I’m usually an optimist, but I had no confidence at all in Rob Marshall directing a sequel to MARY POPPINS, despite the obviously well-cast Emily Blunt (THE WOLFMAN). I’m happy to report, though, that all involved did a great job and MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a warm and enjoyable revival of old school Walt Disney cornball musical family entertainment, for those who might be interested in such a thing.
I really didn’t know what I was talking about with Marshall, to be honest. I’ve never even seen his Academy Award winning CHICAGO. But I was so bored watching PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES that it completely put me off a series I had loved up until that point. I didn’t trust him taking a crack at this much more sacred Disney ground, especially with a script from the guy that did fuckin FINDING NEVERLAND. But in retrospect Marshall had pretty good qualifications for this one. I’ve subsequently learned of his love for MARY POPPINS as the first movie he remembers seeing, his seriousness about honoring the original tone and using material from the P.L. Travers books, that he had Marc Shaiman (MY GIANT) start recording the score beforehand so he could play it while filming, and that he got the cast to rehearse the song and dance numbers for months, something he took from his days as a dancer and choreographer for the stage. Having seen it, all of that makes sense.
What’s most surprising and impressive is how little of it seems modern at all. Surely all kinds of computers were involved in creating beautiful painterly Disney London and the camera’s movements around it. But the sentiments, the pacing, the musical numbers and humor are all straight up 1964. They don’t give Mary an origin or make winky modern references. They at least skip any obvious “Supercalifragilistic” business in their part 1 callbacks. And most importantly the music barely has any traces of what decade we’re in. Though they’re well done, the songs by Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who did the musical versions of HAIRSPRAY and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) obviously can’t match the classics by the Sherman Brothers. But the score really got me. Listen to some of this:
Maybe some of our music experts here will feel otherwise, but I know if I’d heard alot of this score on its own I never would’ve guessed that it came from a modern movie. Sorry to put this image in your head, but they literally had me tapping my feet a couple times. In my defense it was one of those theaters with the recliner seats, so they’re just dangling there, they need something to do. My point is fuck you the score is a delight from beginning to end.
The story is a followup, not a separate adventure. The Banks kids, Michael and Jane, are now grown up. Michael (Ben Wishaw, THE TEMPEST) is widowed with three kids, living in the same house from the first movie, which is about to be repossessed by the bank. Which he works for, just like his dad did. And Mary Poppins (who I wouldn’t consider to have aged, though I suppose Blunt [THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU] is five or six years older than Julie Andrews was) floats in to look after the kids while he tries to deal with all the financial ruin and what not.
Jane, meanwhile, is single and childless, which I respect. She’s played by Emily Mortimer (REDBELT), and carrying after her suffragette mother, is a labor activist. She befriends Jack (educational rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter who’s supposed to have worked with Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert, is an obvious stand-in for him in this sequel, and pays homage to his infamous Cockney accent. Jack’s occupation (riding around on a bike and climbing a ladder to switch on and off the city’s lamps) is responsible for some good imagery and atmosphere – like its predecessor, the sequel seems in love with the work of master background and matte painters. They even make a whole opening credits sequence out of it.
That style and the lamplighters come together in the most spectacular dance number, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Jack and his fellow workers come together, spin torches around, it even gets a little bit STEP UP 3 when they start doing bike tricks. Nobody getting sprayed with water, though. And why the fuck isn’t Moose or Kid Darkness in this.
One small complaint: with the movie’s class and labor themes, I couldn’t help but think about how much harder Bert’s chimney sweeps had it than these lamplighters. They’re not getting dirty, they just roll around at a fairly leisurely pace and turn switches. I’m not sure their hands even get callused. When they get together and dance it seems less like blowing off steam and more like just a continuation of what a cool and fun job they have. It’s gotta be a way better time than Michael has at the fuckin bank.
Most of the songs and set pieces are based around what Marshall calls “adventures” from the books. There’s a visit to an upside down store owned by Mary’s cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep, RICKI AND THE FLASH), a bathtub that leads underwater, a helium balloon flight. My favorite is the animated sequence, which takes place inside the art on a china bowl. There’s a big chariot chase scene with various talking animals, kind of a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride feel. I think there might be more 2D animation here than in the original, which is impressive considering that they had to get some Disney animators to come out of retirement to train newbies who’ve only worked on computers. I read that they even animated with pencil and paper before digitally coloring the drawings, which I don’t think is done that much these days.
