By Nikola Grozanovic
How much do you love Mary Poppins? I’m referring to the original 1964 Julie Andrews version. The answer to that question will most likely determine how you take to Rob Marshall’s new ‘sequel’ – which takes place around 30 years after the original events, with young Michael and Jane Banks all grown up. The inverted commas imply that Marshall’s film is more remake than sequel in more ways than one; most lazy, some fun. Now that alone shouldn’t make Mary Poppins Returns bad. Disappointingly, Marshall’s new musical feels more like a nostalgic ploy on those of us who hold the original dear to our hearts, while offering nothing that the original doesn’t offer with ten times more charisma.
That’s not to say that Mary Poppins Returns is a complete drag. It’s Depression-era London and the eponymous super-nanny (Blunt) returns to the Bankses during peak family crisis time. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has lost his wife, and in the process can’t seem to put the pieces of his adult responsibilities back together. He’s in danger of getting his family home repossessed by evil banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) because he’s given a fantastically short amount of time to pay off a huge loan. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is there to help, in between being a Labour union organiser, while Michael’s three adorable children – Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaniel Saleh) and little troublemaker Georgie (Joel Dawson) – show more maturity than he ever did as a child and clearly have no need for a nanny. A nanny is what they get though, after the wind calls back Mary Poppins from the sky, and Michael and Jane scramble to find the legal evidence proving their father owns shares in the bank and pay off the loan. Meanwhile, stepping in for Dick Van Dyke’s original chimney sweep Bert is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unoriginal lamplighter Jack, who’s on the sidelines but always around when he’s needed (and even when he’s not).
Mary takes care of the children while Michael busies himself with sorting out their lives and, this being the Mary Poppins world, she takes them on a magical journey full of important, not-so-hidden life messages. And full of songs, of course.
Things start well, with Jack’s ‘Lovely London Sky’ opener immediately whisking the audience into fantasy land since hardly anyone in real life would call the skies above London ‘lovely’. Blunt’s entrance is enthralling, and the first adventure she takes the kids on – a very, very deep bath – is an amazing concept but foreshadows some regrettable things to come as the garish costumes, so-so song and oddball CGI deflate the sequence. The film hits its highest note during the halfway mark, in a genuinely wonderful half-2D animated half-live action trip inside a china bowl, but everything from that moment on seems to wither further and further away into more and more nonsensical, syrupy randomness. So unfortunate too, because the love for this world is felt from practically every performer – especially Blunt.
Julie Andrews’ shoes are hard to fill, but this re-casting is, dare I say, practically perfect in every way. Mary Poppins is still the same ol’ narcissistic manipulator that you love to love and Blunt absolutely nails it (with a fantastic voice to boot). Miranda is probably the one who puts the most heart into his role, but his Jack is nowhere near as charming as Van Dyke’s Bert – though admittedly the “A Cover is Not a Book” duet with Blunt is the film’s showstopper.
The core issue with this movie is that it doesn’t know what it is. It rehashes practically every single theme, message, character arc and situation that the original one has like a bad remake, with songs that don’t hold a flicker of a candle to the original’s classics. Yet it’s meant to be a sequel, with new actors (and one heart-warming cameo from an old crew member). There’s a reason I’ve kept comparing Mary Poppins Returns to Mary Poppins, and that’s because the former relies too heavily on the latter’s charms to succeed. In that one china bowl sequence and in Emily Blunt’s performance, it does. In practically every other way, it does not. If it’s a nostalgia trip you’re looking for, watch Mary Poppins again. If it’s a fresh take you’re after, you won’t find one that’s fresh here. And if you want your kids to see the more modern version, just have them watch the far superior original.
DIRECTED BY Rob Marshall
STARRING Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw
US 2018 130 mins