Genre: Fantasy and Musical Running Time: 2 hrs. 10 min.
Release Date: December 19th, 2018 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Rob Marshall Actors: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson
he first words spoken are part of a song, wasting no time defining “Mary Poppins Returns” as a musical of an older-fashioned, conventional design. Aside from a couple of highly energetic, acrobatic, and complexly choreographed dance routines, the modernization is smartly kept to a minimum. It is, after all, set in the midst of “The Great Slump.” The opening number introduces Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) the lamplighter, who croons about the lovely London sky as he extinguishes flames atop his trusty ladder, ending up in the vicinity of 17 Cherry Tree Lane, where a notice of repossession is nailed to the front door on a chaotic Sunday morning.
A pipe has burst, there’s a pounding at the door, breakfast is late, the groceries haven’t been picked up, the housekeeper (Julie Walters) runs about in a tumult, and Aunt Jane (Emily Mortimer) has stopped by to hug her brother Michael Banks’ (Ben Whishaw) three young children – Annabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson), and John (Nathanael Saleh). Everything seems to be going wrong for the Banks family, especially as Michael’s wife has recently passed away, and now lawyers from the bank explain that he has a mere five days to pay his loan in full – or he must vacate the premises. And to top it all off, the eccentric, retired admiral next door likes to fire off a cannon positioned on the roof of his house (shaped like a ship) to mark the time.
It’s a good thing that the children are precocious and surprisingly resourceful, volunteering to shop for groceries on their own and generally staying out of the way. It’s also a good thing that, despite the rather blustery day, a tattered old kite kicked up by the wind summons the apparitional Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to save Georgie and to return to Cherry Tree Lane, where she previously aided the Banks family out of a jam. “I was flying a kite and it got caught on a nanny!”
Amusingly, the adult versions of Michael and Jane now dismiss Poppins’ magical qualities as attributes of youthful, overactive imaginations (she certainly has a habit of messing with people’s grips on reality). Unfortunately for audiences familiar with the 1964 Disney classic, it will be much more difficult to forget elements from the past. Blunt is impressive in the role, but it takes a bit of time to get used to her embodiment of P.L. Travers’ most famous character. Her initial minutes onscreen appear as if she’s trying her best, but nevertheless coming across as a counterfeit. When the children are coaxed into bathing after getting soiled in the park, CG dolphins further contribute to a nagging falseness, though this is eventually remedied by the use of traditional animation (which participates in the film’s best sequence, involving shenanigans inside the paintings on a porcelain bowl – a glimpse of the creative magnificence from before).
“Everything is possible; even the impossible.” Despite the bottomless carpetbag, a talking umbrella, recognizable catchphrases, and her signature conceitedness, this new Mary Poppins will have a considerable struggle ringing true; the general playfulness surrounding her actions, along with one after another misadventure, never feel quite right. Over time (and the film is certainly of a noticeable duration), Blunt’s performance grows more diverting, but the movie magic is missing from many of the sequences.
This lack of verve carries over to the musical numbers as well, which can’t manage to replicate the catchiness of those written for the original. And, though expected, the film couldn’t resist giving Miranda a tongue-twisting, rapid-fire, pseudo-rap song to enunciate – his distinguishing hallmark, which doesn’t fit, but pointedly highlights his involvement (and his popularity superseding adherence to a story and characters). By the end (which boasts the strongest song – a commendable way to finish), “Mary Poppins Returns” resembles a remake more than a sequel, striving for an identity of its own, but settling for routine pleasantness. It’s also something of a detriment that Poppins shares the screen with so many other characters (Meryl Streep as wacky relative Topsy is by far the worst), crowding opportunities for her to speak with her enticing frankness and sardonicism.
– Mike Massie