Alot of the humor, visual playfulness and general vibe of sweet sincerity reminded me of the PADDINGTON movies, which I didn’t review but enjoyed. Then I remembered that Wishaw voices Paddington. Like those movies it feels a little unnecessary to have a traditional villain character, in this case Colin Firth (KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE) as the bank president who acts like he’s gonna help Banks out but we know he’s actually scheming against him because he’s played by Colin Firth and we’re not stupid.
Remember, though, that Firth was the voice of Paddington Bear all through principle photography and even after a trailer was released, but then the filmmakers and actor mutually decided it wasn’t working, and he was replaced by Wishaw. So there may be some sort of intra-bear conflict going on here. Furthermore, Marshall said on the DGA podcast that the whole story came out of wanting to use the Depression setting of the books. That led both to the grown up Banks children and the financial struggles.
About that: I don’t know many people who can relate to having financial struggles while also having a maid and a nanny. But I don’t think I’ve met more than a handful of people who can fly on an umbrella, kite or balloon either. And one thing I like about these old stories is how they show that those who already got theirs should still care about people and trying to make things better. They’re upper class but it’s normal that they spend their time trying to get women the right to vote or better conditions for laborers. This is probly naive, but it seems like it used to go without saying that greed was bad and empathy was good, and then that got kinda blurry some time during my lifetime.
I’ve barely talked about Mary, and maybe that’s because part of her whole thing is to act like she’s not doing that much. The kids are very perky and trying to help, and she both gets them into and keeps them out of trouble in, to be frank, the most delightful way. But it becomes evident that her most important purpose is to help the kids and Michael with the process of grieving.
I mentioned this in the BUMBLEBEE review the other day that I was really feeling the loss of my parents during the holidays, so it became very evident how many damn movies are about people (usually much younger than me, admittedly) dealing with the death of a mother or father. You could say that it’s triggering to keep running into movies that unexpectedly flush me full of emotions about things I’m going through, except I appreciate the catharsis and also it’s kinda cool to be able to find something profoundly human in movies about, like, a girl and her robot car.
Anyway I gotta tell you, I was definitely feeling this movie stronger than normal because I watched it on my first Christmas without my mom. She was heavy on my mind because she loved the whole season, and her favorite actress Meryl Streep even popped up in the movie. And then these kids are talking and singing all about their dead mother. I don’t think on another day it would’ve wrecked me like it did, but I’m sure I would always like its nice message about how your lost loved ones live on through qualities in you and through your memories of them.
It kind of shows an unusual maturity in our society that I haven’t seen anyone complain that Emily Blunt (THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER’S WAR) is not Julie Andrews (AQUAMAN). Nobody is Julie Andrews (AQUAMAN) except Julie Andrews (AQUAMAN), and even that has never been proven. So it goes without saying that no human or kraken is gonna be as good, but Blunt (SICARIO) does an admirable job of capturing the character’s joy, wisdom and silliness hidden with poise and dry wit.
Wishaw is really well cast because he has this boyish look behind his I’m-a-Grown-Up mustache that connects him to the little boy from the original and makes him seem so in over his head. He used to be the one running around with cartoon characters, now he has to worry about bank shares and documentation and shit. He has this scene where the kids’ attempts to help have gotten him in trouble at work and he snaps and starts yelling at them, but then starts breaking down about the death of his wife and the kids start comforting him with what they learned from Mary… damn. Good stuff. I didn’t it see it coming how good he was.
My favorite thing in the original, something I didn’t really pick up on until I saw it a couple times, is the brief shot at the end where Mary looks at the family sadly before leaving. You can read my review of that one to see my extrapolations about the heroic sacrifices she has to make to be a magical nanny. I think she had a little look like that in this one, too, but it went by fast. I really noticed, though, that Michael and Jane barely seemed to register her leaving at the end. I know there’s some magic involved but it’s kinda depressing how little appreciation these two have for the enormous effect she’s had on their lives, now on two separate occasions. They’re so fuckin casual about that!
Is there a need for a sequel to MARY POPPINS? Fuck no, but it doesn’t hurt to have a way for kids and parents and families and others to go to a movie theater in 2018/2019 and experience this specific type of feeling together, something that realistically wouldn’t happen on a large scale even if they re-released the original. I certainly got something out of it, so I thank the lady for returning.
Now do one where these kids are grown up and get accused of communism or Mary Poppins has to stop the Cuban Missile crisis or something I’m sure there are many good possibilities for MP3
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.