Mary Poppins Returns movie review: A spoonful of Emily Blunt makes the mediocrity go down
Mary Poppins Returns
Director - Rob Marshall
Cast - Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep
Rating - 3/5
A few months ago, IndieWire critic David Ehrlich wrote a piece titled ‘The New Wave of Nicecore: How the Dark Age of Donald Trump Is Inspiring Movies to Choose Kindness Over Conflict’. The thesis of his observation was that difficult times such as ours will always force people to make difficult choices. Sometimes, the best form of resistance is to embody the very essence of what the other side detests, and in the case of the films Ehrlich had listed - Paddington 2, Hearts Beat Loud - the movies had made the choice for us. They’d weaponised decency in an increasingly hateful world.
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Released more than 50 years after the original, making it one of the longest gaps between sequels, Mary Poppins Returns essentially puts its characters in the same situation as the rest of the world - caught in a time of conflict, and faced with important decisions to make.
It is in times like these that one looks to the heavens and prays, regardless of whether or not they are religious. But when the Banks children gaze upwards after a particularly heated scene at their home, they are struck not by a sign from God, but by the sight of a woman - stern yet smiling - floating towards them with a large umbrella held over her head.
The rather blandly named Mary Poppins Returns is a vibrant children’s film, made with genuine love for the evergreen classic that remains, to this day, a perennial favourite among audiences of all ages. One could perhaps argue that the sequel takes its reverence to uncomfortable heights - like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting follow-up, echoing entire scenes and sounds purely to inject the audience with shots of nostalgia.
It makes sense; nostalgia is comforting. It inspires, however temporarily, the feeling of being protected, of being looked after. There is safety in familiarity. And that is this movie’s only real fault. It’s one thing to offer comfort, but it is a different matter altogether when you feed a child heaps of sugar in the hope that they tire themselves to sleep. In the first scenario, the idea is to empathise with the other, but in the second, the motivations are purely selfish.
Disney knows that Mary Poppins has been a particularly beloved IP in its catalogue - its enduring popularity, reinforced by the recent biopic Saving Mr Banks, was just waiting to be mined. To be honest, it’s a miracle that it took them this long. But Mary Poppins Returns feels safe, even by the Mouse House’s non-provocative standards. Crucially, however, it doesn’t feel cynical.
It’s perfectly cast, for example. Emily Blunt isn’t so much doing an impression of Julie Andrews as she is an interpretation. When Mary Poppins - ahem - returns to the Banks household after many decades being away, the now grown up Michael remarks how she doesn’t appear to have aged a day. Michael is a recent widower with three kids - like Ewan McGregor’s adult Christopher Robin, having forgotten that magic exists in the world.
His moroseness, coupled with the looming threat of the Fidelity Feduciary Bank foreclosing on his home, seems to be rubbing off on his children.
Disenchantment and disillusionment were themes that writer David Magee previously explored in his Oscar-nominated script for Finding Neverland. Mary Poppins Returns isn’t as biting, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s bright and cheerful, optimistic and harmless. The musical numbers are energetically staged, but like the rest of the film, lacking in originality - despite the great Lin-Manuel Miranda and Marc Shaiman’s involvement. Often times while watching musicals - particularly mainstream Bollywood films - I fight the impulse to skip the song-and-dance numbers. But those films aren’t real musicals; they merely have random, independent-of-the-plot singing and dancing. In Mary Poppins Returns, the characters tackle their problems by breaking into song, they express sadness and happiness by singing about it. The numbers aren’t scene transitions but vital to the plot.
Director Rob Marshall, who has fostered a very successful relationship with Disney, retains the original film’s blend of live-action and hand-drawn animation, creating a film that feels deliberately evocative of the past. Because that is where he wants you to be - embraced by memories of happier times. Fond recollections of her childhood were a major inspiration for PL Travers to write the Mary Poppins books. It wasn’t a pleasant childhood by any means, but it was certainly more magical than her life as an adult, struggling to make ends meet.
Mary Poppins, the character, is merely a conduit - between youth and maturity, between the past and the future, and between reality and fantasy. As is the film, which bridges old Hollywood charm with a modern studio sheen.
Mary Poppins Returns arrives during a period of great resurgence for old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, with La La Land and A Star is Born doing tremendous business, not to mention Marshall’s own movies - Chicago, Into the Woods, Nine. It certainly isn’t his best, but a spoonful of Emily Blunt certainly goes a long way in making the mediocrity go down.