I’ll be the first to admit, I never really understood the mystique of the Mary Poppins character. Or perhaps to put it more precisely, I certainly got what she represented and what her messages were to the people she crossed paths with, but I never got what the big deal was. Surely there were more direct ways to tell children and adults to never lose touch with the part of themselves that loves life and runs toward an adventure.
Although I never read any of the original stories by P.L. Travers, I always got a kick out out of the 1964 Disney version of Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, as well as a host of animated creatures for them to dance and sing with. As the title indicates, Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel—not a remake—set years later in Depression-era London. The Banks children, Jane and Michael, are now grown, and the harshness of the times is having its way with them, especially Michael (Ben Whishaw), who has three children and is recently widowed. Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps with the kids (Pixie Davies as Anabel, Nathanael Saleh as John, and Joel Dawson as Georgie), but this leaves her little time for social life of her own. The family maid, Ellen (Julie Walters), is still kicking and always good for a quip here and there.
We find out early on that Michael is in danger of losing the family house thanks to greedy bank owner Wilkins (Colin Firth), who just happens to be Michael’s boss, pretending to be sympathetic but, in truth, he’s after the house. Left with few prospects for getting enough income to save his home, it’s clear that Michael needs help taking care of his children, when who should appear out of the sky on the end of a kite but the eternal nanny Mary Poppins (now played by Emily Blunt), who hasn’t aged a day and is still as mischievous and mysterious as always—maybe even a little more so. It always seemed clear to me that Mary was a type of witch—a good one, to be sure—but a dealer in mystic magic that she constantly denies taking part in. She steers the children or the elder Banks family members into embarking on some very trippy, alternate reality adventure, and upon returning, she essentially denies that the whole thing ever happened. Again, I’m not sure I get why she plays these games—outside of it being amusing at times. Maybe it’s a British thing?
Speaking of things that do and don’t seem very British, Lin-Manuel Miranda is on hand as Jack (as in “of all trades”), and while his primary gig seems to be lighting and putting out the gas street lights around certain London streets, he seems up for just about anything. He doesn’t once question Mary’s skills, and frankly, it makes him a bit of a boring rube. He just bounces around, smiling, being everybody’s friend, all while putting on a British accent that feels very…deliberate. There’s a particular song-and-dance number with Jack and other lamp lighters that is an absolute highlight of the movie, and I’ll never complain about having the creator of Hamilton in anything where he gets to belt out a couple of tunes, but the character just didn’t feel like anything but a shell of a kindly man who Mary and the Banks family know they can count on.
Since it’s in the trailer, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to talk about a couple of cameos, including ones by Van Dyke (although not as his Mary Poppins character), David Warner as Admiral Boom, Angela Lansbury as a woman selling balloons, and Meryl Streep as Mary’s cousin Topsy, who has a few special powers of her own, but not nearly the social skills of her relation. While it’s always great to see Streep pop up anywhere, it did make me realize that while she has often been very funny over the years, actually doing broad physical and prop comedy may not be her joint. I’ll simply say that the sequence with her feels extended.
Because they are two of my favorite actors working today, my eyes were always drawn to Whishaw and Mortimer, who are there to ground us in the real world while Mary attempts to draw them into her more fantastical one. They never let us forget what is at stake, but they are also beautiful reminders of how open and daring they were as children. There is something lost in them as adults that is longing to return, and both actors play that to perfection. And then there’s Emily Blunt, who has nothing to prove as an actor or a singer (Mary Poppins Returns director Rob Marshall also cast her quite effectively in his Into the Woods). She manages to capture the voice, look and spirit of Andrews’ version of Mary Poppins without it feeling like a pale imitation. Her Mary feels more playfully devious but also more committed to bringing back a sense of wonder to this fractured family.
The new batch of songs (from by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman) are skillfully crafted and sung, and I have no doubt that many of them will linger in the heads of those who see the film more than once. There are even instrumental moments from songs in the original Mary Poppins (from original composers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman) that are sure to make die-hard fans swoon a little. It’s clear that everyone from writer David Magee and Marshall to all of the performers worked tirelessly not to make this a superfluous sequel. There’s an attention to detail in the costuming, the production design, even the hand-drawn animation used in one sequence that all pays off by being exquisitely executed. More might have been done to deepen the Poppins character, but there’s also something to be said for leaving well enough alone. The film is a pleasant distraction with great music, exceptional performances and an eye toward deepening a legacy.
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