Back in the day, live-action Disney fare at the movie theater was guaranteed box office. No matter if it was MARY POPPINS, DARBY O’GILL & THE LITTLE PEOPLE, or THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES, children clamored to see features with Walt’s name on it. I should know – I was one of those kids. These days, the Disney company still can pull the kiddies in with their animation productions, but we shall see if their new live-action MARY POPPINS RETURNS can accomplish the same. Granted, there is plenty of animation in this movie, but its story is aimed much more at adults than kids with its theme of never growing too old to play. Nonetheless, the film is a delight and should be a big crowd-pleaser, but we’ll see if the kids bite.
It’s ironic that despite the film’s family fare marketing, and the presence of three cute kids in the story, MARY POPPINS RETURNS could be a bit lost on anyone under 18. For starters, the main character arc belongs not to one of the three Banks children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) but rather, to their beleaguered father, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw). Other elements that will be appreciated more by adults include Marc Shaiman’s effervescent score and its homage to the classic musical score that the Sherman Brothers wrote for the first MARY POPPINS. (The 19th Century English music hall references will be lost on the kids as well.) Then there are dozens of British words, the European caste system at play, and the politics of the Depression that will leave younger audiences scratching their heads.
Still, none of it may matter once a squeaking dolphin pops up out of the Banks’ bathtub and invites everyone into the water to play. From there the film will delight all ages with its mix of music, dance, and animation. That adorable mammal’s appearance comes some 20 minutes into the story, coinciding with the return of the titular nanny (Emily Blunt) who needs to get the Banks home into shape. Ostensibly, she’s there to help manage the home and children, but she’s really there to turn around the life of Michael who has lost his way since the death of his wife.
Mary took care of Michael as a child, along with his sister Jane, in the first movie, but that film was really about their father’s woes. In both versions, Mary brings discipline to the disorganized home but is really there to return the humanity and sense of childlike hope and joy to the family patriarch. Both dads are bankers, both dads have lost the ability to laugh, and both need a lot of intervention.
Jane (Emily Mortimer), his long-suffering sister, could have her load lightened too as she is preoccupied with the rights of the working class in Britain – there’s a topic for the young ones – and spends too much of her time worrying about Michael and the kids. It’s not easy, especially during a Depression that’s having its way with the world in the early 1930s.
Mary, the ever-efficient nanny, drops out of the sky, as if a gift from the heavens, and immediately takes charge in turning things around. Sure, Michael’s behind in the mortgage and might lose the house to the boss at the bank where he’s a teller, but you know that the greedy charlatan Wilkins (Colin Firth) doesn’t stand a chance against Mary’s magic.
The children cannot resist her charms either. As soon as Mary draws a bath for the kids, she magically turns it into an animated underwater adventure where everyone plunges into the tub to bob along to the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. There, Mary and her charges swim and breathe as if they’re fish and they have a grand old time. Depression? Losing homes and jobs? Bah.
While underwater, Mary sings “Can You Imagine That?” which conveys the film’s theme. The world above could use more imagination and soon the children will become true believers and help translate the message to their forlorn father. Perhaps it’s a bit on-the-nose, not to mention the same moral of the first story, but it’s hard to argue when you’re smiling and tapping your toes right along.
A lot of the film lines up precisely with the original MARY POPPIN. The same fantasy world exists to teach everyone lessons about how to navigate the real world. The songs virtually line up across the board with the first movie’s beats and plot points. It shouldn’t get lost on anyone just how similar the new film’s upbeat finale “Nowhere to Go but Up” echoes “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from the first, but this isn’t just a sequel, it is a return. (It’s right there in the title, folks.)
The songs are too much fun to resist, and Shaiman knows how to make them memorable and keep them moving the story along. Blunt is a hoot also paying tribute to Julie Andrews’ take on the role without impersonating her. If anything, Blunt’s Mary is more acidic (blunter?) and more comical than Andrews, and there’s no actress in Hollywood these days who can do a slyer side-eye than Blunt. Lin-Manuel Miranda makes for a terrific foil for here, and his glee as he cuts loose in song and dance is utterly infectious. Why the Academy hasn’t called him yet to host this year’s Oscars is beyond me.
Still, as good as those two are, it is Whishaw who gives the best performance in the film. He makes his character’s pain palpable while performing the second song in the movie entitled “A Conversation.” There, he talks to his deceased wife while struggling to keep his house in order. His angst adds necessary gravitas to all the froth. Whishaw has had quite a year, starting in 2018 with the sleeper hit PADDINGTON 2 where he voices the bear, and continuing through to sterling turns in the TV miniseries A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL and this film.
And even though we know that Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury pop up in the film due to the trailer, what a joy it is to see these two 93-year-old performers giving it 100%. Don’t be surprised if you break out in spontaneous applause when Van Dyke jumps up on a table and does some hoofing. Perhaps he could accompany Miranda in hosting the Oscars come February. You’re welcome, Academy.
Writer David Magee may borrow a lot from the first film, but he gives it his own sense of wit and writes a lot of funny quips for Mary’s wise-acre umbrella. (Voiced by veteran performer Edward Hibbert.) I do wish he drafted the kid characters with more dimension, but at least he didn’t make Firth’s bad guy into a one-dimensional cad. Magee even suggests that Wilkins could be redeemed at the end.
Director Rob Marshall does an elegant job of keeping it all bubbling and brewing along, never rushing scenes or adding too many cuts to the musical numbers the way he did in CHICAGO. The production values are exquisite, especially Sandy Howell’s costumes. Don’t be surprised if she wins her fourth Oscar in February for the candy-colored, illustrative look she gives to all the wardrobe in the fantasy scenes. And it’s simply wonderful to see old-fashioned, cel-style animation emerge front and center in so many of the set-pieces. Computer generated animation is terrific but too prolific in today’s film world. Other styles can succeed as well if given half a chance, and the simpler illustration styles work wonders here especially with a film bathed in such old-school nostalgia.
For all those reasons and many more, MARY POPPINS RETURNS serves as an elixir to our turbulent times. That’s about as sweet a present as anyone could expect for the holidays, young or old. Let’s just hope that as many kids want to unwrap such a gift as the adults out there.