As with all review-caps, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Full disclosure: I’m not that big a fan of the original Mary Poppins (1964). I know, I know…blasphemy. Sorry, but when I saw it, Mary Poppins (and no offense meant to the amazing Julie Andrews) came off as a bossy boss who treated the only character I liked, Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, like absolute cr*p. Not to mention that the ‘Feed the Birds’ song has got to be one of the most depressing songs EVER.
All that said, though, when news of MARY POPPINS RETURNS first came down the pike, I was incredibly psyched to see that Emily Blunt was going to be playing her. She’s been my favorite actor ever since her performance in SICARIO – and she’s a true throwback to old Hollywood in her triple-threat excellence. So I went into the new movie with excitement and hope for the rare sequel that actually complements the original instead of trashing it. And thankfully that’s what I got, for the most part.
So the new flick sees the Banks children from the original flick all grown up. Widower Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, but now with three kids: John (Nathaniel Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies) and little Georgie (Joel Dawson) – an adorable trio of young actors who thankfully avoid being the typically obnoxious brats that most kids tend to be in movies. John and Anabel are especially mature for their young ages, a clear consequence of their mother’s death – but with the aid of Aunt Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) and housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), it’s the kids who keep the household running – doing the grocery shopping, calling the plumber and chasing after Georgie.
Unfortunately, an already struggling Michael’s become overwhelmed with all the responsibilities of a single father. He’s left his career as an artist behind to become a teller at the bank, but it’s not enough to pay the bills – he’s in the rears on his loan, and oily bank chief Wilkins (Colin Firth) puts on all kinds of fake sympathy as he threatens to repossess the house. Michael and Jane are sure their father owned enough stock in the bank to pay off the loan – problem is, they can’t find the paperwork anywhere in the messy house. Uh-oh. Things aren’t looking too good for the poor Banks family.
While all this is going on, we also meet Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, a lamp-lighter (aka a ‘Leerie’) who rides around on his bike and sings about what a fabulous day it is ‘Underneath the Lovely London Sky,’ even though it’s the Depression and the working class poor are miserable, while the greedy banks are making a profit repossessing homes like the Banks.’
So while Ben Whishaw’s Michael (who’s the real standout in the flick, by the way) searches for the stock paperwork in the attic – and sings a gorgeously heartbreaking song to his late wife – he finds that old, ratty kite from the original flick. In a fit of anger and hopelessness, he puts it out in the trash along with some of his artwork. But then a crazy wind picks up the kite and blows it across the park – and on their way to buy groceries, Little Georgie breaks away from John and Anabel to chase the kite, which almost sweeps Georgie away with it, even with help from Leerie Jack. Ah, but then who should come riding back down with the kite? Why, it’s Mary Poppins, y’all!
Mary walks back into everyone’s lives like she’s only been gone for an hour instead of decades, and Michael and Jane are stunned to see her. Of course she hasn’t aged a bit and says she’s returned ‘to look after the Banks children’ – meaning Michael and Jane, but she says she’ll look after the little ones too. Michael says he can’t possibly pay her, but Mary pish-poshes all that and settles for getting one day off a week and her old room back. She then proceeds to clean up the Banks kids from their kite-chasing adventure by drawing them a bath – which turns into a wonderful musical number as they disappear into the bathtub and have an underwater adventure.
But when the children try to oh-so-excitedly tell their father about it, Michael snaps at them all, chastising Mary for filling their heads with ‘stuff and nonsense’ while they’re in real danger of losing their home. Mary realizes just how bad things are then, with poor Michael in such despair and the kids still grieving the loss of their mother, who always knew how to take care of everyone. Mary gives the little ones hope with an exquisite song about their mother not being gone – just in a different place. And with Jack’s help, she helps the kids remain kids, taking them on more delicious musical adventures – like when they transport themselves into a stunning, traditionally animated world inside their mother’s china bowl.
Now you can see where all this is going, I’m sure. It’s not a complicated flick, and there’s no surprise twist at the end or dark re-imagining for these cynical times. With Mary’s magical help (and some at the last minute from Dick Van Dyke’s bank boss Mr. Dawes) Michael and Jane get the house and their inner joy back, the little ones get a happy dad, the cherry blossoms bloom on Cherry Tree Lane and everyone celebrates at a spring fair that looks good enough to eat, flying away on balloons given out by Angela Lansbury. Yep, even Mrs. Potts shows up just to add extra coolness points.
There’s way more to love about MARY POPPINS RETURNS than not, but that doesn’t mean it’s problem-free. It has a serious pacing issue – as wonderfully candy-like and dazzling as the visuals are, the flick drags, going on way too long. Marc Shaiman’s songs are outstanding, but there are so many musical numbers that the story gets put on hold almost every time someone breaks out in song. No disrespect meant to the legendary Meryl Streep, but her appearance is the worst offender as far as time-wasting. They could’ve (and should’ve) cut her entire sequence out and the flick would be so much better for it. The unnecessary dragging got bad enough that toward the end of the flick, there’s a really awkward gap in time between the Banks’ last scenes in the house – a sloppy way to hurry up and cut to the end. And for me, by that time, whenever somebody broke out into song, I sighed with impatience and over-saturation. I just wanted to see Mary do her magic thing and see the Banks get their house back and wrap it up already.
And speaking of Mary and her magic, that was the other major problem for me. While Emily Blunt’s Mary really was ‘practically perfect in every way,’ (and thankfully far less bossy than the original), the character gets kind of lost in her own movie. Once she appears, she’s front and center for a good while, of course – but the flick goes an awfully long time before introducing her.
It’s a struggle to balance attention between the story and all the main characters, especially in a musical. But too often throughout, Mary just stays silent in the background, especially during the big number at the end. I get that it’s meant to evoke the original’s ending, but to me it just came off as weird instead of bittersweet. And then Mary just takes off without a word to anyone, and nobody seeming to care that much that she’s gone, which just came off even weirder.
All that aside though, the flick is exceptionally well-crafted. It’s a candy store for your eyes and ears, and bursts with emotion. You’ll laugh, cry, sing along and tap your feet – and when you leave the theater, you’ll feel lighter and happier than when you went in. The flick’s a ‘practically perfect’ cure for the real world’s never-ending stream of bad news, negativity and meanness – and that can only be a good thing. So do yourself a favor and check it out.
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee, based on the original stories by P.L. Travers
Release Date: Dec. 19, 2018
Run Time: 2 hr 10 min
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures