To say that Mary Poppins had a profound influence on me as a kid isn’t exactly the most original statement in the world. I’m fairly certain it’s illegal in some parts of the world to not like Mary Poppins. With its infectiously catchy songs, lovable leads, boundless energy, fantastic choreography and its timeless and powerful morals, its popularity and longevity is not unwarranted. Mary Poppins is the quintessential 1960’s Disney musical, and it puts a smile on everyone’s face just to hear the title, including me. But we’re not here to talk about that movie, we’re here to talk about its recent sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. When the trailer dropped a while back, I was less excited and more bemused. I, as well as many other fans of the original film, are of the opinion that Mary Poppins doesn’t necessarily need to return. After all, how can you top a movie that’s practically perfect in every way? The short answer is you can’t. Nevertheless, I approached the film with cautious optimism and a stern hand. I am sad to say that my optimism was misplaced, and my sternness was warranted.
Mary Poppins Returns takes place in 1935, 25 years after the original film. It centers around Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) Banks, who are now both adults. Michael has three children of his own and is a recent widower (because, of course. there’s a dead mother. It’s Disney), and Jane is a labor activist. Since it’s The Great Depression, Michael has been struggling financially, and the bank has threatened to repossess his family home if he doesn’t pay off his loans in five days. Jane recalls that their father should have some shares at the bank (I expect your children to be on the edge of their seats by now with all this financial jargon), and they attempt to look for the missing certificate that proves their ownership of the shares. Of course, as the situation becomes more desperate, turbulent and depressing, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) floats down from the sky once more to set things right.
I’ll talk about the things I liked about the movie up front so I don’t sound like a total grump from the get go. The acting from the cast is strong, with Blunt, Whishaw and Mortimer being the best. Whishaw and Mortimer truly feel like adult versions of Michael and Jane, and are even allowed moments of sensitivity and empathy. Likewise, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack (or Bert 2.0 as I like to call him) is one of the more talented singers and performers in the production. Blunt had the biggest shoes to fill, and she manages to fill them quite admirably. She captures Mary’s chess master mentality, her no nonsense attitude, and her fun loving side all in one impressive package. Her singing ability is also fairly decent, and she even manages to give Mary some nuanced moments of slight annoyance and stress. These moments don’t mar her character, but they show that the stakes are slightly higher than before. The last time she was there, all she had to do was deal with a father who was kind of a jerk. Now she’s dealing with financial issues in Depression era London, a dead mother, and tons of emotional baggage and stress. It makes sense that she’d need one or two moments to gather herself. The look, and by extension the tone, is also very well done. Through the cinematography, choreography, dialogue, humor and music stylings, it genuinely feels like a cheesy mid 60’s Disney musical, albeit with a much higher budget. When it needs to be colorful, especially in some of the musical and animated segments, the colors and visuals certainly pop off the screen and impress.
Unfortunately, this is where my compliments of the movie end. On practically every other level, Mary Poppins Returns is an incredibly flawed, frustrating and ultimately pointless sequel. Narratively speaking, it feels as if the filmmakers completely missed the point on what the story of Mary Poppinsis about. For example, the foundation for Mary Poppins’ return is very weak. In the original Mary Poppins, it made sense why Mary needed to come down and set Mr. Banks straight. His obsession with his work was compromising his relationship with his family and Mary helped him realize his faults and regain a much needed childlike perspective. In Mary Poppins Returns, the film teaches this same lesson, but attributing this to Michael feels unsound. He is clearly shown to be a good father and friendly person who is still subconsciously affected by his childhood escapades with Mary. True, he can be testy and can have a low tolerance for nonsense. But keep in mind, it’s the Depression, his wife is freshly dead and he’s about to lose his house. He doesn’t have the time or patience for a musical number about taking a bath. Mr. Banks needed that, but not Michael. The film frames his stress and melancholy as a “lost appreciation of childhood” or a “lack of appreciation for his family.” But anyone with eyes can see that he loves his family and is simply being realistic.
The musical numbers of the film are essentially retreads of the songs from the original Mary Poppins. And yet they’re largely bland and forgettable, which is practically the worst sin to commit in the musical genre. I have this little trick when I watch musicals. If I can remember the tune of the song that preceded the one I’m currently listening to, then that generally means the song was catchy or memorable. When applied to Mary Poppins, it’s obviously an automatic A+. By the time “A Spoonful of Sugar” is playing, I can recall “The Perfect Nanny” fairly well. But with Mary Poppins Returns I get the faintest of recollections and murmurs. And again, the songs themselves fulfill the same functions as the original films’ scores, like how “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” is akin to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” or how “Nowhere to Go But Up” is similar to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and so on. But they are simply repeats of songs and moments we’ve already seen before, only with half the effectiveness and charm. When I’m listening to “Turning Turtle” sung by Mary’s cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), all I can think about is how similar it is to “I love to Laugh,” and how I’d much rather be listening to that.
Disney has picked up a nasty habit in recent years of making remakes and sequels that dazzle in a visual sense, but completely miss the point of the original source material. Mary Poppins Returns is another unfortunate casualty in these line of films. Someone on the Disney corporate ladder has gotten it into their heads that fans of their films will be content if they just make the same film all over again and call it a day. To that, I say no, sir! As nice as it is to revisit a world and its inhabitants in a shinier package, it doesn’t mean anything if the spirit and intent of the source material isn’t comprehended. Mary Poppins is a childlike, yet mature, tale about realizing what’s truly important in your life and the regaining of childhood innocence because of that realization. Mary Poppins Returns attempts to be about the same thing, but it includes a cheesy villain, a chase scene and a rushed climax, three things that Mary Poppins is most certainly NOT about. All are unwelcome additions to a film that doesn’t have an original thought in its head. If this film wanted to be practically perfect in any way like the original film, I would have much preferred it if it focused on discussing newer concepts, took some risks and tried to expand on its mythology, setting and characters. Alas, we get no such movie. Just more of the same manufactured whimsy.