REVIEW: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The following is a review of Mary Poppins Returns — Directed by Rob Marshall.

Whether P. L. Travers liked it or not, Robert Stevenson’s Mary Poppins is a recognized children’s’ musical classic. Though not exactly timeless, I think it is remarkable that both my mother and my sister and I all grew up watching Stevenson’s film. When I rewatched Mary Poppins recently, I must admit that I did not love it like I’ve been told I did when I was a child.

Strangely, that makes Rob Marshall’s sequel pretty perfect for me, as his film revolves around attempts to make the Banks’ remember what it is like to be kids — that certain point of view that allows for fantastical nonsense. And while it is true that this sequel didn’t exactly ‘blow me away,’ Mary Poppins Returns did manage to win me over with its overwhelmingly disarming charm.

Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns takes place during the Great Depression (or, Great Slump, as it is referred to in the film) many years after the events of Stevenson’s film. Jane (played by Emily Mortimer) and Michael Banks (played by Ben Whishaw) are now adults with jobs, responsibilities, and heartbreak that have made them forget what happened all those years ago.

When a repossession notice threatens to take the Banks’ childhood home from Jane and Michael and Michael’s three kids, Mary Poppins (played by Emily Blunt) appears to remind the three children of the house that they are still just kids, but also to adjust Michael and Jane’s point of view and steer them in the right direction. There to guide them through the foggy London streets and to dance and sing with the flying nanny is Jack (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda), an optimistic lamplighter, and he knows exactly how magical Mary Poppins is.

Let me be honest, I was really worried after the first ten minutes of the film. Though it does open with a nice little song from Miranda, of whom I have become a big fan, his accent was already thick and distracting (it never stopped being distracting, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s charming performance is so effective that he gets away with it), and this song is followed up by a tediously long credits sequence which just about lulls the audience into sleep.

The wait for the flying nanny to make her entrance is also curiously long. Whishaw and Mortimer are likable enough, but you need the title character. Naturally, your first impression of the Julie Andrews-less ‘new’ Mary Poppins is that she’ll take some getting used to, but, eventually, Blunt does a confident enough job of embodying the iconic character. The film doesn’t get into high gear though until Mary Poppins and the Banks children go underwater, and Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t find the magic touch until much later when she, the Banks children, and Miranda’s Jack take a trip into a china bowl.

The china bowl sequence is the single most impressive and memorable sequence in the entire film, which is suddenly gripping. Here the animation-to-live-action effects are brilliant, and the sequence is aided by clever costume design that makes it appear like the costume details were drawn on — outstanding work from Sandy Powell.

This sequence eventually leads to one of the two most memorable songs from the film, “A Cover is Not the Book,” which features one memorable line from Lin-Manuel Miranda who gets to shine multiple times here, but also in the other most memorable song, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” To me, the best song that only features Poppins’ voice is “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” which is a song that gets to the heart of why the children have been forced to grow up and why Whishaw’s character is out of sorts.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the drama of the film ever really works as intended in large part due to the conflict’s solution being telegraphed early on in the film. In the film, Whishaw and Mortimer’s characters are looking for a paper that may reveal that they had shares in the bank, and it is painfully obvious where the document is located for the entirety of the film. You’re just waiting for it to be revealed. Or maybe that was their intention. Maybe that shouldn’t be a problem because it’s ‘just a children’s movie,’ but it bothered me and kept me from being captivated by the Banks’ search for a way to pay off their debt.

I will also add that Meryl Streep’s one-song appearance is silly but distracting and unnecessary. Streep’s character could’ve been written out of the film fairly easily, and I think it would’ve actually helped the film from feeling as long as it does now. However, Colin Firth’s appearance doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar to go down well. Firth is deliciously cold-hearted, and I actually wanted more of him.

When Mary Poppins made her high-flying exit from the film and the credits started to roll, I was in good spirits. Like only a few other films from 2018, Mary Poppins Returns leaves you with a big, wide smile on your face. It successfully reminded me of my childhood experiences with the original films. Unsurprisingly, though, it was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and not “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” I was singing to myself on my way out to the parking lot.

Because it is a positively intoxicating nostalgic film experience, but, it isn’t perfect, and, perhaps by design, I suspect that the film only really works if you have a previous relationship with the original film. Mary Poppins Returns swears by the formula and arc of the original film, and, as a result, the film doesn’t legitimately take the story in a new direction. You’ve seen it all before, but two-hours of infectiously charming, nostalgia-fueled cinema is exactly the kind of sugar the doctor ordered.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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