily Mortimer (Jane Banks), Pixie Davies (Anabel Banks), Nathanael Salah (John Banks), Joel Dawson (Georgia Banks), Julie Walters (Ellen), Meryl Streep (Topsy), Colin Firth (William Weatherall Wilkins/voice of Wolf), Jeremy Swift (Gooding/voice of Badger), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Frye/voice of Weasel), Dick Van Dyke (Mr. Dawes Jr.), Angela Lansbury (Balloon Lady), David Warner (Admiral Boom), Jim Norton (Binnacle), Noma Dumezweni (Miss Penny Farthing), Karen Dotrice (Elegant Woman), Chris O'Dowd (voice of Shamus the Coachman), Mark Addy (voice of Clyde the Horse), Edward Hibbert (voice of Parrot Umbrella)

Songs: "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky", "A Conversation", "Can You Imagine That", "The Royal Doulton Music Hall", "A Cover Is Not the Book", "The Place Where Lost Things Go", "Turning Turtle", "Trip a Little Light Fantastic", "Nowhere to Go But Up"

 

Not too long ago, I firmly believed in a kind of statute of limitations when it came to sequels. If you waited more than a few years to follow up a beloved movie, the odds were that you'd lose whatever magic you had. There were
plenty of examples of untimely sequels that fell short. The most obvious was 1990's The Godfather, Part III. That same year brought The Two Jakes and Texasville, unloved sequels to the '70s masterpieces Chinatown and The Last Picture Show. Even when the sequels had their merits, like Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money or the '80s kid cult classic Return to Oz, they weren't in the same league as the classics they followed.

The past ten years have prompted me to reconsider this theory. You could chalk up movies like Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, and Incredibles 2 to Pixar being the industry outlier and those animated films don't have the same challenges of live-action sequels whose actors have visibly aged. But take a look at this century's work from Harrison Ford and you'll find three sequels to '80s movies that many would argue are every bit as strong as their immediate predecessors. Okay, well maybe you're among the many vocal detractors of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens unquestionably rank among the greatest sci-fi works of this decade. Many (not me) would also include Mad Max: Fury Road in their ranks and if anyone wanted me to, I'd extoll the virtues of Men in Black 3 and Tron: Legacy.

My new theory is that with the right people and the right approach, any movie, no matter how classic and how old, can yield a rewarding sequel. Mary Poppins Returns is a testament to that. The original 1964 movie is considered the crowning achievement, in film at least, of Walt Disney. It was the only feature his studio made that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and its win for Best Actress (Julie Andrews) at the same ceremony still stands as arguably the biggest Oscar win for the studio bearing his name.

To some, a sequel arriving now in the twilights of Andrews and co-star Dick Van Dyke's lives may seem sacrilege. They may even quote Walt's anti-sequel stance laid forth in his famous "You can't top pigs with pigs" utterance back in the 1930s, the irony being that Walt tried to do just that with three sequels to his hit Silly Symphony short Three Little Pigs. I don't believe anyone at Disney is trying to top Poppins with Poppins here. Nonetheless, they have succeeded at reproducing the magic and enchantment of the '60s movie with a bona fide crowd-pleaser that finds the common ground between familiar old traditions and spectacular modern production techniques.

Mary Poppins returns in "Mary Poppins Returns" and this time, the magical nanny is played by Emily Blunt.

Returns is set during "The Great Slump", the period in the late 1920s when much of the world experienced economic downturn. Our attention is turned, once again, to Cherry Tree Lane, where the now grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is single-handedly raising three kids after the recent death of his wife. The mustachioed widower is doing the best he can, working as a bank teller to support his largely fruitless art career. Nonetheless, having taken out a mortgage on the family's splendid old house to pay his wife's medical bills, he now finds himself having missed three payments. That's enough for two lawyers from the same bank that employs him, the Fidelity Fiduciary where his father worked in the original film, to foreclose on the house if the balance of the loan is not repaid in mere days.

Michael and his close big sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), a labor union organizer, recall that their father left them shares in the bank, which would presumably cover the debts. Unfortunately, the siblings cannot find a certificate proving ownership. Nor can the bank's new boss William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), who agrees to stay at his desk until the midnight deadline but will extend no further grace period than that.

Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). The magical nanny flies in on the old Banks family kite, which youngest son Georgie (Joel Dawson) has chased down in the park on a windy day. As when Jane and Michael were kids, Mary Poppins is there to make things right for the family,
teaching the kids some values while also treating them to out-of-this-world excitement. Blunt's Mary Poppins is just like Andrews' was: proper in manner and diction, coy in her explanations (or lack thereof), and with no shortage of tricks up her sleeve, from the talking parrot on the end of her umbrella to the ability to transform the Banks' bathtub into an ocean wonderland.

The Bert of this version is a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the decorated Broadway phenomenon Hamilton) who knew the playful, cheery chimney sweep/one-man band (who is said to be off traveling the world). Poppins and Jack treat the Banks kids to a number of fantastical adventures, including a journey around a cracked porcelain bowl and an outing to a colorful musical revue. The excursions are of temporary relief but also considerable concern to Michael, who has inherited his father's grown-up mindset and distaste for frivolity.

Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda) take the Banks children on an animated adventure in "Mary Poppins Returns."

I've already said enough about the plot, which is comparable to the original film's without being excessively derivative of it. In fact, that describes just about everything about this sequel, which comes to us from veteran movie musical director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Nine). Marshall receives his first writing credit here, as one of three men attributed with the screen story, the other two being David Magee (Life of Pi, Finding Neverland, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), who alone takes screenplay credit, and veteran Marshall producer/first-time scribe John DeLuca. Of course, these three middle-aged American men are drawing from the series of children's books written by Australian-British author P.L. Travers. The typical viewer won't know how much they pull from Travers' books and how much they invent.
The important thing is that this production does an impressive job of channeling the original's delights without attempting to merely repeat or recycle them.

