Mary Poppins: Close your mouth, please, Michael, we are still not a codfish.
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
Almost everything about the original Mary Poppins felt magical. It is widely considered not only Disney’s greatest live-action movie but also Walt Disney’s most beloved classic. It had great use of putting actors in an animated world, received multiple awards, and iconic music by the Sherman brothers. It even got its own movie in 2013 about its making titled Saving Mr. Banks. And 54 years later we finally have a sequel. It might seem unusual to do this so many years later but this is not the first time Disney did something like this (in fact to this day Fantasia still holds the record for the longest gap between the original and the sequel). Sure this sequel had a bigger budget and prominent actors but could it capture the magic that Walt Disney and his men managed to all those years ago? The entire original is quite beloved in the world of Disney across generations. The short answer is yes Mary Poppins returned with the same magic and energy that the original. However coming off the heels of such an iconic movie it does have some flaws.
The story takes place in 1935 London. A now grown up Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) lives in his childhood home trying to raise his children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). With his wife Kate having passed away from unknown reasons off-screen, even with the help of his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) this proves to be difficult. To make matters worse Michael wound up taking a loan from the bank and is warned by the bank associates that if he doesn’t pay off the loan in 5 days, his house will be repossessed. While he considers Mary Poppins to be a good nanny, he no longer believes in her magic and throws the kite him and Jane used to fly as kids away. However Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns along with the kite having not aged a day since Jane and Michael were kids and takes it upon herself to look after Michael’s children just as she did for him and Jane years ago.
The first movie built itself on being a feel-good feature. It found multiple creative ways to give the audience a sense of whimsy, wonder, and awe. This movie still ignites that same feeling. Every time Mary Poppins takes the children on an adventure in that neither the characters nor the audience know what to expect but is still enjoyable through and through.
Even when the movie does not focus on its fantasy aspect it still manages to make the moment just as authentic and captivating. This is shown most clearly in the movie’s musical numbers. While they don’t match the work of the Sherman brothers they still stay true to the film’s tone in offering a whimsical and childlike atmosphere while also teaching a lesson as the audience enjoys the whole experience.
The actors’ performances would prove to be a tough part to overcome. After all Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, etc. gave these characters’ roles so much weight. However the actors in this movie such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Emily Mortimer, and even a cameo by Dick Van Dyke (who even still manages to give the same magic in his old age) give amazing performances that truly show that they were having a great time in making this movie and bringing the magic back. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as the grown-up Michael and Jane still manage to give the movie the more serious edge to it all.
Emily Blunt had the biggest shoes to fill in as Julie Andrews as the title character in the original practically made the character her own. However Blunt proves to be an excellent successor. In Blunt’s performance, her character knows she is perfect but only showcases her abilities when required. She is very kind and loving towards the Banks family and other characters but never lets her emotions take over her. Emily Blunt not only nails the magical parts of the movie through her performance but also gives a great deal of sass at many turns which leads to a lot of the movie’s comedic moments.
The visual style in this movie is outright incredible in making capture the familiar feel of the original while also giving its own spin. The movie did an amazing job of recreating the Banks house. There are some new scenarios such as Mary Poppins leading them into an oceanic world in drawing them a bath which leads to a great deal of colorful CGI in the Can you Imagine That song. Turning Turtle has amazing set design. Perhaps the movie’s most unforgettable moment is the scene inside Royal Doulton Bowl. It leads to a chase scene, which does cause the movie to lose focus for a bit, but everything else is spot on. The costumes, the graphics, and the hand-drawn animation are masterfully done. Even after all these years in abandoning the style, Disney still proves that they can still pull off classic 2D animation just as effectively. They even brought back several old 2-D animators to help them. The whole scene is just as innovative as it was in the first movie.
So judging by what’s been discussed so far it seems perfect in every way. It seems committed to capturing the first movie and for the most part it succeeds. But this also proves to be the movie’s major weakness. Some of the homages and Easter eggs work like the balloon lady from the books and even bringing back Karen Dotrice and Dick Van Dyke but it often goes to an extent that it feels like it’s trying to copy the first movie. This makes the movie harder to stand on its own as it gets distracting to the point that it’s hard not to compare it to its predecessor. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack is pretty much Bert from the first movie in that he knows Mary Poppins’ magic and is willing to lend a helping hand whenever possible (although his accent was a lot better) in addition to having all his friends perform a song and assist Poppins. They also go to visit a relative of Mary’s in this case Topsy (Meryl Streep) as opposed to Uncle Albert in the first movie. The bank is often the big villain. Jane’s character also proves to hit the same notes as Winifred as a women’s right activist from the first movie by having her be a labor organizer. Michael is also the stern father who needs the most help from the title nanny. The premise of having them find their father’s shares certificate is very predictable and doesn’t have much in the way of any twists or turns. Even some of the songs, at their best, still have the same feel at the first movie. That is to say if you were to replace some of the new songs with ones from the original it wouldn’t make a big difference. In trying to be the first movie, it loses its ability to stand on its own. As a result its narrative is always going to be juxtaposed along with the original
Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a great successor but it does offer a good experience. The songs give some great choreography, the actors give nice performances, and the art direction is incredible in its set design, visual style, and especially animation. Its main problem lies in its narrative, which doesn’t have much merit on its own. It certainly isn’t the original but its magic is something that only a film with Mary Poppins is capable of.