Rob Marshall’s 2018 film sees the practically perfect nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) return to Cherry Tree Lane to once again look after the Banks children; Michael (Ben Wishaw) is all grown up and working as a teller in a bank, Jane (Emily Mortimer) is campaigning for equal rights and Michael’s children – John, Annabelle and Georgie (Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies and Joel Dawson) – are acting more like adults than children, trying to cope with the loss of their mother. With the Banks family home due to be repossessed, Mary, the children, friendly lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and a whole host of colourful characters all search for a vital document that will allow the family to keep their home, all the while hindered by dastardly bank manager Wilkins (Colin Firth).
To begin with a bit of context, I don’t exactly hold the original Mary Poppins close to my heart in the same way that many others do: it’s not exactly a childhood classic for me, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve only properly sat down and watched it once. Still, I think of it as a mighty fine film with clever, fun, memorable songs that have endured through the years, a strong story centred around a father and his kids, and an unforgettable performance from the one and only Julie Andrews. So how does this sequel compare? Did it even need one?
Probably not. But, despite one or two problems, Mary Poppins Returns is still a fine family film that stays true to the formula of the first film and, with a worthy successor in Emily Blunt, a whole new batch of new songs and plenty of singing and dancing, it’s a film that’s full of wonder, whimsy, family friendly humour, magic, and it successfully brings the beloved character of Mary Poppins to a more modern audience.
Let’s start with the woman of the hour, shall we? While no-one could ever replace or improve upon Julie Andrews’ timeless iteration of the literary character, Emily Blunt still impresses as Mary Poppins and, in my opinion, there aren’t really any other actresses today who could’ve been more suited to the part. As Mary, Blunt manages to be stern, haughty and no-nonsense while occasionally also showing a more lightearted and fun side and there are plenty of moments where we see her concern for the young Banks children as she shows worry and concern in her face, in individual sequences where she’s on her own. She also throws herself into the many musical numbers with aplomb and she proves herself to be perfectly adept at all the singing and dancing and overall, while she occasionally tries too hard and sometimes lets her accent fluctuate in the songs, Blunt is a worthy successor to the great Julie Andrews and is as strong a presence as this 21st century Mary Poppins.
Alongside, songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda is a welcome addition as lamplighter Jack, taking over the “cheeky chappie” role from Dick van Dyke; with a far subtler accent and a winning personality, he effectively helps the characters throughout and is overall a likeable and charming presence, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the musical numbers like Blunt and excelling with the singing and dancing – especially with his tongue twisting litany of lyrics that he has to recite in “A Book Is Not the Cover”.
The film also benefits from surprisingly strong performances from child actors Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies and Joel Dawson who show an impressive amount of maturity towards the start of the film while going on to have plenty of fun with the later musical numbers; they believably interact with the non-existent animated characters and overall, they’re a worthy trio of performers. Elsewhere, Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer give decent support as Michael and Jane, though Mortimer has an underdeveloped and romantic subplot with Lin-Manuel Miranda that doesn’t go anywhere special, Colin Firth is perfectly dastardly and mean as the villainous bank manager – just the right antagonist a film like this needs – and Meryl Streep steals much of the limelight with her delightfully mad character of Cousin Tospy. The supporting performances from the likes of Julie Walters, David Warner, Jim Norton, Jeremy Swift and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith also go a long way in making the film a most pleasant experience.
Story-wise, Mary Poppins Returns follows the same formula as its predecessor and if you’re familiar with that film, or indeed any U-rated family film, there won’t be many surprises plot wise: there’s the Banks family, relations are strained, Mary arrives, the kids are amazed at what she can do, they go on some magical adventures, there’s an animated segment and familial relations are all healed by the end, the father learning a valuable lesson about what it means to be a child. In this regard, the film plays it safe and familiar, creating the question of whether a sequel was even needed, but at the same time, staying true to what made the first film so great also creates a comforting atmosphere and it appears as though the filmmakers want to pay tribute to what they/we loved about Mary Poppins in the first place.
The film has a vast assortment of musical numbers and many of them are well put together, fun and lighthearted but they don’t have quite the same wit or memorable quality that the Sherman Brothers songs had in the 1964 film and I don’t think that many of them will be remembered in fifty years time. Obviously this is a musical film so you have to have a fair amount of musical numbers but to me, the film seems quite overstuffed with songs and it’s a case of quantity over quality; the songs, good as they may be, run the risk of simply being filler for the film, compensating for the thin plot and resulting in an often sluggish pace.
Having said that though, some of the songs, while initially seeming inconsequential, later go on to actually have significant meaning and reinforce the themes of family and loss that the film is attempting to convey and despite one or two average songs, the film also includes several catchy tunes that stand head and shoulders above the rest – highlights include the opening number “Lovely London Sky”, sung by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, which is an ode to Hollywood musicals of old (Oliver! in particular, I thought. Or, more obviously, Mary Poppins!), “Turning Turtle”, which is a fun little number where Meryl Streep shines, and the numbers included in the Royal Dalton Music Hall segment are the highlights of the film.
Speaking of which, the part where the characters travel into the Royal Dalton bowl is the best part of the film as the humour is particularly effective, the ensuing chase scene is exciting, and the whole segment is a labour of love and a homage to those classic Disney films that blend live action with hand drawn animation. Even the villains have those classic Disney “mad eyes”!