A film review by Craig J. Koban January 4, 2019


2018, PG, 133 mins.


Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins  /  Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack  /  Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks  /  Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks  /  Pixie Davies as Anabel Banks  /  Nathanael Saleh as John Banks  /  Joel Dawson as Georgie Banks  /  Julie Walters as Ellen  /  Meryl Streep as Topsy  /  Colin Firth as William Weatherall Wilkins

Directed by Rob Marshall  /  Written by Marshall, David Magee, and John DeLuca




I asked myself two questions as I left my screening of MARY POPPINS RETURNS: 

1.  Outside of obvious financial motive for the studio, was there any need for Disney to make a sequel to the cherished original from over 50 years ago? 

Short answer?  Nope. 

2. Is MARY POPPINS RETURNS an entertaining sequel worthy of big screen consumption? 

Short answer: Yup. 

It's been an awfully long time since Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweeping Bert said goodbye to Julie Andrews' titular character in the multiple Oscar nominated 1964 film (he also followed that up with "Don't stay away too long," which is a line dripping with irony now).  MARY POPPINS RETURNS has set a record for the longest period between sequels, but the larger story at play here is whether or not any new film - with a 99 per cent new cast, even in the lead role - could ever re-capture the original's essence while paving a new narrative journey for its characters to trek down?  

Director Rob Marshall (who has made several musicals that I didn't particularly admire in CHICAGO, NINE, and INTO THE WOODS) has the Herculean task of making a MARY POPPINS sequel that'll appease die hards of the first while making the material feel fresh and invigorating for modern viewers.  I would say that he's partially successful in quarterbacking a MARY POPPINS installment that honors the 60s film and even strictly adheres to that film's plot and aesthetic blueprint.  That's both good and bad, in a way, because MARY POPPINS RETURNS feels, much like THE FORCE AWAKENS, more like a recreation of its antecedent than a truely inspiring continuation, but it nevertheless remains a bright, colorful, toe tapping delight throughout.   



Set a quarter of a century after the events of the original, MARY POPPINS RETURNS opens in 1935 London and now features the grown up Banks kids, Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), finding themselves in a most precarious position of losing their home, but they could save it if they could only find some pesky lost banks shares that were left to them.  At their darkest hour, Mary Poppins does indeed return (Emily Blunt, replacing Andrews) as she floats down from the sky with an effortless nonchalance and offers her services as a nanny to Michael's kids.  Seeing as he has his hands full with trying to secure the family's financial well being, he leaves his three motherless children in Poppins' care, who are all astonished by their new caregiver's otherworldly abilities, like being able to defy gravity and a unique skill at transporting them into realms where humans and animated characters live in relative harmony.  Offering help is Poppins' London pal in Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), but Michael himself is the one in real need, seeing as if he doesn't secure enough capitol to his bank's manager (Colin Firth) by midnight then his entire clan will be kicked out on the streets. 

It's pretty abundantly clear within the first few moments of MARY POPPINS RETURNS that Marshall has thanklessly captured the look and spirit of the 1964 incarnation, right down to the sense of playful and frivolous whimsy that typified the film.  Perhaps the finest call-back is an extended fantasy sequence in the sequel where Poppins whisks the Banks kids and Jack through a bathtub (what else) and into a magical underwater world, and later they make a pit-stop to a kingdom made of porcelain.  Even better is the fact that MARY POPPINS RETURNS structures these moments by marrying together the live action of the actors with traditional hand drawn animation, much like what made the first film so cherished and famous.  In a relative age of CGI overkill everywhere, I applaud Marshall and company for show soming restrained class and utilizing good old fashioned pencil, pen, and paint on paper animation to fully realize these wondrous moments.  MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a real nostalgic trip during these show stopping moments. 

Sure, the song and dance numbers here may not hold a proverbial candle up to the original, but MARY POPPINS RETURNS deserves credit for trying to match what came before, and Marc Shaiman's musical score and new songs evoke what the Sherman Brothers did decades earlier without feeling slavishly faithful to their work.  I especially liked an impromptu trip that Mary and company make to her delightful kooky cousin (a bonkers Meryl Streep, clearly having a ball here), whose very house turns upside down...precisely every second Wednesday of the month.  Still, it's awfully hard not to be taken back to one's memories of watching the first film during these sequences, and MARY POPPINS RETURNS does indeed cast a very familiar shadow over the proceedings to the point of being labeled as pure comfort food for the senses.  There's an easy claim to be made here that this doesn't make for an original motion picture brimming with new ideas, and MARY POPPINS RETURNS is most assuredly coasting by on the memorable fumes of its forbearer.  But you'll have such a wide smile on your face watching the film's sense of infectious feel-good energy that you'll be willing to turn a blind eye to its copycat veneer.   

Then there's the obtrusive elephant in the room in terms of Julie Andrews - for obvious reasons of age - not re-appearing in arguably the most famous role of her career that netted her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  I'm proud to report that the endlessly appealing Emily Blunt makes a more than commendable Andrews stand-in.  She's remarkable not just because she captures Andrews' mannerisms and inflections with fine precision, but also because she evokes the character's elegance, refinement, and overall cheekiness that makes her such an ethereal delight.  But Blunt is not just an Andrews mimic, though, because she finds this healthy mixture of imitation and crafting her own take on the character that surely won't alienate anyone in attendance.  Even while MARY POPPINS RETURNS gets bogged down in sensations of deja vu, Blunt's adorably bubbly disposition and unbridled enthusiasm utterly carries this film.  Not to be forgotten in her shadow is Miranda - making his big screen debut - showing an amazing skill set of his own that compliments Blunt in the song and dance numbers with supreme grace.  There's also a surprise cameo near the end that appears in a brief instance of tap dance that I will not spoil here (as so many others have pained to do), other than to say that it's magical considering the performer's age. 

Like the underrated CHRISTOPHER ROBIN, MARY POPPINS RETURNS greatly appealed to me mostly because it was a sequel to classic material and not just a useless adaptation of it, like so many of Disney's questionable live action remakes of their iconic animated film catalogue.  That, and MARY POPPINS RETURNS doesn't have an ounce of modern movie cynicism on its sturdy frame, leaving it feeling so much more cheerful, sincere, and innocent than so many other family films these days that try to be edgy.  The best accolade I could bestow in MARY POPPINS RETURNS is that it feels like a fitting recreation of the cobble stoned streets of London from the 1964 film that also served as the backdrop for multiple musical numbers.  No question, fifty-plus years is an awfully long time to wait for a sequel, and this follow-up is playing a tricky game of fan servicing while trying to reinvent the franchise, which could backfire if one choice in too much of an extreme were taken.  But MARY POPPINS RETURNS is an awfully hard sequel to hate.  It's a happy movie.  It made me happy while watching it.  And Blunt is luminously sublime in it.  

I give it three spoonfuls of sugar out of four, which seems fair.  Even the perfect in every way Poppins would agree. 

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