This is not necessarily a feat that you assume Marshall has in him. Most of his movies have been adapted from the stage, a practice he began when graduating from choreographer to director on the 1999 Annie he helmed for ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney" revival. My estimation of Marshall has not aligned with the masses. I'm not a fan of Chicago, his first theatrical release, which won six Oscars including Best Picture. On the other hand, Nine was widely panned and I enjoyed it as a Fellini fan. But none of his films, which also include Memoirs of a Geisha and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, has shown him to be a great storyteller or visionary. Mary Poppins Returns announces him as both of those things. Maybe it's a fluke. Maybe it's just the right combination of filmmaker and material. Whatever the case may be, Mary Poppins Returns is his best film to date and it's not even close.

It helps that Marshall and Disney have assembled highly talented people here. I don't know if there's any actress today with a Q score as high as Emily Blunt. She's British, she has star power, she can sing, and she's only a few years older than stage-seasoned Andrews was when she made her iconic film debut. The list of names you could come up with for this part and not cringe is short, especially since Amy Adams is American and has already done the musical Disney heroine thing to perfection (twice in fact). Blunt has proven immensely likable in a variety of films from good sci-fi (Looper, Edge of Tomorrow) to adult-oriented thrillers (The Girl on the Train, Sicario) and this year's best horror movie (A Quiet Place). She shined in Marshall's Into the Woods, which earned her a fourth Golden Globe film nomination. Her appealing performance as Mary Poppins may be the one that earns her an overdue first Oscar nomination.

There are those who value singing talent above anything else in movie musicals. They groan the loudest when Pierce Brosnan and Russell Crowe are asked to belt out songs. They may even complain about the La La Land leads' qualifications in these departments. This demographic should be quite pleased with Blunt and perhaps downright giddy about her closest thing to a co-lead. Actors don't really become celebrities via the stage these days, but Miranda did. And this is about as perfect a vehicle for him to make the leap to feature films as you could imagine. While he does not contribute to the film's songs (as he did on Moana), he performs them well and with ample charisma.

All of the songs were written new for this film by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, whose Broadway collaborations include Hairspray (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2011). They have big shoes to fill, since brothers Richard and Robert Sherman penned such indelible and enduring tunes for the original movie. It's unfair to expect these ones to pop so vibrantly after a single viewing, but the first impression they make is a very good one. There are nine original songs, three of which are also reprised. Almost all of them showcase the whimsy, wordplay, and wonder you expect. The two that Disney is campaigning for the Best Original Song Oscar are Blunt's "The Place Where Lost Things Go" and the Miranda-driven "Trip a Little Light Fantastic." They're both enjoyable numbers and pose a serious threat to A Star Is Born in that category. I especially enjoyed "A Cover Is Not the Book", a Blunt-Miranda duet performed in a cartoon world.

"Hamilton" creator/star Linn-Manuel Miranda makes a fine leap from stage to silver screen as a kindly Cockney lamplighter named Jack.

That's right. Like its predecessor, Returns boasts some sequences set in traditionally animated worlds. Naturally, the process of blending mediums has improved in the fifty-four years since the first film. But the visuals in these bits, overseen by Disney and DreamWorks veterans Ken Duncan and James Baxter, are very much in the spirit of the original's classic 2D Disney animation. Moviegoers somewhat resisted that form in The Princess and the Frog and 2011's Winnie the Pooh. Hopefully, they're cool with it here because it really does suit the film and gives us another layer of the all-encompassing magic that makes the original both quintissential Disney and truly special.

I feel compelled to wrap up this enthusiastic review because I fear high expectations may set you up for disappointment and because I think much of the film's beauty lies in not knowing exactly what to expect. But I am pleased to report that this movie does right in just about every way. Unlike the live-action remakes that simply refashion beloved animated classics, this one has a wealth of original ideas it executes properly.
I'd also place this a cut above other original Disney movies, like Princess and the Frog or Moana, that have relied on traditions to near-excess. Returns may be a sequel but it stands tall on its own ideas and not merely on a faithful tone and respect for the original.

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the appearances made by two '90s-inducted Disney Legends now in their early 90s: Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. The former is a most satisfying bit that must qualify as the greatest nonagenarian turn in a film. The latter, though not quite as fitting, is an agreeable runner-up. Both TV crime solvers get to sing, as does the most decorated actress in film history. Meryl Streep plays Poppins' sixth cousin Tipsy, the Uncle Albert of this production, in a flamboyant and perhaps superfluous but enjoyable upside down musical number. Van Dyke is not the only original cast member to return. There's a brief walk-on cameo that should put a smile on your face, should you recognize the actress. Hint: it is not 95-year-old Glynis Johns.

Related Reviews:
Mary Poppins
Directed by Rob Marshall: Into the Woods Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Nine Chicago
Emily Blunt: A Quiet Place The Muppets | Ben Whishaw: Paddington | Meryl Streep: Florence Foster Jenkins The Giver
Emily Mortimer: Hugo | Colin Firth: The King's Speech Magic in the Moonlight Bridget Jones's Baby
Now in Theaters: Ralph Breaks the Internet Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Mary Queen of Scots Once Uppon a Deadpool
21st Century Disney: Enchanted Moana The Princess and the Frog Tangled Winnie the Pooh Christopher Robin Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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Reviewed December 13, 2018.



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