Review: “Mary Poppins Returns” is almost Practically Perfect, definitely a Little Fantastic

When a classic Disney film in the same tier as 1964’s Mary Poppins gets a sequel decades after its release, it’s usually less than stellar. Of course, the company’s direct-to-video track record is much different from their cinematic record, but that reputation added to the hit-or-miss nature of the recent slew of big-budget live-action remakes of their animated features created a level of apprehension to Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. Although I don’t have much of a personal history with the original film — I was aware of it growing up but never saw it until 2013, a few days after I’d seen Saving Mr. Banks — Marshall’s adaptation of Annie for ABC was my introduction to the movie musical, and the attachment of his name to this project was enough to get me excited. Still, I made sure to revisit Poppins before it revisited us, and having done that, I’m happy to say that Mary Poppins Returns lives up to both its director’s legacy and (more importantly) the legacy set by the 1964 film.

I don’t know if I think Marshall’s Poppins is exactly as good as its predecessor, but it’s evident that the crew behind it understood the tone and style called for by the sequel. There are somber moments, but it is overall optimistic and celebrates childlike whimsy in a sensible way that amounts to far more than a lazy “thinking like a child is great, thinking like an adult is boring and sad” message, finding a way to reconcile the two concepts. There’s no attempt to outdo the original, though the main conflicts are more serious and the production numbers a little more extravagant given advances in visual effects technology. Naturally, there are several callbacks to the original, but these never become so gratuitous that they hinder a scene. Nor does the script copy and paste George Banks’ dilemma into the life of the now grown-up Jane and Michael. Neither of the Banks children from the first film have fallen into the same mundane trap as their father, in fact, they’ve clearly learned from the titular nanny’s influence on their family. But Michael’s adulthood especially has brought its own unique challenges exacerbated by the Great Depression, or “Great Slump.” He’s engaged in his children’s lives, but the family is in the process of coming to grips with a loss that tries his ability to maintain composure. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer do well at portraying the aged Jane and Michael, who have lived lives we’re only partially aware of, but still hold on to the cores of their personalities that have been there since their childhood.

The same can easily be said for Emily Blunt, who so confidently and brilliantly assumes the lead role that it never for a moment occurs to the viewer that she’s stepping into the shoes of another actress. She’s not Julie Andrews, but she’s still Mary Poppins. Lin-Manuel Miranda is equally talented and charming in his performance as Jack the lamplighter, though the character teeters on being too derivative of Bert’s role in the first film. There is a difference in that Jack has a kind of cute romantic subplot with Jane, but that doesn’t receive much focus in the film. Nevertheless, the entire cast (including the child actors, for the most part) has a quality that can be extended to the film as a whole: it’s just familiar enough to feel like Mary Poppins, but new enough to feel like a continuation through a new perspective rather than a rehash.

The songs clearly take influence from the irreplaceable Sherman Brothers, but they also reflect the new situations and the shifted time period. Some are pretty obviously supposed to be counterparts to songs from the original — “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is to “Step in Time” as “Nowhere to Go But Up” is to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” — but “Turning Turtle” adds a bit of jazz to the score, while “A Conversation” and “The Place Where Lost Things Go” bring out the emotion of the story in heart-rending fashion. The choreography in the higher-energy numbers and the visual effects in the fantastical ones are all brilliant, and I must say the kind of hand-drawn animation in the film’s hybrid sequence has been sorely missed on the big screen, as has this type of grand, old-fashioned movie musical.

As always, Marshall’s cinematography is beautiful. London is introduced as a fairly dreary place, but as the film goes on, even its cloudy skies become appealing in an atmospheric sort of way. Bright and sunny moments are limited, which only makes it that much more gorgeous when they appear.

We can argue plenty over whether or not Mary Poppins warranted a sequel, but as it stands, this was a great addition to a beloved story. If I have a few complaints, I’m unsure if Colin Firth’s villain character or the chase scene that happens during the partially-animated sequence were truly necessary, and the opening number is unfortunately the least memorable of all the songs. But overall, Mary Poppins Returns is everything a continuation of such an iconic film should be. It’s both fresh and familiar, with striking visuals, an ambitious score, a touching story, and a wonderful cast. Rob Marshall has certainly come a long way from Annie in 1999, but the heart and grandeur that I gravitated toward in my childhood remain present, as they did in Into the Woods, and as I hope they do if he’s ultimately tapped to direct the forthcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. As I said before, Disney’s trend of sequels and remakes has been split in terms of quality, but if this is any indication, there’s a possibility that they’ve started to realize what works and what doesn’t when they take on such a daunting task.

A junior at Hollins University whose penchant for Disney led into a love for all things film. Amateur film critic and aspiring screenwriter/director. View all posts by Mary McKeon

Originally published at miseensense.wordpress.com on December 29, 2018.

Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.

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