Although it’s somewhat of a cornball statement, and it’s certainly not applicable to this modern era of the House of Mouse, there really is some kind of Disney Magic. You’d have to go back several decades at this point to see that magic in action, but there was a time when Walt Disney Pictures knew how to capture lightning in a bottle when it came to family films. You probably know some of the titles, since most childhoods were strengthened thanks to a healthy dose of old school, classic Disney on either VHS or DVD (depending on how old you want to make me feel). But the most magical of any Disney film, and truly the studio’s crowning achievement even fifty years later, is still their adaptation of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins.
That film is something of an alchemist’s dream, a perfect blend of several elements that came together to create something truly wondrous on every level. There was unbridled creativity in the production, which took the technicalities of filmmaking to their furthest points at the time and used truly special effects to fantastical effect. Then there’s the catchy, effervescent music, which is surely some of the greatest ever written for a film musical. Mary Poppins has a timelessness to it that was the result of a crew and cast of incredibly talented, gifted, and devoted people whose hearts and souls are permanently alive on the screen. It’s a film that continues to charm and inspire effortlessly all these years later. Walt Disney must’ve known some kind of secret the rest of the world didn’t when he produced the film, and Julie Andrews in the titular role both became a household name and turned Mary Poppins into an iconic figure forever immortalized in pop culture.
If you can’t tell, there aren’t enough good things I can say about Mary Poppins, and just about the only other film the company can claim as possibly superior might be Pinocchio. But fifty years later, the Disney of today is simply a pale shadow of the Walt Disney Corporation of yesteryear. The studio seems to balk at the notion of originality and prefers to view the filmmaking world through the lens of commerciality instead. To be perfectly fair, yes, film is a business like any other, but it’s also an art form, and Modern Disney has neglected the kind of superior creativity that made their films universal and appealing at the height of its powers. Nothing is sacred, particularly when it comes to nostalgia.
Which is how we got Mary Poppins Returns fifty some odd years after the original, and it certainly wasn’t because the filmmakers found the perfect follow up while they developed a script.
The first of Mary Poppins Returns’ issues is probably the most obvious: it’s basically the same film as the original, dolled up with an already-chipping new coat of paint and some “state of the art” special effects. That’s not really a problem specific only to Returns, as most sequels separated by large passages of time end up becoming pseudo-remakes, probably under the assumption that there’s entire generations who don’t recognize Julie Andrews as the titular character, or maybe because they believe nostalgia will win out over common sense. I find neither to be particularly true, but these seem to be the strongest arguments for the existence of the film, which is perfectly functional and fine, but also a bit uninspired and listless. To quote another Rob Marshall-helmed Disney musical, Into to the Woods, “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” That perfectly sums up Mary Poppins Returns.
The plot is as follows: Mary Poppins (this time played by Emily Blunt, who is actually pretty charming in the role, but more on that later) returns to help the grown up Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). During the Great Slump in Britain, Michael has recently lost his wife and now must raise his three children, Annabelle, John, and Georgie (you’ll forget their names relatively quickly) without her help. The three little ones have become more “mature” without their mother’s presence, but at the cost of their “childhood.” These are all in quotes because the film is never specifically clear about any of this, leaving it all up to be inferred. Anyway, Mary Poppins returns to help Michael and Jane, and then promptly spends no time with them and instead entertains the three youngest Banks children, taking them on a what can best be described as a “greatest hits tour” of the adventures she took Michael and Jane on, except this time, instead of Dick Van Dyke, she’s saddled with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter Jack, who is literally there for no reason other than to showcase Miranda’s “talents” and I guess to give Jane an undercooked love interest.
