I grew up watching Disney films as a child. One of my favorite films was Mary Poppins (1964). There was something magical about Mary Poppins flying into London and taking the children on magical adventures. Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds”...all classics now. So when I heard that a sequel was in the works, I was skeptical. Would the filmmakers be able to pull it off?
I went to see Mary Poppins Returns in theatres on January 3, for one of my sisters' birthday, and I was just blown away. Not just because it was our first time at the cinema, but because it was SO GOOD. Part of the fun was spotting the references to the original - and there were many: quotes from the original ("Practically perfect in every way", "Michael, we are still not a codfish"); Michael's tuppence and run on the bank mentioned; chalk drawings and Admiral Boom; and the artwork in the pre- and post-movie credits, which were a nice touch. The other part of the fun was analyzing the film.
The plot is straightforward. 20 years after the original film ended, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three children. It is the Great Depression, and the Bank is threatening to repossess his home unless he and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) pay off their debts. Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who has come to take care of the kids and their parents. But wait. Michael and Jane have forgotten their adventures with Mary Poppins. They have also raised their children to be "logical" and not give in to their imaginations. Honestly, it's a trope that is getting a bit overused. Besides, would Michael and Jane really become so boring and "grownup"?
The film adapts several of the story lines from the P.L. Travers books. The children meet Cousin Topsy, go into a broken china vase, and get balloons from a Balloon Lady that take them up into the sky. The most memorable for me, however, was Mary Poppins leaving when the Door Opens. Speaking of Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt's take is actually truer to Travers' original character: more snarky, vainer, and very prim and proper. Too proper - in certain spots, I felt that Blunt overdid the accent.
Now that we are taking about accents, I should mention Lin-Manuel Miranda's Jack, a Cockney chimney sweep. His accent is not exactly Cockney, but he doesn't try as hard as Dick Van Dyke in the original. (My mother disagrees, saying that Miranda's is worse. I guess she knows better, being British, but Miranda's is not as painful as Van Dyke's.) In "A Cover Is Not the Book", his words weren't exactly clear. So was Meryl Streep's very thick Russian (?) accent, as Topsy.
Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer actually do look a bit like the Banks children grown up, with some of their mannerisms (Michael's shyness, Emily's smile and giggling). I wish that the film could have shown more of them, especially of Jane. However, the film focuses on Michael's children, Annabel (Pixie Daniels), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). And the child actors did an excellent job, especially Joel, who plays the youngest Banks child.
Colin Firth plays the antagonist, William "Weatherall" Wilkins (the Bank's President). He does a good job, but it's more of a stock character: overly nice, fooling the adults but not the children. He does little except for sitting in his office. His animated counterpart, the "Wolf" (from the china vase sequence) is more sinister than the actual human. Julie Walters plays an older Ellen. She actually looks and sounds like her and she does a good job. It is a role that she had played before, and I wish that she could have appeared more.
As promised, there were several cameos. Dick Van Dyke is Mr. Dawes, Jr., the Bank chairman (Van Dyke played his father in the original). Angela Lansbury is the Balloon Lady, as said before. Finally, Karen Dotrice appears as a woman asking for directions for 19 Cherry Tree Lane. For those familiar with the 1964 film, Dotrice was Jane as a child, and it is actually a cool cameo.
Many people have criticized the movie for its forgettable songs. That is very unfair, considering that they are comparing Mary Poppins (a classic) to Mary Poppins Returns (a very new film). Marc Shaiman, the composer of the music and score, and Scott Wittman, who assisted him in songwriting, actually consulted with Richard M. Sherman, one of the composers of the score for the original film. Which makes sense, since you can hear faint echoes of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and other songs from the original.
There are some really good songs in Mary Poppins Returns. My favourite, and the moist poignant, is "The Place Where the Lost Things Go", sung by Mary Poppins to the children as they reminisce about their deceased mother. It is a tear-jerker and one of two songs from the film that has been nominated for an Oscar. Other memorable numbers include "A Cover Is Not the Book", "Can You Imagine That?", "Turning Turtle", and "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" (a new "Step in Time").
The sets just blew my mind. 17 Cherry Tree Lane is as good as ever, with a new piano job and new doors. The background for "Can You Imagine That?" and the entire Royal Doulton China sequence are amazing. However, Cousin Topsy's house steals the cake, especially when the entire set flips upside down. The costumes were also bright and vivid, especially Mary Poppins' outfits. Everything she wears is so nice and oh-so-British. The only look I didn't like was from "A Cover Is Not the Book" - her hair is better curled than bobbed.
So, is the film good? Yes. Is it better than the original? Well, no. There is no way that it is better than the original. But it is just as magical and definitely a good family film. (Although maybe a bit long. With a run-time of over 2 hours, even I got antsy sitting in the theatre.) And I predict that, in 50-plus years, Mary Poppins Returns will also become a classic.
Stars: 4 out of 5.