Review: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Needs a Spoonful of Sugar to Make the Medicine Go Down

dfn_mary_poppins_returns_ver2_300Disney’s original filmed version of P.L. Travers’ novel Mary Poppins won five Academy Awards, including an Oscar for Julie Andrews’ debut big-screen performance in the titular role, as well as earning nominations in eight other categories, including Best Picture. It cleaned up at the box office and several of its songs became pop music classics, setting a high standard for any would-be sequel to follow.

Dissatisfied, however, with Disney’s musical version of her novel, Travers forbade any further adaptations of her books in the Mary Poppins series, despite the film’s immense popularity. Since she passed away more than 20 years ago, we’ve seen Saving Mr. Banks (2014), which revolved around a two-week period during which Travers kicked back against changes to her novel during pre-production of the original film. Assorted documentaries have shed further information about her life.

Now comes Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel that picks up the original film’s story some 20 years later, as the grown-up Banks children wrestle with the effects of ‘The Big Slump’ (i.e., the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s) on their own extended family. Eager to please, the film is an overstuffed musical comedy that wants to be all things to all people: an adventure for the entire family, but also a hip and cool, dazzling thing that will play out nicely when it is inevitably transformed into a stage production.

In its basic plot structure, the self-described sequel bears an uncanny, at times uncomfortable resemblance to the original, distinguishing itself primarily through a musical score featuring new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and the performance by a somewhat less perky (than Julie Andrews), more deadpan Emily Blunt as the titular nanny who descends from the clouds when she senses that the Banks family is in need of her assistance.

And, oh my, the Banks family is in trouble! Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is raising his three young children alone after the death of his wife in the not-too-distant past; they are all still grieving. Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) visits frequently with a cheerful, positive attitude, but Michael’s grief, which has tipped him into a deep emotional depression, hangs over the family’s home — which they are about to lose, owing to Michael’s low income as a bank teller, compounded by his inability to manage the household finances. No wonder Mary Poppins is needed!

Blunt fully inhabits the role of the super-powered domestic, who charms the children but once again finds the adults to be a longer-term challenge. Of course, the “long term” is only about five days, which is the length of time before a deadline, created by Michael’s own bank, looms large. Failure to prove his solvency will mean that Michael and his family must vacate the premises of the only home the children have ever known.

For a film that is intended (theoretically) for the entire family to enjoy together (again, theoretically), the atmosphere sustains more dark chords than expected. But we can always count on Mary Poppins to save the day, and she is aided in her voyage of joy, hope and peace by the inimitable Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter who was a young apprentice to the cheery Bert (Dick Van Dyke) from the original.

Unlike Bert, Jack has just one job, and he never forgets it. Nor does he let anyone else forget that he is a lamplighter, as he is constantly seen lighting lamps and other bright ornaments in a variety of settings. The screenplay, credited to David Magee, with the story credited to Magee, Rob Marshall and John DeLuca, crafts entire sequences that are “original,” but owe a heavy debt to the original.

These substitute scenes are meant to remind — or “pay homage,” in the modern screen vernacular — while also featuring new songs and new talent. As a whole, the film doesn’t stray too far from the original, but since most people will not have seen the 1964 musical (or have forgotten the bulk of it, more than 50 years ago), it shouldn’t be too much of a stumbling block for immersion and enjoyment.

As a child in the 1960s, I thought for a certainty that I had seen the original, but a recent viewing informed me that I had, somehow, missed out on that experience. Instead, it was the original songs themselves, played over and over again on an LP (remember those?), that had been lodged in my memory.

They are not bad memories at all and the new film may follow a similar pattern. (It’s not my favorite style of music, so the new songs did not catch my ear upon a first listen.) Perhaps I am too beholden to my own cinematic tastes — or simply too old! — to enjoy a wholesome Disney film anymore. Certainly I’ve aged out of the target demographic, and have no children, so I can’t recommend Mary Poppins Returns for like-minded, old, grouchy souls like me.

What I can recommend is the performance by Emily Blunt. She is steely yet kind, the sort of firm nanny who works hard to instill good, agreeable, neighborly, positive principles in her charges without having them chafe or complain at the instruction, or even realize what they are being taught. That is definitely a good thing for nearly everyone.

Mary Poppins Returns will open in theaters throughout the area on Friday, December 21.

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