Oh, and there’s something about a villainous banker played by Colin Firth trying to repossess the Banks’ home, and the family must find bank titles left behind by Michael’s father to prove they can still afford to live there. This whole thing’s really just there to create some minute-tension and an overblown “beat the clock” Third Act set-piece that absolutely feels out of place in a story like this one. Really, just reiterating the synopsis points out many of the film’s problems. If the whole purpose of Mary Poppins’ return is to help Michael and Jane, then it’s absolutely strange that she never spends any time with them. Same for the younger Banks children, who are more or less scolded for trying to grow up too soon. Modern Disney is weirdly in love with this idea of “never letting go of your childhood,” presumably because it gives them an excuse to mine our childhoods as they attempt to lifelessly recreate every story of theirs we once loved. But what does that really mean? Is it so bad to grow up? Rather than ask us to cling to the bloated corpse of our childhood in the vain hope we can resuscitate it, perhaps the film could’ve asked what balance looks like. To retain the childlike wonder in our hearts is not a bad thing, but to cast away the necessity of maturity is just plain naive, and it creates a muddled message. Mary Poppins Returns has good intentions, but they’re very confused, not unlike the ill-advised Christopher Robin film from Disney earlier this year.
And it’s quite ironic that Modern Disney should ask us to embrace childhood and childlike wonder when their films are anything but that. They’ve miscalculated what whimsy really is capable of, and in their drive to create a lucrative franchise, they’ve also forsaken the kind of heart and soul that makes family pictures so timeless, like special curios that are meant to be passed down from generation to generation. Mary Poppins Returns conjures fantastical imagery, but it just feels strangely perfunctory rather than absorbing. It’s really hard to swallow a film that asks us to retain our sense of childlike wonder when it can’t even inspire it from us.
It also needs to be mentioned, but the soundtrack for this film is rather uninspired. Whereas the original Mary Poppins has some of the best musical numbers ever committed to celluloid, this film’s crop of musical antics are rather… forgettable. They’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s very clear that many of them are attempts to rebrand and repurpose musical numbers from the first film. For example, instead of Van Dyke and the other chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftop while singing “Chim Chim Chee-re,” we get Miranda and lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” in an excessive musical number that feels hollow in comparison to the artistry of Van Dyke’s song and performance. Everything here is performed well, and the film drops its drab gray aesthetic in favor of some rich colors during these musical numbers, so much so that I looked forward to them just because they were a visual change of pace. But I walked out of the theater having immediately forgotten the lyrics and tunes of the songs, and that’s just not something you can say of the original film.
There’ve been a lot of comparisons between the original and Returns. That can seem frustrating, as if I’m disallowing the film its own identity by doing this. But a counterpoint is that the film has disallowed itself from having its own identity by continuously calling back to a superior original. Mary Poppins Returns can be summed up by simply saying, “It’s like the original, just not as good” for just about every element, sans perhaps the special effects, but that’s like giving someone a participation ribbon for simply showing up. Simply put, the film is just too beholden to the original to really fully function as its own thing, and that’s a symptom of many sequels separated by large gaps of time. Mary Poppins Returns was probably never going to sidestep that fact, but it could’ve at least gone for broke with imagination and wonder.
Now, for all things bad or problematic, there are a few bright spots. Marc Shaiman’s score is wonderfully playful, even if it’s a bit too bombastic for the action on screen. As stated before, there’s a visually delightfulness to many of the musical numbers, including one that has some gorgeous 2D cell-shaded animation involved. The film is wholesome and kind, which is a refreshing change of pace and means that the film really does function as something for the entire family (although, it’s two-plus hour runtime is a bit of a downer). But most importantly, the entire thing is acted reasonably well. The kids are a bit broad, but that’s to be expected, and they’re charming enough to overcome that. Miranda affects a bad Cockney brogue a la Van Dyke, and it’s not great, but he’s still pretty likable and infectiously eager here. Supporting roles by Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, and Firth are all fun if slight, and the film kind of does wrong by both Whishaw and Mortimer, neither of whom are given enough screen time.
But it’s well and truly Emily Blunt who keeps this entire production not only together but also alive. Nobody was ever going to replace Julie Andrews in the role, but Blunt does something really smart by making the character her own, from the way she dresses to the more pish-posh manner in which she acts. The film feels a bit dull whenever she’s not around, but the moment Blunt is on screen, she’s fantastical and witty, and everything starts to snap into place. As she stares at herself in the mirror, confident and a bit vain, for just a moment, for just a small second… you can see the true appeal of why Disney may have chosen to bring Mary Poppins back to us. If only they’d committed themselves fully like Blunt does…