MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a love letter to the original, beloved 1964 Mary Poppins. This is both good – and bad. The cast and creators really had an impossible task. How do you live up to what is ultimately considered “Walt’s Masterpiece?” In 1964, Mary Poppins wowed audiences with brand new special effects, captivating music and Julie Andrews who – like her character – was practically perfect in every way. Mary Poppins was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Actress, Best Visual Effects and Best Music – Song and Score. How do you replicate this lightning in a bottle?
Director Rob Marshall took the ingredients of the original – music, characters, setting (the Bank, London and Cherry Tree Lane), children and a nanny – and laid them out in direct proportion to the 1964 film. Beat for beat, it replicates moments from the original.
However, MARY POPPINS RETURNS is not a remake of the classic. Instead, it is a sequel, set approximately 20 years later in the 1930’s – depression-era London. Now an adult with three children, bank teller Michael Banks learns that his house will be repossessed in five days unless he can pay back a loan. His only hope is to find a missing certificate that shows proof of valuable shares that his father left him years earlier. Just as all seems lost, Michael and his sister receive the surprise of a lifetime when Mary Poppins — the beloved nanny from their childhood — arrives to save the day and take the Banks family on a magical, fun-filled adventure.
Even the way Rob Marshall and his writing and composition team approached the development of MARY POPPINS RETURNS emulated Mary Poppins. In 1963, Walt Disney took the first Mary Poppins book and circled various chapters and moments he thought could be used in a movie. He had the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) do the same. Famously the story concludes with Richard and Robert returning to Walt’s office with all the same chapters circled. Walt hired them as studio composers on the spot and the rest is history. Fast forward to the present, where Rob Marshall and his team poured over the seven remaining Mary Poppins books to find moments they could reprise in MARY POPPINS RETURNS.
If the director had an impossible task, certainly Emily Blunt had a more daunting challenge – to embody the iconic Mary Poppins, so perfectly portrayed by Julie Andrews. Emily Blunt certainly looks the part. As the Baker’s Wife in INTO THE WOODS, Blunt completely captivated me, and I was hoping she would do the same as Poppins. However, Blunt based her character on the book’s Mary Poppins (which is more stern and stoic than Julie Andrews). She also put on an affected English accent in both dialogue and song, which unfortunately pulled me out of the film. Had she just used her normal accent, her portrayal would be far more believable and heartfelt.
Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a fun Jack. He is the happy-go-lucky lamplighter, emulating Bert’s character from the original. Miranda does not disappear into the role, however. He is loveable, but he is Lin-Manuel. The other characters are amazing. Emily Mortimer is the PERFECT Jane Banks. She looks and acts just like a grown-up Jane would. Ben Whishaw (who incidentally used to dress up as Mary Poppins as a child) wrecks your heart in his portrayal of grown-up Michael Banks. Adult responsibilities weigh on his shoulders.
Then there are the cameos. Keep a sharp eye out for Karen Dotrice, who is the original Jane Banks. About halfway through the movie, she walks up to Jane, Michael and the children in front of #17 Cherry Tree Lane and asks for directions to #19. While she may be hard to spot, you can’t miss Dick van Dyke. When his beloved face appeared onscreen, the entire audience burst into spontaneous applause and I saw many, including myself, wipe away nostalgic tears.
This brings me to my next point. Watch MARY POPPINS RETURNS on opening day or opening weekend, with an audience full of original fans. Because this is a love letter to Walt’s Masterpiece, there are many moments that the discerning fan will understand. From props to matte paintings to musical phrases in the soundtrack, keep your eyes and ears peeled. I heard audible gasps from the crowd throughout the film, even the opening credits, as they recognized winks and nods to the original.
Yes, Mary Poppins fans will probably relate with this film, but will kids like it? I’m not sure that they are the intended audience. Because MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a musical that replicates the tone and pacing of a 1964 film, it is very slow for today’s fast-paced, YouTube generation. However, the film is bright and colorful, with wonderful costumes and fun 2D-animated characters. The story is simple as well, so it really depends on the individual child.
Mary Poppins is all about magic, and there IS magic in Mary Poppins Returns. It’s in the lyrics. Scott Wittman has a knack of creating a simple phrase that means something much, much deeper.
“Nothing’s gone forever only out of place”
“When you change the view from where you stood
The things you view will change for good”
“And if you’re deep inside the tunnel
When there is no end in sight
Well just carry on until the dawn
It’s darkest right before the light”
There are layers and layers to the words, and upon second viewing I found a deeper meaning to almost every song. I was brought to tears by the nursery lullabye, “Where The Lost Things Go”, especially the last verse where the lyrics suggest that the childrens’ deceased mother is “in the place where lost things go.”
The same cannot be said about the music, however. Sherman Brothers melodies are earworms. They stick with you after hearing them once. Can you hum “it’s a small world after all”? How about “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”? Perhaps when these MARY POPPINS RETURNS songs have been around for 60 years, we’ll be able to hum “Nowhere To Go But Up” without the soundtrack. But as of two viewings, I can’t. Composer Marc Shaiman did add fun Easter eggs in the soundtrack, however. Shaiman sprinkles the soundtrack with musical references to “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “A Man Has Dreams”. These moments are a delight!
MARY POPPINS RETURNS in U.S. theaters on 12/19, and it is a perfect film for a family outing to the theater this holiday season. While not practically perfect, it is a jolly holiday for two hours. Go see this film, then watch the original Mary Poppins in your home theater. I guarantee MARY POPPINS RETURNS will make you want to watch the original. And if you are an original fan, see the new film during the opening weekend for a fun experience with like-minded fans.