More than 80 years ago, the media considered Walt Disney making “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” one of the biggest risks and mistakes of his career. Newspapers called it “Disney’s Folly” at the time, even if they had to eat their words a year later.
When it was announced a year and a half ago that Disney was going to make a “Mary Poppins Returns”, you couldn’t help wonder if “Disney’s Folly” would prove true 81 years later.
It turns out many had to eat their words again. You can say that with me as well after initially criticizing the attempt at first announcement. But Disney managed to consult with the brilliant creatives who made the original and tap into the film’s rarefied conduit of magic.
They got it mostly right. However, there are a few criticisms on plot decisions. Seeing “Mary Poppins Returns” has to work in a certain context, namely being able to share the experience with those who grew up with the film.
Here’s my impression of the film and my standard look at the audience around me. Latter were mostly older who likely saw the original when first released.
One-Half Real Life, One-Half Fantasy
Bringing more stark reality to a “Mary Poppins” movie was the best thing that director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee could have done. The only real sense of reality seen in the original “Mary Poppins” was the suffragette movement and some of the Banks family’s internal struggles.
This film takes place during the 1930s when London was also under as worse of a Depression as the U.S. We see a grown Michael Banks (a believable Ben Whishaw) facing near financial ruin due to falling behind in his mortgage payments. He now occupies the famous Cherry Tree Lane house with his wife and two kids, though lawyers come calling with an eviction warning if he doesn’t pay his loan in full.
It’s the first quarter of this film that gives some bleak reality Disney hasn’t always dished out. Then again, many live-action Disney films made during Walt’s lifetime showed families making the best of it during troubling times, even if the troubles weren’t always emphasized.
Along with the sobering news that Father and (presumably) Mother Banks have passed on, the main plot is set up: If Michael Banks doesn’t find a certificate showing claim to his father’s shares in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, he’ll lose the house.
With a major sense of dread and a pall in the first half-hour, you might forget for a brief moment that you’re watching a “Mary Poppins” sequel. Even the audience I watched this with fell ghastly silent wondering where the film was going.
It couldn’t have been a more brilliant ploy, because the arrival of Mary Poppins is all the more nostalgic knowing the stark realities at hand.
Wisely, the film uses small sections of score material from the original film to heighten the nostalgia. Using the instrumental of “Spoonful of Sugar” as Mary descends from the sky feels almost like a metaphorical Second Coming.
However, this Deus ex Machina is a far snarkier Mary Poppins than we remember from the first film. It’s prim and proper prickliness that makes Emily Blunt’s Poppins fun to watch. There’s even a few times when she resembles Julie Andrews from the first film, whether intentional or not.
Alas, though, the fact that Julie Andrews didn’t participate (to avoid overshadowing Emily Blunt) removes one degree from being legitimate. Thankfully, two notable cameos from the original wrap an official bow on the film by the end.
The Downside to the Fantasy Sequences
With Mary Poppins in the mix to help save the day, we see her take Michael Banks’ children on wild adventures with Jack, the lamplighter (a charming Lin-Manual Miranda). What makes this a little too familiar is that each sequence seems a one-up variation on the fantasy worlds seen in the original.
The first of these is at least unique, if really a nod to “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” It’s an underwater sequence that starts out in a bathtub. Some of you might laugh to yourself when you remember Emily Blunt cowering in a bloody bathtub in the recent film “A Quiet Place.”
Here, it’s an entryway to an underwater kingdom filled with a colorful amalgam of hand-drawn animation and CGI characters. Those of you who love and miss the old 2D animation days will give extra points to the film for bringing it back. As a result, it makes the film have a more retro quality as if made in the ‘60s.
One of the most dazzling fantasy sequences is “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”, even if it’s more than a little reminiscent of the “Jolly Holiday”/”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” sequence with Bert and Mary.
Its best creative touch is they enter this realm through a painted design on an antique bowl belonging to the Banks family. We even have the obligatory chase scene involving a group of nefarious animated characters. After these anthropomorphic thieves attempt to steal some Banks family heirlooms, a wild chase ensues, leading to a breathlessly imaginative outcome.
Yes, some darker animated and live-action characters turn the film a little more adult than you ever saw in the original. There’s clearly a good reason for this decision.
The Influence of the Director, Rob Marshall
If you had to balance the scales, you could say “Mary Poppins Returns” is 75% Disney nostalgia and 25% Rob Marshall adult product.
You can see a lot of Marshall touches in the film, which gives the project a little more edge in some of the production numbers. For instance, you’ll quickly notice the influence of Marshall’s “Chicago” during the eye-popping Royal Doulton Music Hall number. Mary Poppins more or less transforms into the guise of Velma Kelly, complete with more sophisticated hairdo.
