“Mary Poppins Returns” – A Spoon full of sugar isn’t going to help [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Mary Poppins Returns” hits all the notes, notes that were all hit before. Mary Poppins may be practically perfect in every way (especially as played by Emily Blunt) but the film is practically dreadful in every way.
With a story written by a committee of David Magee, Rob Marshall, and John DeLuca, with a script by Magee, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a cookie cutter version of the original “Mary Poppins” that has taken all the primary elements, copied them and plopped them into a flat, emotionless panorama of color and animation.
The backbone of the story is quite promising. Michael Banks, now grown up with three children of his own, is recently widowed and in danger of losing his house to, you guessed it, Dawes Bank, where his father used to work, now run by William Weatherall Wilkins, the nephew of Dawes, Jr. Michael’s sister Jane, a crusader for union causes, is horrified to learn that he had taken out a loan from the bank and neglected to pay the last three premiums. Unless they can come up with the money for the entire loan in the next three days, the land grabbing Wilkins will foreclose. Michael’s father owned shares in the bank which could be used as collateral, but the home is as messy as it is chaotic and the shares are nowhere to be found. By the way, what happened to the original Mr. and Mrs. Banks? They wouldn’t be all that old at this point, twenty-five years on. No mention is ever made, as if they never existed.
Mary Poppins hears the clarion call of need again. She and her umbrella float down to the rescue and soon has the house spit spot, although the shares remain missing. Jack, the scruffy but lovable lamplighter who, as a boy, worked with Bert the Chimney Sweep, and has always had a crush on Jane Banks, accompanies Mary and the children, Anabel, Georgie, and John, into a magical world they didn’t know existed.
Now all of this would be well and good if, and it’s a huge IF, the filmmakers hadn’t copied every note from the original movie. Jack the Lamplighter leads his fellow workers in a dance whose choreography is more than reminiscent of the Chimney Sweep dancers. When Georgie breaks an “heirloom” pot, the children, Mary, and Jack jump through said pot into a land inhabited by animated creatures much like the original when Mary and Bert jumped through a sidewalk chalk drawing into a land of make believe. As a matter of fact, the dancing penguins from the first film waddle into this one.
I could go on and on with frame by frame analysis, but the sad fact is, that although Marshall, DeLuca, and Magee thought they were paying homage to “Mary Poppins,” they were merely stealing scenes and replacing original characters with copies.
Marc Shaiman’s songs, for the most part, are forgettable and rarely create atmosphere, passion, amusement or pathos. If you listen carefully, he occasionally samples the melodies of many of Richard and Robert Sherman’s original music. It is unlikely that Shaiman’s tunes will be remembered for the next 50 plus years, let alone next year. The producers would have been better off using Richard Sherman as more than just a “consultant.”
Rob Marshall, who has had notable successes in bringing musicals to the big screen, has directed this in a perfunctory fashion, seemingly more interested in staying within the footprint of the original and not coloring outside the lines. The pacing is flat and the film drags on almost endlessly. Most of the fault lies with the writing, but then he has responsibility there as well.
What is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is much of the acting, for it cannot be said that the actors didn’t give it their all, despite the inherent limitations. Emily Blunt is spit spot in every way as Mary Poppins. Walking in the footsteps of a goddess who won an Academy Award for her performance, Blunt brings her own charm to the straightforward, magical Mary. Lin Manuel Miranda as Jack is thoroughly charming in a derivative role that he gradually makes his own. His voice is lovely, his accent spot on, and he sings his songs with meaning. What a pity that the producers didn’t let him compose the music. He’d have brought some sly fun, originality, and more depth to music that wasn’t seamless to the action.
Julie Walters, always a pleasure, plays the family maid with a relish that helps anchor the family. David Warner, as the Admiral next door, still shooting off his cannon, is a delight. Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks is totally wasted and has barely a role to play but leaves you wanting more for her. Ben Whishaw, rather unfortunately, gives us his best ‘deer-in-the-headlights” performance without enough nuance. Colin Firth must have had fun because he plays his villain as though he had a long, thin mustache to twirl. The children, Pixie Davies as Anabel, Nathanael Saleh as John, and Joel Dawson as Georgie, manage their roles very well and convey the necessary sense of wonderment at all that surrounds them.
Cameos are definitely of note. Meryl Streep sings and dances upside down in a disguise so thorough (and hilarious) that if you were unaware she was in the film, it might have taken the entire length of her song to catch on. Angela Lansbury singing a soon to be forgotten song about balloons has the unenviable task of being the copycat bird lady played by Jane Darnell in the original film. But last, and definitely not least, there’s Dick Van Dyke to the rescue in a show-stopping, scene-stealing role that will not be revealed here so that its full impact can be felt. Mere moments in length, he perks up the film at a moment it was sagging badly, helping it crawl to the finish line.
Had I never seen the original “Mary Poppins,” I might not feel so put out by this one. Children unacquainted with that version might actually delight in the use of animation and the black and white portrayals of good and evil. Mary Poppins herself will definitely command their attention. But the original film was one that both children and adults could enjoy together. More than likely, today’s parents are also not of an age to have seen the original film. Nevertheless, even for the uninitiated adult, the film drags on an interminable 2 hours and 10 minutes. This was not a jolly holiday with Mary.
Opening wide on Wednesday December 19.