We’re in an era of sequels and remakes, and with 2018 being the biggest box office year in the history of cinema we’re going to be getting plenty more. If a studio can bring something old and beloved back they’re probably going to do it. It’s a crass use of nostalgia to make money and it can go horribly wrong. Taking beloved classics and making needless sequels is wildly successful, and horribly cynical.
It is, then, slightly ironic that Mary Poppins Returns, a movie that couldn’t be more of a poster child for a massive corporation digging up a classic for more money, is, in fact, one of the least calculated, most-heartwarming, charming films of the year. Cynicism, disillusionment, and humbuggery about a timeless classic getting a needless sequel can go fly a kite.
Marry Poppins Returns
Director: Rob Marshall
Release Date: December 19, 2018
Mary Poppins Returns is technically a sequel to the original film. We’re reintroduced to Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) Banks, now adults. Michael’s wife has just passed, leaving him with three children and no way to pay the mortgage on the family home after Michael was forced to take out loans from the very bank his father worked for. Things are looking down for the Banks family, and so enters Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) once again, this time accompanied by lamplighter and protege of Bert, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Song, dance, imagination, and a bit of vaudeville ensue.
I say that the film is technically a sequel because while the story definitely takes place after the previous film, most of the movie is basically a beat-for-beat retelling of the original film. Mary Poppins comes to the Banks’ house; the paternal figure is having a hard time; there’s a song about imagination; they go on an animated adventure; they visit a wacky friend; there’s a big dance number with all the lamplighters; a nice lullaby for the children; and a grand finale involving objects flying in the sky. You’ve seen this movie before, honestly, but despite all that, it feels fresh and charming. The beats may be the same but the tune is different and the lyrics are sublime. Things get flipped around or twisted; the big chimney sweep dance number on the rooftops is inverted into a big lamplighter dance number in the underground. Little shifts like this make the redundant seem new.
It, of course, helps that the music is incredible. The filmmakers have managed to capture that wonderful balance between musical and cheesiness that bring forth the happiness you remember from the original film. It’s hard to say if songs like “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” “The Place Where the Lost Things Go,” and “Nowhere to Go But Up” will become the eternal classics that their counterparts in the original movie — “Chim Chim Cheree,” “Feed the Birds,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” — are, but they’re good enough to be. It’s nearly impossible not to tap your foot along as Meryl Streep belts out “Turning Turtle” in a whimsical upsidedown house or to crack a smile at the vaudeville antics of Miranda and Blunt as they join some dancing penguins in “A Cover is Not the Book.”
It helps that the cast is this cast. I’ll discuss Blunt’s Mary Poppins later, but the film revels in its talent. Miranda, completely ignoring any real accent, channels Dick Van Dyke’s Bert like a man possessed. He doesn’t quite have the comic timing of Van Dyke, but he makes up for it in charm and vocals. He’s even given a bit of a rapping sequence, which turns out surprisingly good despite the odd context. Whishaw gives the film the emotional anchor it needs to not spin off out of control and his Michael Banks he is truly one of the few stories that breaks away from the mold of the original film, lending another twist that makes something that’s the same different.
The real scene stealer is Blunt as Mary Poppins, though. No one will ever be Julie Andrews ever again and, thankfully, Blunt realizes this. Her Mary Poppins is not Julie Andrews and never could be. Blunt takes the character in a bit different direction. Where Andrews kept things perfectly no-nonsense, Blunt seems to be having a bit more fun, almost winking at the camera with her antics. For Mary Poppins purists (do those exist?) it might be a bit of a shift, but it’s another small change that makes the movie more than a remake and instills it with its own soul. It may take you a little bit to get use to her as Mary Poppins if you’ve watched the original ad naseum as I have but you’ll get there and then you’ll love it.
The movies few faults come from when it actually tries to do something more than the original. While its emotional beats that differ are powerful, as Michael and Jane struggle with losing the family home and the passing of Michael’s wife, the more action-oriented sequences feel out of place for the film. There’s an extended chase sequence in the animated section that just feels clumsy, while the film’s penultimate sequence to save the Banks’ home falls a bit flat. Part of this may stem from the fact that Mary’s magic is far more pervasive in the real world this time around, meaning the film loses some of its mysterious charm when it overplays its hand.
All of that, however, is not enough to call this anything but a surprising success. The fact that nearly 50 years later the same whimsical and charming magic that made the original a classic can still shine through is a feat no one could predict. In an age of remakes, reboots, and relaunches, it’s incredible to find a movie that so embraces the past and yet feels like its own thing. In fact, the only magic that Mary Poppins Returns is lacking that the original has is the magic of nostalgia, a spell that can only be cast with time.