The same goes with the entertaining Meryl Streep sequence (playing a character named Topsy who owns a fix-it shop that suddenly turns upside-down). Streep’s number here harkens to her other rare musical numbers in films, especially Marshall’s “Into the Woods” when she played the witch.
All other numbers tap into the Disney mystique, particularly an invigorating dance number from Jack and the lamplighters. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the classic “Step in Time” number, despite having its own original merits.
While some critics carped about “BMX Bikes” being used in this number, those bikes are really 1930s era if you look carefully. As a result, it makes the bicycle stunts all the more impressive.
Why is Bert Missing?
With Jack the lamplighter being a protégé of Bert, we learn the latter is still alive, yet off somewhere else. Considering Dick Van Dyke plays the nephew of the original banker (Mr. Dawes, Jr. here), he could have also played Bert. Then again, the timeline perhaps wasn’t conducive, despite Dick Van Dyke easily passing for 20 years younger than 91 as he was during filming.
Having Bert away from London ruins a bit of the mystery on the possible relationship he had with Mary. There were hints to that in the first “Mary Poppins”, yet we never really knew. With Mary’s new curt query of “How is Bert?” during her arrival, it seems they hadn’t seen one another in a long time.
It’s too bad this wasn’t explored more, though the continuing mystery of Mary herself makes her all the more intriguing this time.
The good news here is that Dick Van Dyke isn’t the only one who shows up in the film. You’ll also see Karen Dotrice (the original Jane) have a quick cameo in front of the Cherry Tree Lane house. Both of these give an official stamp of sequel approval.
The Songs Take Time to Settle in Your Brain
There isn’t any doubt the expectations were far too high for the songs in “Mary Poppins Returns.” You can’t help but agree with the more negative critics who thought the songs aren’t as memorable as the masterpieces created by the Sherman Brothers.
The good news is the songs will definitely stick in your mind, even if it might take a few days. Give a listen to the soundtrack album alone and you’ll appreciate the magic of this score and the insightful lyrics. After all, Richard Sherman did act as a “musical consultant.”
Standouts are “(Underneath the) London Sky”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Latter is a new “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and “Lost Things” will make you bawl if you’ve lost someone important in your family or circle of friends.
“Nowhere to Go But Up” in the finale is also superb, making it the official “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Yet, this song has a lot more resonance for our times and falls under a film theme we only see occasionally.
Looking at the Horrible From a Different Perspective
All the depressive realities we see in Michael Banks’ world seem counterbalanced by his sister Jane (played by Emily Mortimer). She lives not far away and always seems more hopeful about things. Michael has already lost his wife and may soon lose the house without finding his father’s proof of bank shares.
The bad guy here is a bit of a caricature: Bank President William Weatherall Wilkins (played by Colin Firth). He’s intent on hiding the truth that the bank shares owned by the former Mr. Banks are indeed in the register.
While his comeuppance is predictable, how it plays out (with Dick Van Dyke’s cameo) will leave you with a huge smile on your face.
Part of this involves an exhilarating nod to “Back to the Future” involving turning back time on Big Ben. Little did we know we’d see attempted time-travel in a Mary Poppins movie, even if it seems she can do everything else.
With the entire temperament of “Mary Poppins Returns” helping us see the world from a positive light amid troubling times, the entire message hits a bullseye. This particular theme recurs only once in a while in film, most notably in “Forrest Gump.”
From a real-life perspective, you can liken the same message to Fred Rogers’ philosophy and frame of mind as noted in recent “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
When things look beyond bleak, we truly have “nowhere to go but up.” The film’s sequence of this (with balloon lady Angela Lansbury, who seemed like she missed out being in the original) will make you smile wide and tear up concurrently.
Even though we see Mary Poppins leave again, it seems inevitable she’ll be back someday, especially with the stellar box office performance as of this writing.
Whether or not Emily Blunt will want to continue in a new franchise will depend on whether she wants to overshadow her award-winning performance here.
Outside of minor flaws, “Mary Poppins Returns” should be giving people hope and endorphin rushes for years to come through hard times, just like the original still does.
Since I attended the first showing of the day on opening day, it was expected that the audience I’d be seeing it with would tilt older. As expected, 95% of the people in the audience were retirees.
My freelance schedule allows me (occasionally) to escape to a matinee showing of a movie rather than being stuck in an office. Truth be told, it was refreshing to hear the reactions from those who likely saw the first film in 1964 as kids or young adults. Kids were still in school as well, eliminating any chance of hearing a three-year-old scream in fear during a few edgy sequences.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is really made for adults from 20-something to long past retirement age. Some kids may not understand the represented hardships of what it’s like to be a responsible adult. This cinematic confection reminds us once again to tap into that Forrest Gump/childhood well when things seem impossibly dreary.
With faithful patience, almost every bad situation has as good of an outcome as Michael Banks ultimately experiences.
*Nine and a half out of ten stars*