'Mary Poppins Returns' Brings Back a Beloved Nanny, but Fails to Hit the Same Highs
The music swells, the clouds clear, and a nanny descends from a sky riding an umbrella. For a brief moment at the start of Mary Poppins Returns -- the latest in Disney's steady stream of projects reviving its classics -- all that childhood wonder comes flooding back. That's not to say the rest of the movie is devoid of it entirely -- it's often perfectly lovely. But it also feels like director Rob Marshall is trying to stuff a spoonful of sugar in our mouths, blithely ignoring the medicine that's going down as well.
It's important to note, as star Lin-Manuel Miranda has often done, that Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel to the 1964 Julie Andrews-starring classic, not a remake. So, in that way, it's not like Disney's other recent efforts, such as The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast. Those "live action" reboots are largely recreations of the original films, with the additions of humans and/or hyper-realistic CGI animals. In 2019, the same thing will happen with Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King, the latter of which has already gotten flack for the fact that the trailer includes just a shot-for-shot recreation of "The Circle of Life" sequence. Everything old is new again.
I will admit, I go into each one of these projects excited. As an adult who was raised on Disney, the idea of fantasy-casting favorites with performers I currently love is exciting. (Beyoncé is playing Nala! Billy Eichner is Timon!) And as each one comes out I brace myself for disappointment, given that they range from entertaining (Jungle Book) to downright bad (Beauty and the Beast).
Mary Poppins Returns doesn't exactly follow this formula. It checks in with the Banks family about 20 years after the original. It's now the 1930s, during the Great Slump, and the grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is mourning his dead wife. He might lose the Cherry Tree Lane home where he and his three children live, thanks to some evil machinations at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank headed up by a pocket-watch-twirling Colin Firth. Michael's sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has taken up her mother's activist mantle -- "Sister Suffragette" is still a bop -- and is doing her best to help. Along comes Mary Poppins, now played by Emily Blunt, to restore both order and fantasy into everyone's lives. Like the original, the plot then becomes a haphazard jumble of loosely tied together scenarios that yield musical numbers. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The initial Mary Poppins is also somewhat unwieldy, it's just a question of how inspired these modern diversions are.
Blunt's performance is certainly inspired. She's one of those performers who can seemingly do no wrong, and here she plays Mary with a little more edge than Julie Andrews' nanny. Mary has always been a mystery, but Blunt's performance insists there's something a little unsettling about that. Her Mary is vain, and her lessons have a whiff of threat to them. It's a tantalizing interpretation -- this is not a Mary that necessarily "makes your heart so light." And yet, like so many of the darker elements at work in the sequel, the movie ignores them for mirth.
There are hints of Blunt's sharpness in a number like the Music Hall-inspired "A Cover Is Not the Book" -- a "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" stand-in that takes place in an animated universe -- which has a bawdier soul than its predecessor, an invitation to "read between the lines." On top of that, a whiff of sadness courses through Mary Poppins Returns. Ben Whishaw goes deep into Michael's anguish, for instance, with emotionally resonant effects. The death of their mother is at the forefront of the newest generation of Banks children's minds.
But Mary's mission isn't about processing grief. It's about lunacy and whimsy. And it seems like she hasn't really rewritten her playbook since the last time we saw her. The Uncle Albert role has essentially been turned into Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep, enthusiastic as ever, and with an inexplicable accent). Whereas Albert laughed so much he floated to the ceiling, Topsy is also untethered to the ground, thanks to an inverted shop. The chorus of chimneysweeps in "Step in Time" led by Dick Van Dyke has been transformed into a crew of lamplighters for "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" led by Miranda, as Jack. Jack, like Van Dyke's Bert, is a sidekick of sorts for Mary. As a boy he used to watch longingly as she interacted with the Banks family -- the class distinctions go undiscussed, but there are bike riders doing X-Games-type tricks.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs are pleasant, but fail to match the indelibility of the Sherman brothers' originals. This is all mostly fun stuff, but every so often you question, "Why?" as the narrative draws along to its inevitable conclusion: All anyone just needs is to believe in magic.
Except, that's not actually how the Banks family gets saved. Near the climax of the film, it turns out the family is able to keep the home thanks to a savvy investment. The message: Put some tuppence in the bank and you might earn some reward. It's cynical, but delivered with no irony. Invest your nostalgia -- in the form of money -- with Disney, and they'll give you a new spectacular. It will feel like what you're used to, but you may not be the same.