Mary Poppins Returns January 10, 2019
Dick Van Dyke
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
ifty-four years ago, the magical nanny Mary Poppins appeared on the silver screen for the first time, in a film named after her. The movie was a smashing success: the third highest-grossing movie of 1964, a critical phenom. So you would think that we would have seen Poppins' name on marquees more often, as if she were one of Marvel’s superheroes. But P.L. Travers, the author who wrote the book on which the Mary Poppins feature was based, wrote in her will that she wanted no further Poppins
adaptations greenlit. The succeeding years, then, have been sadly devoid of whimsical movies starring caregivers who love to both sing and fly. The closest we’ve come to reliving the 1964 film’s glory, I think, was when the similarly plotted but edgier Nanny McPhee was released in 2005.
I never thought I’d see a follow-up to Mary Poppins. But sometimes life takes a turn for the better. The other day, I went to the theater, grandma in tow, and bought a ticket to see Mary Poppins Returns, a, for all intents and purposes, sequel. It is not based on any of the Travers-penned successors (but gives prominence to elements of many of them), which is perhaps an attempt on the part of the Disney horde to appease her will-based misgivings. The movie stars not the archetypal Poppins, Julie Andrews, but Emily Blunt, an actress so overwhelmingly charming that you sometimes wonder if she has magical powers herself. The film is additionally set 25 years after its predecessor, and is centered on the main children characters from the first film — Michael (played here by Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) — who have grown to become busy adults.
Like in the 1964 movie, the orphic nanny shows up in the middle of a crisis. As the film opens, Michael, a recent widower and father of three (Pixie Davies, Nathaneal Saleh, and Joel Dawson), finds out that his London home is in danger of being repossessed. Financially flagging, he took out a loan to pay for the house but failed to reimburse the bank in time. Poppins arrives in order to look after the children while Michael and Jane scramble to find a certificate that will enable them to access their father’s plentiful, and surely loan-covering, shares.
Mary Poppins Returns rarely diverges from the first movie’s structure. Some of the correlations are so uncanny, in fact, that the feature occasionally feels like a loose redux. The original’s cockney chimney sweep and sidekick, Bert (Dick Van Dyke, who cameos as a different character in the film), evolves into a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn), a fanciful character who would float to the ceiling if overtaken by a fit of laughter, is traded for Poppins’ mercurial cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), whose boutique goes literally upside-down every second Wednesday of the month. Memorable musical sequences are renovated, too. Again is there a trip to a Roger Rabbit-like animated world, and again is there a grandiose musical sequence that finds all the lamplighters of the city (chimney sweeps in the first movie) coming together to giddily dance about in a Newsies (1992)-type fashion.
Familiarity makes Mary Poppins Returns feel like filmic comfort food. It is not so familiar as to be akin to, say, one of the many unnecessary, Disney-backed live-action remakes of animated classics, though. The picture works in spite of its safeness. Blunt, who ably sings and dances, is just right for the part: she wins us over from the moment we first see her shadow making its way through the clouds. The director, Rob Marshall, who is also responsible for Chicago (2002) and Into the Woods (2014), is so effective at making musicals that you watch his lovingly manicured products and are glad that the genre’s become his beat. The sense of wonder remains, too. A bath turns into a farce that finds the children, accompanied by Poppins, diving into an awesome oceanic otherworld. In the movie’s best sequence, the gang is sucked into the Seurat-like, animated land inside a decorative bowl after the kids get into a fight and break it. There is a world in there, it seems, because the outers have been distinguished by drawings of carriages, circuses, and more.
But Marshall and co., of course, cannot make a movie as seamless and instantly ingrained in the mind as Mary Poppins. There are no surefire classic songs to be found here. I waited for something as cheerily earwormy as “A Spoonful of Sugar" or as memorably absurd as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to flare up and change my life. But I finished the movie with nothing still rattling around in my head. The big scene featuring Jack and his fellow lamplighters is as frenetic as it is gratuitous — a feeling that’s upped in the scope of a two-hour-and-10-minute-long movie. And even though the storyline helps get us to a fulfilling ending, the similarities to the first movie are sometimes bothersome. More than 50 years have passed, and yet we're getting a lot of the same. But then again, getting mostly the same of something that was pretty delightful in the first place is not entirely a negative. A spoonful of modern sugar might have helped make the feature go down more easily, though. B