Film Review: Mary Poppins Returns

The 1964 movie Mary Poppins is a much loved classic, the kind of film that most people will have seen at least once as a kid, and has been loved by successive generations. My parents saw it as kids, I watched it as a kid and I’m sure at some point my nieces and nephews will sit down to watch it. And I’m sure they’ll love it too.

Making a sequel over half a century later is a risky proposition, and Emily Blunt is stepping into the firing line as she takes on the role filled by Julie Andrews, who is practically perfect in the original. She must have known that she’d always be compared to Andrews, and that’s a big ask of a performer. So, how does she do?

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In fairness to Blunt she does admirably in the title role, and while she’s not quite up there with Andrews, she comes pretty close. She manages to capture the haughty, prim and proper exterior and the underlying mischief within, and she shows a bit more sneakiness than in the original, while still being the same character at heart.

Here it’s obvious from the get go that she’s there to help the Banks family with more than just childcare and she’s very proactive in sorting out all their problems. As a kid, the fact that she was there to help Mr Banks as much as Michael and Jane kinda passed me by until the end of the movie, when he cracks and moves away from his workaholic ways, but I suspect kids will know early doors that Mary Poppins is there to help the fully grown Michael (Ben Whishaw) get back on track.

We meet Michael in dire straits, recently widowed he is alone raising his three children, aided by his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and scatterbrained housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters). A painter he has had to take a job as a bank teller, and having taken a loan is now at risk of losing the family home. He has five days to find the shares his father has in the bank which will save the house.

At the same time, the elder two children Annabel and John (Pixie Davies and Nathaniel Saleh) are overly serious and grown up for their ages, and the younger son, Georgie (Joel Dawson), has his playfulness and imagination stifled. Into this comes Mary Poppins, who announces that she has returned to help the Banks children, and she soon has Annabel, John and George joining her on various adventures into fantastical worlds.

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The children learn to embrace their imaginations and have fun, as well as come to terms with the loss of their mother. This in turn helps Michael and Mary helps to try and save the house. Meanwhile, Mary Poppins plays matchmaker to Jane and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a cockney lamplighter who previously worked as apprentice to Mary’s old friend Bert. Jack is the children and Mary’s companion on their travels, and he and his fellow lamplighters come to the rescue a couple of times.

Jack is essentially filling the Bert role, a working class Londoner who helps out the characters and knows of Mary Poppins’ magical abilities. LMM’s cockney accent is better than Dick Van Dyke’s and he is a charming, likeable presence throughout. His love story with Jane is handled well and is quite endearing. He serves as out introduction to the film, singing the opening number and offering advice to the kids and to Mary Poppins. LMM is probably one of the film’s strongest assets, and his performance is great. I’d heard the name but wasn’t familiar with him, but he is the standout here and I’ll keep an eye out for him in future.

It helps that the entire cast is on fine form. The child actors are pretty good by kid standards, managing to be cute without being cutesy, and their performances don’t feel forced which is rare for child performers (see all the kids in the first two Harry Potter movies).

The adult cast are solid across the board, with Julie Walters in comfortable territory as the eccentric housekeeper and Colin Firth relishing the chance to step into villain country again. In a cameo as an eccentric relative of Mary Poppins, Meryl Streep is having a ball, and is quite funny, if over the top. Emily Mortimer is charming as Jane Banks, even if she is rather underwritten in places.

Ben Whishaw gives the movie it’s emotional heart as Michael Banks, the brokenhearted widower left hopelessly adrift. His solo number near the beginning is extremely moving and the biggest emotional clout comes when he finally breaks towards the end, the pressure finally crashing down on him as he cracks in front of his kids. It’s a performance of quiet, sadness and desperation, and when he finally breaks down it has a genuine power and realism to it.

I’m not ashamed to say that at this moment I got rather emotional myself.

It’s interesting that like the original, this is a kid’s film where the real emotional focus of the story is actually the parent, not the kids. Sure, we feel for the kids and their loss, but this is definitely more about Michael’s journey.

This story about the father figure needing rescuing is one of many areas that the movie resembles the original, and throughout you find that the film is toeing a fine line in terms of nostalgia. It’d be impossible, and daft, not to have nods and similarities to the old film, and some of these work rather well. There are returning characters in the form of Ellen the housekeeper and Admiral Boom, the eccentric neighbour, who’s habit of firing a cannon on the hour is here given slightly more resonance and importance.

The best use of callbacks comes in the music and artwork, the opening titles being very similar to the original and making the film feel more connected, and the music which uses the old familiar tunes is a great way to set the tone. They provide a sense of continuity between the films, and the familiar melodies stir old memories and affection. It’s one of the ways the film is clever in it’s use of nostalgia while still trying to forge it’s own place and story.

Some of the elements don’t quite work as well, particularly Jack and the lamplighters, while the character is fantastic and LMM gives a spirited performance it does feel like them trying to get Bert into the movie without being able to have Bert be in the movie. Similarly, some of the plot points are similar as are the musical numbers, which while good fun can’t quite match the old favourites.

But this is a minor quibble, and for the most part the nostalgia is handled well. It’s unavoidable, and the film does it’s well to honour the original movie. There’s a brief appearance from Angela Lansbury, one of Disney’s legends, and it’s wonderful to see her on screen again, but you sense the filmmakers probably wanted Andrews for the part. Andrews wisely felt her presence would throw the movie off, and wanted this to be Blunt’s movie, which is extremely gracious.

While fans lose out on seeing Andrews her former costar Dick Van Dyke does make an appearance, and frankly, I lost it a bit when he turned up. When he makes his entrance is a massive moment of joy and nostalgic glee, but what tops it all is when he performs a dance. Seeing him on the big screen, dancing once again was a bit too much for me and I got a bit choked up, I was just so bloody happy.

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Disney’s gamble pays off and this is a charming, fun and engaging family film. While it doesn’t quite match the original for me, I suspect for younger viewers this will become a beloved favourite. It uses nostalgia effectively, but it’s a story in it’s own right. The performances are uniformly solid. Blunt doesn’t quite match Andrews, but she still gives a wonderful performance.

I think it manages to pull off the tricky proposition of pleasing old fans and a new generation. A lovely, old fashioned, feel good movie.

8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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