Mary Poppins Returns is one of those movies that has nothing but the best intentions but falls just short, not because of its hubris, but because of its failure of nerve. Which is not to say it is a bad movie. It’s not.
Rob Marshall has made an enjoyable and whimsical good time when it has its druthers. While the songs are never quite as good as the ones from the original Mary Poppins they are still fun and quite infectious. I’m not entirely sure if the memorability of the original Mary Poppins music is because of its greatness or because most of us were young enough to watch it a gazillion times until it became firmly embedded into our psyche.
For as much as I wanted Mary Poppins Returns to be better, I have to say the children in the theater I was in seemed absolutely riveted. A scene at the end has the Banks family walking through the park. They come upon Angela Lansbury selling balloons. Sure enough after buying the “perfect balloon” it lifts them into the air. One little girl, a few rows down from me, jumped out of her seat in shock and awe. A stark reminder that the intended audience is not a white male in his late thirties who may or may not be just a little bit too jaded.
Can we all just take a second and count our blessings for the impeccable talent that is Emily Blunt? Seriously, the woman is one of the most versatile actresses working today. Somehow it feels as if we give her short shrift. A large part of the success of Mary Poppins Returns is due to her seemingly endless consummate talent.
She struts about the movie like an all-knowing trickster god. Taking the children Annabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathanael Saleh), Georgie (Joel Dawson) on one adventure after another. Only to turn to them afterward and feign ignorance of anything magical. Blunt’s iteration of Mary Poppins is a far-seeing agent of chaos as she pushes one domino just to see the others fall.
When the now grown up Michael (Ben Whishaw) rushes out to work he hands his briefcase to his housemaid Ellen (Julie Walters). Mary takes the briefcase indicating she’ll hold it so Ellen can help Michael with his coat. Michael rushes out without his briefcase.
Don’t worry Mary volunteers to drop it off for him at the bank. She and the children have errands to run anyways. All of this is part of a much broader plan of Mary’s to expose the acting president of the bank Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth) as the scheming conniving scoundrel he is. She’s a sly one that Mary.
If she was played by anyone else other than Blunt we may have rolled our eyes. Instead, we find ourselves chuckling at Mary’s sly little winks to her own reflection. Which is, in fact, Marshall’s way to have her wink at us without actually having her wink at us.
David Magee’s script is a real problem. It keeps Mary Poppins Returns from being a great movie and instead grounds it as a really good time. The original Mary Poppins, based loosely on the books by P.L. Travers didn’t really have all that complicated of a plot. Mister Banks worked too much and wasn’t spending enough time with his family. In turn, his kids were acting more like adults than children.
Magee feels compelled to not only throw in a dead wife for Michael, but also an entire subplot where the house is about to be repossessed because he took out a loan and forgot to make payments on it for three months. For a movie aimed at children, it spends an awful lot of time trying to make things make sense. Logic and plot holes are things small-minded critics on the internet rant about. Children, on the other hand, don’t really care why cars, bears, robots, or teapots talk, they just do. Why wouldn’t they?
Luckily Marc Shaiman’s score and Scott Wittman’s lyrics help keep the all too sensical movie afloat. The songs are fun and frothy. While not exactly on par with the previous film’s songs, it doesn’t embarrass itself either. On the other hand, Magee, Shaiman, and Wittman seem shackled by Marshall’s almost blind fealty to the original.
The fatal flaw of Mary Poppins Returns is how it can’t stop reminding you of the first Mary Poppins. It takes place in the same house, with the same family. The Banks children have grown up, Michael an aspiring artist has given up his passion and gone to work at his father’s old bank. Jane (Emily Mortimer) has grown up and taken after her mother. She is a fierce proponent of progressive causes. Where her mother was all about Suffrage, Jane is leading marches for workers rights.
Instead of Burt the lamplighter we have Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Jack is smitten by Jane. I must admit Mary Poppins the matchmaker was a subplot I never knew I needed. Blunt, Mortimer, and Miranda pull it off so effortlessly it’s charming.
The neighbor is still the old retired admiral who fires a cannon to mark every hour. Instead of Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn), we have Topsy (Meryl Streep). Instead of having to cure a case of merriment, Topsy’s world literally gets turned upside down the second Wednesday of every month. Dick Van Dyke even makes an appearance as Mr. Dawes, the thought to be retired President of the bank. Every aspect of Mary Poppins Returns is in some way or another a hat tip to the original.
A little reference here or there is alright but after a while it becomes grating. Thankfully Blunt fireman-carries Magee’s script across the finishing line. Blunt has a song, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”, that again is a reference to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. But her delivery of it is spot on and transforms the song from a clear homage to something altogether magical.
The crown jewel though is the live action blended with 2d animation sequence in which Mary and Jack do a vaudeville duet, “A Cover Is Not the Book”. The two trade off telling vaguely vulgar parables while dancing about with the familiar animated penguins. The whole scene is infectious because Mary Poppins Returns forgets itself and just revels in the sheer whimsy of it all without trying to make boring old sense.
Moments like “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” which is catchy and isn’t a reference to anything feel joyous and alive. Unshackled from having to live up to previous experience, the song is able to exist as its own thing. The London fog adding a layer of mystery and atmosphere.
Marshall is not a newcomer to musicals. He’s made cinematic adaptations of Chicago, Nine, Memories of a Geisha, and Into the Woods. More than Mama Mia 2 or The Greatest Showman, Marshall understands the importance of dance in a musical. The aforementioned “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an example of Marshall and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe allowing motion and movement propel a scene forward and imbue the song with energy and verve.
The song is an homage to the rooftop dance scene from the original. But it sails pass homage and becomes instead delightful. Marshall and Beebe eschew expectations. Deep in the London sewers, lost, the quartet stumbles upon a matte painting of the London skyline. What follows is one of the best dance numbers of the year. It never tries to be the rooftop dance scene but somehow by referencing but doing its own thing it transcends and becomes something odd and memorable.
Mary Poppins Returns is bright, colorful, and at times waltzes its way through the imagination and becomes something all its own. Except those times are dampened by a misplaced desire to remind us that it knows that we know it is a sequel no one asked for. Thankfully for both Marshall and us, Blunt is able to shoulder the weight.