Directed by Rob Marshall
Written by David Magee
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ben Whishaw
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
MPAA rating: PG for cripes sake it’s Mary Poppins!
by Hunter Bush
Long-gap sequels, or "legacy sequels", are a tough nut to crack. Picking up an intellectual property from ten, twenty, thirty years or more ago, dusting it off and making something hopefully new and exciting out of it isn't as easy an undertaking as you might think. You have to draw enough from the original source material(s) to please older fans while remaining accessible to new audience members. I am immensely happy to say that Mary Poppins Returns is one of the best I've seen.
Mary Poppins Returns catches up with the Banks children from 1964's Mary Poppins as adults themselves. Jane (Emily Mortimer) has become politically active, (like her mother was) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), a widower, has children of his own. Trouble is, Michael's finances are in such disarray since his wife passed that he doesn't realize how close he is to losing his familial home and Jane has been so busy pursuing her own interests that she hasn't noticed Michael floundering. Into this chaos comes Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), to help course correct "the elder Banks children" while ostensibly nannying Michael's kids Anabel, Georgie, & John.
This "magical childhood companion returns to help their now-adult charge relearn about the joy and magic of life"-story might be becoming the new "Disney thing", as it's a very similar structure (in broad strokes) to Christopher Robin, released just this past August. As far as Disney having "a thing" goes, I vastly prefer this to the alternative, which seems to be "technologically improved but wholly unnecessary, virtually shot-for-shot remakes of animated classics, but with computers this time and potentially a live human here and there, when possible", a tack they've recently taken with Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017) (and they're got similar versions of Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan lined up in the next spoonful of years as well).
The thing that was foremost in my mind, as I’m sure it is with many of you, was, Would this damage the legacy of the original Mary Poppins any? That's the problem with "legacy sequels", if they get made at the wrong time or by the wrong people, suddenly you've got a Mary Poppins who's on Twitter, complaining about vape culture and saying "It's lit, children!". To be clear, we get NONE OF THAT, thank the movie gods. Though there are some noticeable differences from the original.
As I usually try to do before screening a sequel or remake, I re-watched the 1964 Robert Stevenson classic Mary Poppins the night before seeing Returns, to refresh me. It ended up reinforcing that Returns is a companion piece as much as a sequel. The structures of each are very similar and many of the central conceits for each of the musical numbers echo ones from the original. For instance, when Mary takes the kids into the art on a ceramic bowl where they cavort with several animated characters, you're gonna be reminded of her afternoon in Burt's chalk drawing and of watching Dick Van Dyke dance with the penguins; when Mary and her charges go visit her extremely wacky cousin (Meryl gotdang Streep!), I immediately thought of Uncle Albert, floating towards the ceiling, singing "I Love to Laugh".
There are a bunch of stylistic, thematic and visual echoes in Mary Poppins Returns, but they're all subtle; small. You may happen to notice what might be the pigeon lady (of 1964's heartbreakingly lovely "Feed the Birds" fame) sitting on the steps in one early shot, but the shot isn't built around the idea of making the visual reference land. So it doesn't matter if you do or not; it isn't the point of the shot. Some are more obvious of course, like Mary reprimanding Jane and Michael for the same things she had when they were children, but they feel like simple acknowledgments of a shared history rather than elbow-nudging references.
The songs, for example, are all original compositions and themes, so if you were worried about the possibility of everyone stopping to perform "Supercalifragilistic 2: Expialidocious Boogaloo", fear not. Written by composer Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Scott Whitman, I don't think the songs are quite as sing-along-able as the ones from the original, or not as instantly so. The exception being "Trip a Little Light Fantastic", which actually feels the most of-a-kind with the tone, spirit and cadence of the original film. If you had told me it was cut from the '64 soundtrack and re-recorded here, I would believe you. Opener "(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky" and closer "Nowhere to Go But Up" are the perfect songs to start and end with, respectively. "Lovely London Sky" gives an excellent sense of the people, time & place, while also setting the mood perfectly. "Nowhere to Go" acts as a perfect coda to the events of the film and will have you leaving the theater on a, if you'll forgive the pun, high note. The only misfire would have to be "Can You Imagine That?", as it's the only song I can't recall any of. I know where it comes in the story and what happens during the musical number, but have no sense of the song itself.
Now let's talk about Mary herself. Julie Andrews' portrayal was a sweetheart, her attitude the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine of her life lessons go down smoothly. Blunt's version, however, is a bit more assertive. When Burt (Van Dyke) complimented the Julie Andrews Mary's beauty, she smiled in a way that said "I know that, but thank you for noticing". Receiving a similar compliment, Emily Blunt's Mary gives a look that says "I know that, but what business is it of yours?"! Blunt says her interpretation was based more on the P.L. Travers books than the film. I haven't read them myself, but whether it's true or not, I think it's an inspired choice. It may not sound, on paper, like "Mary Poppins with an attitude" would work, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't conceive of a more appropriate time for what I came to think of as 'Bad Bitch Mary'. Young women could use a role model who's as self-assured and unshrinking as Mary is here. Honestly, who couldn't?
Another notable change from the original formula is the addition of not only the Banks-family-may-end-up-on-the-street stakes I mentioned above, but an honest-to-goodness villain! While 1964's Poppins was centered around Mary teaching Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) to enjoy life and to cherish his kids while he can, 2018's Returns has the kids and parents both attempting to find a way to save their house from corrupt and greedy banker William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth). Firth is excellent here because he's so charming that he never seems like the bad guy. Like Blunt's take on Mary, I think the addition of a villain is a smart move for modern audiences, giving them a more defined through-line to follow.
The rest of the cast are equally enjoyable. To hopefully no one's surprise, Lin-Manuel Miranda is amazing as Jack and a worthy heir to playing Mary's partner in crime, the role originally filled by Burt (Dick Van Dyke). He even gets to do Hamilton-lite at one point, delivering a lyric-heavy stanza in the song "A Cover is Not the Book", which made me wish he'd had more involvement in the songwriting. I'm notoriously difficult to please when it comes to child-actors (though paradoxically I feel awful bad mouthing them when they're bad) but I can happily say the Banks children here were pretty great. The stand-out to me was Joel Dawson as Georgie, if only for his delivery of the line "I flew a kite and caught a nanny". Most impressively, they even managed to get Navckid Keyd (whose only acting role was in the original) to make an appearance!
I unabashedly love the original Mary Poppins and would never want to see it diminished in any way, and I have to say Mary Poppins Returns filled me with the same sense of hope and goodwill as the original and feels made with the same kind of magic. With any kind of update or passing of the IP torch, what matters is the quality and Mary Poppins Returns is a worthwhile and enjoyable new addition.