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Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Mary Poppins Returns - Review

Who Made It?

Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel to Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins, which was loosely based on the Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers. The film is directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods), and the screenplay is written by David Magee (Finding Neverland) with Marshall and John DeLuca assisting in writing the story.

What’s It About?

Mary Poppins Returns takes place in 1930’s London during “the days of The Great Slump”. Since his life was changed by the magical nanny Mary Poppins over two decades before, Michael Banks (played by Ben Wishaw) has become an adult,  living with his sister Jane (played by Emily Mortimer), his housekeeper Ellen (played by Julie Walters) and three children  - the mature older siblings Anabel and John  (played by Pixie Davies and Nathaneal Saleh) and more adventurous younger child Georgie (played by Joel Dawson) . Since the death of his wife, Michael has been struggling to pay his bills, and he now has just five days to save his family home from the villainous banker William Wetherall Wilkins (played by Collin Firth). Whilst walking through the park, discovers the old Banks family kite in the air and follows it to discover Mary Poppins (played by Emily Blunt) who returns to Banks house to look after the children. Aided by the lamplighter Jack (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) Mary takes Anabel, John  and Georgie  on a variety of fantastical adventures - including visits to an underwater world, a music hall populated entirely by animals, and an upside-down shop - whilst the Banks family try to find the documents which could allow them to clear their debts.


(This Review Contains Mild Spoilers)

Released in 1964, Mary Poppins became one of the most iconic films in the Disney canon, winning several Oscars (and receiving a coveted Best Picture nomination).. Watching it today, it is not hard to see why it became so successful. The film is undoubtedly flawed - the characters are flat by modern standards, and many of the scenes go on for a very long time without advancing the relatively thin and simplistic story. However, these issues are minor in comparison to the timeless messages, elaborate special effects and inescapably catchy songs. Most importantly, the movie has a unique and magical atmosphere which can enchant audiences of all ages. In the 55 years since its initial release, Mary Poppins has inspired a long-running stage adaptation and even a film about how Walt Disney brought it to life. Given its enduring popularity, it is not surprising that Disney have opted to make a sequel, but the first film sets an impossibly high bar for Mary Poppins Returns. Mary Poppins Returns is not able to clear this, but it still manages to be a very good followup to the much-loved original.

It is no surprise to learn that the story of Mary Poppins Returns sticks closely to the template of the original. The Banks family are dealing with a crisis, causing Mary to fly in and look after the children. She takes them on a variety of adventures, including one which takes place in an animated world, and one involving an eccentric relative with a strange condition.  After the children cause chaos in the bank, they run away and get treated to a musical number by Mary’s sidekick and his workmates. Eventually, the story ends with the Banks family enjoying a high-flying celebration outdoors. Many of the memorable elements from the first movie also return to add to the nostalgic appeal. The talking parrot on Mary’s umbrella gets a larger role, and Admiral Boom is still firing cannons to mark the hour, although his timing is not as reliable as it used to be. In addition, we get a wide variety of smaller Easter eggs, and spotting them provides Mary Poppins fans with an additional pleasure. For all the callbacks to the original, there are enough changes to help Mary Poppins Returns feel like a continuation of the Banks Family story, rather than a full-on  retread. One of the highlights is the depiction of London. Whilst the original Mary Poppins was filmed entirely on soundstages, with matte paintings used in the background, Mary Poppins Returns provides us with a detailed world where Mary can work her signature magic. The exaggeration of the first film is mostly discarded in favour of making a relatively authentic depiction of London as it was in the 1930s. There are some anachronistic touches (Miranda’s patter during one song is pretty close to rapping, and we see several lamplighters perform modern BMX-style stunts on their bicycles during one sequence) but this generally is a successful depiction of a London which is grey and impoverished, but with magic and adventure nearer than anyone expects...

