Mary Poppins returns (surprise!) to deal with another generation of the Banks family.
It’s the 1930s in Britain and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the prank-loving boy from the original film, is all grown up with three children of his own: Annabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson). He’s recently lost his wife and, while his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) tries to help him, it’s revealed that he’s deeply in debt and in danger of losing his home to the very bank that he and his father worked at, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, headed up by William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth). Fortunately, his household receives a visit from Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Bert’s (Dick Van Dyke) apprentice Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) to help get the family through this trying time with magic, music, and the occasional strange relative.
Mary Poppins is a hard movie not to love. The songs are so catchy that I bet you can hum two right now, the animation was unbelievable for its time, the performances by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and David Tomlinson are all so defined that they’ve basically become archetypes since the 60s, and the style and tone of the movie are the epitome of whimsy. It’s got a rare 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is an example of a movie where even the imperfect things (e.g. Dick Van Dyke’s Fake Accent) only served to make it more unique and enjoyable. This pretty much doomed any sequel from the beginning, because it’s so hard to follow something that had this many solid elements blended together perfectly.
Mary Poppins Returns is destined to divide. Reading a sample of the reviews right now, it seems like that’s a lot of what it’s doing. Honestly, it’s to its credit that it can even do that. This film manages to try to avert most of what makes a sequel terrible, but also manages to commit two of the biggest sequel mistakes. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Emily Blunt takes over as Mary Poppins and she is wonderful. She’s clever, she’s mischievous, she can be very proper when she needs to be, but, mostly, she’s different enough from Julie Andrews’ portrayal that it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to copy what we’ve already seen while still being similar enough to believably be the same character. She’s a little more explicitly magical in this and smiles a lot more, but it still feels like it’s just the same character handling slightly different circumstances. The only time in the film where I thought “this is not Mary Poppins” is when she performs the song “A Cover is Not the Book.” It’s not that the song is bad, in fact I think it’s one of the more original songs within the film, but she performs it in the style of a Vaudeville Music Hall, something that, while appropriate for the time period of the movie, seems like something I could NEVER imagine Julie Andrews doing as Poppins. Other than that, though, she nails it.
Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance as Jack is similar enough to Dick Van Dyke as Bert to complement Mary Poppins’ character, but it still is distinctly different. Bert and Mary seemed to have a history and a mostly unspoken level of attraction, whereas Jack is more akin to a fanboy finally meeting his idol, but in a good way. Jack’s style of performance is also different, favoring more song and dance over Bert’s physical comedy, and it works.
Another big change is the children. In contrast to the disobedient Jane and Michael Banks of the original, the three children we are show in this film are well-behaved and, for the most part, are almost more adult than the adults. They’ve been forced to grow up based on the fact that they’ve lost their mother and their father is more of an artist than an earner. So, unlike the original where Mary has to straighten out the Banks children while loosening up their father, she’s doing the opposite in this and it does play well for Blunt to be a little less uptight than Andrews was in her version.
But, now, we get to the problems of the movie: First, the plot is much more serious. It’s a sequel, so there’s always a tendency to try and raise the stakes, but in this we have the quest to save the Banks home which doesn’t quite gel with most of the scenes. It’s not like there are multiple side-stories that feed into the overall narrative like in the original, this feels like they had 2 ideas for a movie and just jammed them in together. It doesn’t quite work. Also, not only is Michael’s wife dead, but so are Mr. and Mrs. Banks? It’s only been 25 years, people, and they were both in their 30s in the original! Hell, the actress who played Mrs. Banks, Glynis Johns, is still alive in real life. Just saying, it felt like they intentionally shrank the family so the plot felt more dire.
Second, the film has a lot of plot “twinning” with the original, by which I mean that there are a lot of scenes in this that clearly were put in less because they needed to be in the film, but more because they called back to a scene in the original. It’s another common sin of sequels: Trying to do the same thing over again. Sure, the characters feel a little different, but some of the scenes are very clearly just in there to match stuff from the original.
Third, some of the new characters don’t feel “whimsical” as much as “weird.” In the original, all of the magical characters, like the band that plays “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (btw, got it in 1 try) and Uncle Albert, the man on the ceiling, and even the chimney sweeps, all feel like they’re magical characters straight out of a fairy tale. In this… not quite as much. They all have a little too much darkness and reflection to them. A stand-out example of not quite working as well is, sadly, Meryl Streep’s character of Topsy, the upside-down fixer-upper. It’s not that Meryl Streep does anything wrong, it’s that the character needed to be performed by someone who has no intrinsic gravitas, which is the opposite of Meryl “I have 4 Oscars for drama” Streep. She’s great in comedies and portrays the character exactly as it was probably envisioned, but this just wasn’t the right fit. Also, her song is not great, which brings me to…
Fourth, the music is only okay. There are like 3 really good songs in this movie, but, of those three, only one doesn’t blatantly sample from the original Sherman Brothers music. I don’t mean to undercut Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, because they’ve both done great work (Hairspray), but they didn’t come close to matching the Sherman Brothers’ level of quality from the original. “The Perfect Nanny,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “I Love to Laugh,” “Feed the Birds,” Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Step in Time,” and “Let’s Go Fly A Kite.” I can sing most of every line of these songs at almost any point in my life. I only saw Mary Poppins Returns last night and I can only remember 3 songs well. The sequel’s music just isn’t in the same league. It’s like Chumawumba trying to outsell the Beatles; it’s not that they’re bad, it’s that they were never really competing.
All four of these problems come not necessarily from the movie itself, but from the nature of making a sequel. If you try to completely ignore the previous movie, then you’re not paying the proper respect. If you don’t do enough on your own, then you feel like there was no point in making the sequel. That’s why it’s so hard to continue a story that’s complete. Sure, Godfather II, Aliens, and Terminator 2 all work great, but that’s because they’re either A) telling the rest of the story that was still going, B) switching genres, or C) doing a little bit of both in an inventive way. This film tries to tell the rest of the story and add some genre switch (romantic subplot and central villain), but it just never quite pulled away from the original enough. Again, it’s tough to do.
Overall, I do want to say that I enjoyed the movie even if it’s not the lightning in a bottle that the original represented. It’s definitely a movie that everyone should see, if only to make up their mind on whether it’s good or bad.
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