Mary Poppins Returns – A Practically Perfect Presentation of the Paradox and Perils of Perpetuating Past Performances or, A Good Sequel Showing Why Great Sequels Are Hard (Spoiler-Free)

Mary Poppins returns (surprise!) to deal with another generation of the Banks family.

SUMMARY

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.

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And looking damned good for someone who’s at least 50… centuries.

END SUMMARY

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.

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This was the Google result for “whimsical.” 

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.

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Admittedly, they don’t look alike. 

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.

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Jack was later shot by Aaron Burr. 

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.

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Georgie’s the most mysterious in that he sometimes walks on the grass.

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…

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WHY WOULDN’T YOU MAKE HER THE ELDER MRS. BANKS?

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.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

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DuckTales (2017): How to do a Reboot

They might solve a mystery or re-write history. DuckTales re-boot!

People constantly complain about reboots, but it’s not like they’re a guaranteed failure. I preferred the new Battlestar Galactica to the original, there have been who knows how many amazing film and television versions of Batman, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn even did a solid job going from film to television. Hell, I think that Scooby Doo’s best incarnation was the 12th. Still, there’s no denying that, a lot of the time, it feels like reboots are just cash grabs aiming for our nostalgia wallets. Because of that, every time a show comes out that’s just a reboot of an old property, I’m inherently suspicious. So, when they first announced that a new DuckTales was coming out, I didn’t put a huge amount of faith in it.

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Best re-imagining since Carpenter’s The Thing

As time went by, though, I admitted that I started to get excited. First, they announced the cast for the show by having them sing an acapella version of the theme song. This both showcased the insane level of talent they managed to grab and also showed that they were paying their respects to the past series.

Then, they announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda would appear in the series as Gizmoduck, cementing the return of one of the more beloved creations of the original cartoon and having him voiced by a genius composer and playwright. They announced that Tony Anselmo would be voicing Donald Duck, giving the show ties to the regular Disney canon. They released a copy of the show’s intro sequence which was a combination of the original Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge comics with the original cartoon, but updated and redesigned, with the same theme song only a little jazzier. Oh, and they dropped the bombshell during Comic Con, just a month before the show was set to premiere, that Darkwing Duck would make an appearance, a character that people have been begging to get more of for 20 years.

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HE OWNS THE NIGHT, for goodness’ sake!

At this point, I was just worried that this was all going to fall apart. Then, they did the last thing I would have expected: They put the pilot on YouTube. Not behind a paywall, not for a limited time, they just put the pilot “Woo-oo!” online, and IT WAS FANTASTIC. Watch it right now!

“Woo-oo!” was a great first episode. It introduced us to the characters, emphasized all the differences between their current and previous incarnations, and put in a ton of wonderful nostalgia references while also being funny and original in its plot. Huey, Dewey, and Louie now had different voices, looks, and personalities, with Huey (Danny Pudi) being the closest to the original version but nerdier, Louie (Bobby Moynihan) having abandoned even the outfit from his previous incarnation and being the greedy one, and Dewey (Ben Schwartz) being a blend of old and new traits and a fame seeker. Scrooge McDuck (David “I’m the f*cking Doctor” Tennant) is now a jaded old man who wishes to rekindle the exciting, adventurous days of his youth. Launchpad (Beck Bennett) is a little dumber than his original version, but still an adorable doofus and an optimist. Donald Duck is pretty much the same, but plays a much bigger role in the series.

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And the promo images did a great job representing things.

Then, there’s Webby Vanderquack (Kate “from Garfunkle and Oates” Micucci) and Mrs. Beakley (Toks “I’m so f*cking amazing” Olagundoye). These two were basically redone from the ground up. Rather than being the young girl who carries around her doll all the time, this Webby is smart, skilled, and more athletic than any of the boys, but is socially awkward due to living in a mansion alone. Mrs. Beakley, rather than being just a live-in nanny with relatively few other character traits, is a retired version of Agent 99 from Get Smart. I’m not even joking, they have an episode that tells you that’s who she’s supposed to be.

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Hey, other shows: This is how you update female characters to reflect the times.

The first half of “Woo-oo!” showed us that, in this new universe, magic is real, Scrooge is an almost Batman-level combatant and adventurer, and that he and Donald had a falling out in the past. Flintheart Glomgold (Keith Ferguson) returns as one of Scrooge’s enemies and is shown being even more over-the-top Scottish, almost as a mockery of the fact that his nationality was changed in the original series from South African (because Apartheid). He’s also much more of a comic foil to Scrooge than a serious rival, but his brutality is raised a few levels in this version. In the second half, the group goes on an adventure to Atlantis and, upon returning, the boys and Donald move in with Scrooge.

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Oh, and we get recurring character, Manny, the headless man-horse. Now with a head.

Now, this would normally be where the Pilot just acts as a set-up for the rest of the series, but, at the last minute, Dewey moves a piece of a painting seen earlier, revealing the figure of a young female duck. Dewey, shocked, says “Mom?” as the episode ends. Yes, at the last second, the show drops the biggest two surprises on us it could. First, they’re actually going to address what happened to Della Duck. Second, holy hell, THIS SHOW IS A SERIAL. There are going to be actual story arcs throughout the series. Again, this is in the last 15 seconds of the episode and it is huge.

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Yes. Della freaking Duck, ultimate obscure trivia question, is now a focal point.

The rest of the season was a little mixed. Some episodes were amazing and had fantastic guest stars, but others didn’t really use the characters well, and I was getting a little worried that they were too hit-and-miss. However, the whole time, they were also building up plot-lines and characters, including setting up Magica De Spell (Catherine “I was the best Tennant companion” Tate) as the big bad of the season. Then, we got to the penultimate episode, “The Last Crash of the Sunchaser” which not only had one of the most intense sequences in animated history, but had an ending that led me to sit in stunned silence trying to grapple with what I had just witnessed.

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An episode of DuckTales left me emotionally devastated. WHAT THE HELL?

Then, we get to the finale and it took a bit to get going but, once it kicked into gear with Magica De Spell as the villain du jour, it was a hell of a ride. Probably the single best thing was that they had Donald Duck swallow a “Barksian voice modulator” which made him talk like Don Cheadle. He then proceeded to deliver some both hilarious and bad-ass lines (which were turned into hilarious ones by the fact that DONALD DUCK was saying them). The season ends, however, with several plot-lines still up in the air, giving them plenty to work with in the next year.

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Oh, and she basically flat-out kills one recurring character. WHAT THE HELL?

The main thing that really makes this reboot stand out is that showrunners Matt Youngberg and Francisco Angones basically went through all of the previous incarnations, from the comics to the show to even other Disney cartoons from the 80s and 90s, and kept what was timeless. They didn’t go out of their way to avoid doing things like the old show, they celebrated the things the show did well while correcting the things it didn’t. They tried new things, to be sure, some of which worked better than others, but they gave the show a feel that, while still DuckTales, was still unique. They gave us nostalgia, but they never really relied on it too much and they always made any reference still work even if you didn’t know it.

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And has Margo Martindale and Allison Janney. So many great guest stars!

They also knew that too much nostalgia could overpower the work they were doing, so they did it gently. They did re-introduce Darkwing Duck, but now he’s a character on a show within a show. However, they go out of the way to point out that the actor who played Darkwing did his own stunts, so they have left the door open to have the actor become the superhero in future episodes. This was the right way to do things, because, if you put Darkwing Duck directly into the series, there would be too much pressure to keep putting him in it and any episode he was in would be focused on him.

Overall, I think this is one of the best reboots I’ve ever seen. Check it out, guys!

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.