The one advantage this film has over the original is the characterisation. In the first film, Mr Banks was probably the only fully developed and realistic character. Originally Michael and Jane Banks were typical cute children looking for a respite from their rigid lifestyle, but they have developed into interesting characters here. Michael has been pursuing his dreams of being an artist, but his recent loss has forced him to grow up rapidly and find a job in order to raise money for his children. Michael is struggling to preserve his sense of childlike wonder in an inhospitable world, and this plays a key role in his growing frustration with the chaos which Mary always brings. His arc could have easily been a repeat of Mr Banks’ evolution in the first movie, but it genuinely feels unique. Meanwhile, Jane is following in her mother’s footsteps, running a charity to look after the poor and unemployed. Whereas the first film played Winifred Bank’s suffragette status for laughs, this one generally takes Jane’s activism seriously, and is all the better for it. The children avoid being annoying, with an intriguing contrast between Anabel and John (who had to grow up too fast) and Georgie, who is still unaffected by the pressures of adult life. As in the first film, Mary and her sidekick are relatively two-dimensional characters, primarily existing to generate change in the Banks family. However, they are engaging and charismatic enough to inspire and engage us, and they do an excellent job of promoting the incredible worlds which they are able to create. The story is stronger than the first film, but it is still a secondary element at best. The race to save 17 Cherry Tree Lane adds a welcome degree of urgency and allows the film to be a bit more focused. There is still plenty of padding, but the common threads linking the songs and fantasy sequences are stronger this time around. However, for every improvement, there is an unnecessary or pointless addition. The presence of an outright villain is understandable given the more dramatic storyline, but Wilkins is not interesting or threatening enough to please those who believe that the issues in the Banks family provide enough conflict for the film. Meanwhile, Jane’s activism is discarded in order to establish a romantic relationship with Jack. The two make a lovely couple, but the decision to put them together feels forced.

The two things which made the original Mary Poppins such an iconic film are the fantasy sequences and the songs. The fantasy sequences here are pretty impressive, taking advantage of the leaps in technology which have occurred over the last five decades.  Mary makes bathtime fun by taking the children on an underwater adventure, where they meet whales and giant ships. She then turns the paintings on a ceramic vase into an animated world populated by animals. The hand-drawn animation which made the “Jolly Holiday” sequence so iconic is emulated in impressive fashion here, with CGI being used to enhance painted backgrounds and sketchy hand-drawn animals reminiscent of the 60’s style of animation. However, as in the first film, the simplest effects are the best. Little moments of magic, such as Mary pulling a giant parasol out of a sink and disappearing into a bath, are even more impressive than the grand special effects sequences which follow. There are two big action scenes, which are a risk in a generally charming and old-fashioned film. In the Doulton Bowl sequence, Ananabel and Jon must rescue Georgie from a villainous wolf with a remarkable resemblance to Wilkins. The chase scene which follows is fairly weak, with Wolf Wilkins’s creepy facial expressions being the most notable thing about it. Conversely, the climax, which features Mary and Jack’s lamplighter friends invading Big Ben in order to literally turn back time, is genuinely creative and engaging. The new set pieces and effects lack the hand-crafted charm of the ones in the original, but they are still entertaining enough to feel genuinely timeless

