Over 50 years ago, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins was released. The film, originally starring Julie Andrew and Dick Van Dyke, centers around a magical nanny who sweeps in on the East wind only to leave on the West. Nearly perfect in every single way, the film casts an imposing shadow on director Rob Marshall‘s sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Marshall’s film, while adorned with an exceptional performance from Emily Blunt, is bloated, bombastic, loud, and ultimately shifts the character even further from Travers’ original conception and closer to Walt Disney’s perception.
Mary Poppins Returns opens with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a Lumiere, riding his bicycle down Cherry Tree Lane performing the film’s first number “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky”. The song, as with all the music, is composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Miranda’s schmaltzy waltz number jingles to an acceptable finish, plopping us in the obvious and starting a disturbing trend of string-laden ballads with surface depth. Did we really need a song in Mary Poppins Returns about London, tea, and the sky? Hitting the nail a bit too firmly on the head, if you ask me.
The story settles on the now adult banks children, brother and sister, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Michael, has three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Anabel and John, the oldest, are both sensible and precocious. On the other hand, Georgie, the youngest, still retains his impish childlike curiosity. The nanny, an aging eccentric and ambivalent cockney Ellen (Julie Walters), completes the family. Across the street still lives Admiral Boom (David Warner) and Mr. Binnacle (Jim Norton), though in their elderly age their cannon is never on time with Big Ben anymore (do with that imagery whatever you’d like).
However, all is not well on Cherry Tree Lane. Michael, now a widower, took a loan out on the family home to pay for his wife’s medical bills. Currently near default on his loan, now due in full, his house is under foreclosure.
Only two crucial events can forestall their doom: 1. finding the bank shares taken out by Michael and Jane’s father Mr. Banks, which are lost. 2. Mary Poppins. By the way, the two foreclosure agents are both wonderfully played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Jeremy Swift.
Emily Blunt portrays the magical nanny, putting her unique stamp on the character. Different from the Mary Poppins you remember, Blunt plays her in a Doctor Who style. She’s more mischievous, more strict, and serious. Blowing in on the East Wind, Mary Poppins offers to save the Banks children and their children. All the while, Jane and Michael look for their father’s shares. The two even visit the bank to ask for an extension from William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth). He’s the nephew of the original bank owner’s son, and he’s not as helpful as he appears. The rest of the film then sees Mary Poppins, and sometimes Jack, teaching the kids to be kids again and see the world in a different way, while tutoring Michael in the same lessons he learned as a child, but has now forgotten.
Before watching Mary Poppins Returns, I’d recommend viewing Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks, both will provide sufficient grounding for minor and reoccurring characters. They’ll also provide a little insight on why the film often doesn’t work.
Though the set pieces, effects, and dance sequences are all extraordinary, especially the 2D animation of the “A Cover is Not the Book” sequence, the songs, for the most part, are average. They’re loud. They’re bombastic. They’re excessive. The songs depend on trying to replicate the nonsensical whimsy of Mary Poppins through numbers like, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” performed by Miranda. Ironically, the word “bombastic” is used in the song’s lyrics. Hollow and forgettable should have accompanied that adjective because there’s nothing remarkable at the center of this glitzy show tune, just layers of expected strings and vocal harmonies. Miranda’s voice isn’t particularly special either, which becomes a let down as he’s in the film more than Blunt. In fact, Jacks’ sole purpose springs from him shouting, “It’s Mary Poppins!” every 5 minutes. There’s an annoying quality in the way the screenplay sketches Miranda’s character.
Meryl Streep’s “Turning Turtles” (the title should tell you everything) is another forgettable trite tune that hammers home the message of three-fourths of the compositions, seeing the world in a different way. The songs in Mary Poppins Returns are too direct and miss that musicals are at their best when not singing about one message. Even the best song, “The Place Where the Lost Things Go,” packed with every lyrical cliche your rhyming dictionary can fit, finds the obvious route in what’s supposed to be a subtle lullaby. The song works solely because of Blunt’s soothing soft delivery, only adding to a performance that really holds this bloated film together. In fact, Mary Poppins Returns on a whole needs more soothing moments. Too often when a bombastic song ends, one minute later, a reprise of that song explodes for another 30 seconds.
Even more troubling is the complete lack of period research that went into the songs. More concerned with making allusions to earlier Mary Poppins‘ compositions, the songwriters never figure out what made those songs so singular. More than stirring melodies, the Sherman brothers created timeless music through research. Mary Poppins is a period piece, set during Edwardian England. Therefore, the music makes homages to music hall and vaudevillian stylings. Mary Poppins Returns is set during the 1930’s. If you told me the events of the film occurred during the 50’s, I’d believe you. There’s no characteristic, other than Lumieres, affixing the film to the 30’s. If Mary Poppins Returns wanted to be singular and unique, we’d hear music with Jazz influences. Instead, the songs are a combination of generic Disney ballading and Mary Poppins rips. The screen and songwriters make the prospects of analyzing Mary Poppins Returns on its own merits difficult.
The film also suffers from the incongruity of Michael Banks, much as he’s nearly saved by Whishaw’s emotionally raw performance. The character acts out a synergy between Michael’s flaws, our modern precepts of a father, and the character of Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. Here, Michael grieves his recently deceased wife, a soon to be foreclosed home, and his attention starved children. These obstacles should be enough to sustain the film, yet screenwriters David Magee, John DeLuca, and Marshall add that Michael has also lost his childlike quality. Like most adults, he’s forgotten how to see the obvious. The addition of this sentimentality harks to the initial struggle between Walt Disney and Travers, making a grim story too neat.
Not viewing the world through childlike spectacles doesn’t preclude Michael from mourning his wife, saving his home, or believing in his children, but Mary Poppins Returns would like us to believe the opposite. The film would like to draw parallels between Michael and his father Mr. Banks. But Michael isn’t Mr. Banks, an archetype of Mary Poppins‘ Edwardian period. Michael is not a penny pinching emotionally distant parental figure. Instead, he’s a modern father who you’d sooner find in Stuart Little than anything resembling the 30’s. Michael doesn’t need to become childlike again, just as his father did, and he doesn’t have to have something magical happen to him. The screenplay heaps a spoonful of grown-up cynicism on a character who isn’t very cynical, causing the story to backtrack and conclude with a superfluous balloon sequence whose only needs are to tie-up said loose end, make a feigned connection to the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” number, and bring in Angela Lansbury.
The Disney style, much like Travers initially feared, undermines what’s a melancholic story in lieu of sentimentality and tidiness. The film wants to connect the dots, aims for magic to fix everything. However, while the world is magical, problems aren’t. The original Mary Poppins understood this, mainly because of Travers’ influence, which makes the “Feed the Birds” motif so powerful and gripping. And while it’s unfair to compare Mary Poppins Returns to a nearly perfect film, the sequel goes out of its way to ape the original, thereby, opening itself up to those comparisons. The figures at the center of Mary Poppins solve their problems through simple and grounded human kindness. Mr. Banks doesn’t need to float away on a balloon to realize what he’s been missing and, more so, neither does Michael. Though the film will have mass appeal and audiences will faun over these familiar characters, its bloated makeup ultimately makes Mary Poppins Returns into the glitzy, bombastic, hollow mess that Travers always feared.