By Jennifer Richardson
One of the things our family has missed during the pandemic shut-downs is going to the movie theater. To have a movie experience at home we have browsed the offerings on various streaming services. Recently I saw the Mary Poppins sequel was available. Having loved the original, I was eager to watch this new chapter unfold. If you or yours are looking for some family-friendly entertainment, here is my movie review.
Mary Poppins Returns is a solid piece of musical film-making, and it comes close to the joy and delightful misadventure of the original in a few scenes.
The film is set against the backdrop of London during the great depression, and the foggy, gray, colorless city scenes are an excellent contrast with the brightly colored cartoon adventures that Mary Poppins provides to the Banks children. The children belong to Michael Banks, the young son in the original Mary Poppins, who has grown up to be a poor artist on the cusp of losing his family home to foreclosure.
The three new Banks children, played by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson are really good. Naturally because this is a Disney film, their other parent is deceased. Mary Poppins (played by Emily Blunt) realizes her beloved Banks children are in need of help and shows up, umbrella, carpet bag and all, to help save the day. Blunt is effective as Poppins and has the right accent and general temperament to deliver the classic Poppins I-am-quite-bossy-but-I-am-here-to-help character, but has a harder edge. What Blunt lacks is joy, and the simple wonder of a simple song as understood by a child.
The original Mary Poppins Banks children heard sweet songs about feeding the birds and going to sleep, and this new Mary Poppins tries, in song, to define the place where their deceased mother may be residing. I am not sure that a sad song about, “where the lost things go,” is really helpful.
Michael’s sister Jane (played by Emily Mortimer) is well cast and adds to the English-feel of the story but has no real plot points. Their housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) is entertaining. Jack, a street lamp-lighter (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame) is the light romantic interest for Jane. He bravely and constantly plays toward the camera and tries to fill the shoes of Dick Van Dyke, which perhaps predictably, is not really possible. You can feel that his prowess is the stage and not the movies. Also he raps. Miranda is talented, but never captures the Van Dyke whimsy. However, he delivers a happy performance and seems to enjoy himself throughout.
The music is fine and even reaches toe-tapping in a few places. There are no instant-classic musical numbers here, but understandably, the original supercalifragilisticexpialidocious magic is a hard act to follow. The twenty-seven song soundtrack has sold bunches of albums I am sure, but we won’t be singing these songs to our grandchildren.
Today’s kids will enjoy the high-speed chase scenes, but may be curious about the classic 2D animation. The direction (Rob Marshall) is good and the effective pace keeps the audience from checking their phones. The script is clever, the plot is comfortably predictable, and most of the actors are great. There are many references to the original 1964 Mary Poppins film. The costumes are glorious.
The colossal mis-fire of the film is the casting of Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks. Everything about him is wrong for this part. He is not fatherly, he is not masculine, he carries around a storm cloud of gloom, he has no chemistry with his movie children or co-stars, and no matter how many layers of sweaters, vests, roomy pants, and wool coats or five-o’clock shadow they throw on him he is just a short, impossibly thin, sad whisper of a person.
Colin Firth (who is usually mesmerizing) does an adequate job of portraying a stingy banker, and the two fellow-bankers are entertaining. Meryl Streep is fabulous as Mary Poppins’ eccentric cousin, Topsy. Angela Lansbury offers a sweet, solid cameo, but you feel sad for her because it seems to have been intended for the legendary Julie Andrews (who was asked to be in the film but declined.) And a 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke literally steals the show! The last fifteen minutes of the show are golden, and worth the admission price.
Parents of young children may want to know that there is an intense chase/attempted kidnapping, but most of the intensity is in cartoon sequences. There are a few English insults (like “buffoon” and “pea brain”) but no profanity and no questionable content. This movie is safe for anyone five years old and up, but you may want to reconsider if your child has lost a parent or a close family member, as there are some sad scenes.
I appreciated that themes of kindness, empathy, and gratitude were emphasized.
Your response to the film may depend on your love or awareness of the original Mary Poppins, but don’t watch the original before you watch this sequel. You will probably enjoy this more serious re-boot, but you will enjoy it to a greater extent if you don’t have the impossibly talented Bert and Mary dancing in your memory banks. (“Banks” …see what I did there?)
The movie is entertaining and packed with talent, but it could use a little extra spoonful of sugar, and joy. All in all, Mary Poppins Returns is a nice way to spend a pandemic evening.