There are a handful of movies so practically perfect that they could be released tomorrow and be loved unconditionally, negating the need for a sequel or remake. Disney’s timeless classic Mary Poppins is considered by many to be among that group, a detail that is obviously lost on Walt Disney Pictures, which feels the need to update the material for modern audiences.
In depression-era London, an adult Michael Banks (Ben “Q” Whishaw) – who now has children of his own – is still coming to terms with the death of his wife one year earlier. The life he leads is one of disarray, with money being tight, the plumbing ruptured and kitchenhand Ellen (Julie Walters) growing old. Worst of all, his home is being repossessed by the very bank that employs him, and the Fidelity Fiduciary’s lawyers have only given him the week to rescind his debts.
Michael’s sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer) believes that he can rectify his situation by utilising the shares inherited from their late father, himself a former employee of the bank. Whilst the two siblings search the house for documents pertaining to said shares, the three Banks children – John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) – are running amuck in the nearby park, having been distracted by a runaway kite.
With the help of a local lamplighter, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the offspring manage to grab the kite, but not without collecting another prize: Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), the magical woman who minded Jane and Michael in their younger years. Within moments of her arrival, the nanny is making her way through 17 Cherry Tree Lane as though she never left, greeting everyone by name, ordering the children about, tidying up and cheerily singing as she does so.
Mary Poppins Returns has some very lofty expectations to meet, being a sequel to the 55-year-old musical Mary Poppins – arguably the best film Disney has ever produced. To emulate the success of that movie would be an impossible feat, not least because many of the original cast and crew are unable to return due to age, or passing away. One person in the former category is Julie Andrews, who has been replaced by the younger Emily Blunt in the title role.
With her performance, Blunt does not try to mimic Andrews, instead providing her own interpretation of Mary Poppins, and a rather pretentious one at that. Where the original film depicted its titular childminder as elegant and ever-so-slightly vain, Returns sees her become excessively prim and posh, which proves rather irritating. On a more positive note, Blunt’s portrayal of the character is less cold and distant than her predecessor’s was, signalling that she is a sympathetic figure after all.
Usurping the role of male lead in Mary Poppins Returns is Lin-Manuel Miranda, an artist best recognised for writing and performing in the Broadway musical Hamilton. His protagonist, Jack, is revealed to be a one-time apprentice of Bert from the previous movie, but may as well be the same person, given his proficiency for singing and dancing. One advantage he possesses is a working-class British accent, thus making him a far more convincing Cockney than his predecessor ever was – sorry, Dick van Dyke!
Its characters aside, there are plenty of similarities that Mary Poppins Returns shares with its prequel, including a portion where the live-action actors enter an animated world, only on this occasion, a hand-painted Royal Doulton bowl takes the place of a kerbside chalk drawing. As an added bonus, the sequence eschews the trend of computerised visuals by retaining the two-dimensional, hand-illustrated style of Disney films past, a comforting sight in modern times.
This evolutionary approach is replicated in the music, which has a very familiar sound to it. The catchy songs – written by Marc Shaiman, with some input from Richard Sherman, co-songwriter of the first Mary Poppins – are supposedly all-new, yet to the ear, they are near identical to the melodies from the original soundtrack. For example, the tune “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, and the choreography that accompanies it, is reminiscent of the showstopping “Step in Time” sequence.
(On a brief sidenote, most of the numbers in the film prove pleasing and memorable, including the opening song “Lovely London Sky”, the bubbly bath-time melody “Can You Imagine That?”, the rambunctious recording “A Cover is Not the Book” and the uplifting closer “Nowhere to Go But Up”.)
Clearly, Mary Poppins Returns is inspired by the very feature it succeeds, but it owes just as much to another live-action musical of the same era, that being Bedknobs and Broomsticks. This fact is reinforced by Returns’ underwater sequence, the anthropomorphic animals that inhabit the animated portion, and the “special appearance” of Angela Lansbury, the very same actress who starred in the aforementioned production. If such references are intentional, then the film-makers are to be applauded for their efforts.
With all this in mind, one might be inclined to view Mary Poppins Returns as The Force Awakens of musicals, a picture that evokes the spirit of its forebears whilst adding some fresh elements for a new generation; in actuality, the film doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself, lacking the innovation and creativity necessary for it to be appreciated in its own right. As a consequence, the sequel will sadly live in the shadow of the two productions it pays homage to, which are both more impactful.
Substandard and needless though it may be, Mary Poppins Returns is a cheery tribute to Disney’s musicals of yesteryear. The performances, visuals, music and throwbacks all make the film a joy to behold, but with just a little more originality and flair, it could have proved even more delightful.