The songs are written by composer-songwriter duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, best-known for creating the soundtrack to Hairspray.In addition to following in the footsteps of the first film, they have to compete with a growing number of recent musical hits, including Frozen, The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born. However, whilst these used contemporary musical styles to appeal to modern audiences, the soundtrack to Mary Poppins Returns is defiantly old-fashioned, consisting of ballads and jaunty uptempo numbers which would not be out of place in the musicals of the 1930s. The nine new songs written for Mary Poppins Returns all serve as direct substitutes for the numbers from the original, staying close to the Mary Poppins formula. To give a couple of examples, Jack’s signature song, “Underneath the Lovely London Sky” takes the place of “ Chim Chim In Nee”, (The theme tune of Dick Van Dyke’s lovable chimney sweep Bert) , whilst “Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover Is Not the Book” provide the same music-hall inspired entertainment as “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Elements of the original score make their way into the movie, and concluding song  “Nowhere to go but up” also contains lines alluding to a couple of the old favourites. As the original Mary Poppins contained one of the greatest Disney soundtracks of all time, the new songs are fighting a losing battle and generally fail to match the iconic status of the original tunes. For instance, whilst “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” contains intricate lyrics with plenty of rhyming slang, it lacks the call-and-response charm and energy which made “Step in Time” such an enjoyable song. However, they have plenty of merit on their own terms. “Can You Imagine That?” is probably the catchiest number, whilst “A Cover Is Not the Book” adds a surprising amount of sauciness to this incredibly wholesome world (perfect for a music hall pastiche). Overall, the strongest addition is easily “The Place Where Lost Things Go”. This simple but lovely ballad allows the Banks children to come to terms with the loss of their mother, and a later reprise is one of the emotional highlights of the film. None of the songs from Mary Poppins Returns will be a major chart hit like “Let It Go”, “This Is Me” or “Shallow”, but that was never their intention, and they provide decent entertainment for the duration of the movie.

The cast for Mary Poppins Returns is incredibly impressive, but their performances are a mixed bag. Ben Wishaw, rapidly becoming one of Britian’s national treasures, probably gives the best performance in the film, capturing Michael Banks’ struggle to adjust to his difficult circumstances and keeping him sympathetic even as his seemingly hopeless situation begins to make him angry and frustrated. Emily Blunt starts out strict and aloof, but it does not take long for her to bring out Mary’s playfulness, and she captures the unique appeal of this iconic character. Davies, Saleh and Dawson do a decent job bringing the Banks children to life, whilst Emily Mortimer is lively if underused as Jane Banks . Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda brings a lot of charm and likeability to his first major film role as Jack. His London accent is not very accurate, but he never forces it too much, so it is a lot better than Dick Van Dyke’s infamous “Cockney” accent from the original.  For those who enjoy terrible accents, you don’t have to look too far. In the role of Mary’s relative Topsy, (whose repair shop has a habit of turning upside down), Meryl Streep provides a ridiculously thick and wobbly “Eastern European” accent which plays to all the stereotypes associated with the region. She is not the only big-name star who wastes their talents in this movie. Colin Firth provides a villainous version of his signature posh persona, but Wilkins is an incredibly flat villain, a stereotypical greedy banker with little screentime and few unique traits. Julie Walters is barely given anything to do, which is a tremendous disappointment considering her talent and experience. However, there are still some memorable supporting characters. Veteran actor David Warner is having a lot of fun as Admiral Boom, whilst Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is likeable and amusing as Wilkins’s kind-hearted henchman Frye. Dick Van Dyke turns up at the end in a memorable cameo as the elderly bank owner Dawes (son of the decrepit Dawes Sr. from the first film, and uncle of Wilkins), with his scene providing a touching reminder that the childhood magic promoted by Mary Poppins can have some incredible long term effects. Meanwhile, Angela Lansbury plays a balloon lady whose magical balloons are at the heart of the closing scenes. Lansbury is as lively as ever, but it is impossible to dispute that her scenes would have a greater impact if Julie Andrews played the role as was originally intended.


Like the iconic original, Mary Poppins Returns is hard to judge by conventional standards. Technically, it is probably superior to the first Mary Poppins - the story is tighter and more engaging and the characters are generally better developed. However, the sequel lacks a lot of the spontaneity and novelty which made the original so special, and there are too many flaws and deficiencies in the narrative to compensate for this. That said, Mary Poppins Returns is still a good film, with excellent messages, appealing characters and impressive special effects. Therefore, audiences should check it out, regardless of their familiarity with the original. Mary Poppins Returns will not become a genre-defining classic like the first Mary Poppins film, but it is one of the better films from Disney’s often inconsistent live-action division, and people will be able to enjoy it for decades to come.

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