One of my favorite films of 2013, Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, was something of a peculiar one, seeing as it saw the studio portraying their fearless and eponymous leader in a rarely humanistic light. That, and coupled with the fact that its own historical revisionism could be justifiably called into question, as it showcased the Mouse House’s relationship with Mary Poppins scribe P. L. Travers as being quarrelsome but ultimately productive. Say what you will on the matter, but it made for a damn good dramedy, featuring a couple of the finest performances of Emma Thompson’s and Tom Hanks’s respective careers. Point being, it dealt with the struggle of a studio acquiring the filmic rights to a property near and dear to the hearts of children everywhere, and how adapting it and thus defining public opinion of it can cause conflict between artistic interests and those of the economic variety. At the end of the film, though the theatrical version of Mary Poppins proved to be wildly successful on all fronts, it had come to the conclusion that those interests need not always be mutually exclusive. It would seem that said maxim is again being put to the test, as Disney returns to the Travers well after a fifty-four-year hiatus, delivering a sequel to a film that many would argue didn’t need one. While I can certainly agree that Mary Poppins Returns had no realistic chance to outdo or even match its predecessor, it’s still a welcome follow-up regardless, putting enough pep in its step and music to once again spark the imaginations of those open to the experience. The songs themselves may not measure up in terms of iconicity, but they are indeed catchy and uplift the proceedings the way they should. Of course, none of it would be of much value if the central performance wasn’t up to snuff, and Emily Blunt absolutely steals the show in filling the shoes some had deemed un-fillable.
Set twenty-five years after the original film, Mary Poppins Returns checks in on the now adult Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), who are both raising Michael’s children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), following the passing of his wife. Just when times couldn’t get tougher, the bank swoops in, led by the greedy William Wilkins (Colin Firth), threatening to reclaim the house should their debts not be repaid within the week. As Michael and Jane scramble to track down shares they’re sure they’re father left them, in comes an old friend, the mystical Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), to care for the Banks children and perhaps find a solution to their problems. Teaming with friendly lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary Poppins will teach them all how to reclaim the love that was seemingly lost.
Truth be told, the story really isn’t the main showcase here. Granted, a lot of the musical numbers are filled with plenty of pathos that tie into the themes quite nicely, but the actual plot of the film is rather serviceable. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: band of misfits/family unit must rise to the occasion to save (insert meaningful establishment here) from being repossessed by the heartless corporate bigwigs, all while learning a lesson along the way. It’s been done in just about everything from Hey Arnold!: The Movie to 2011’s The Muppets reboot. And even when it’s done in a tongue-in-cheek way like the latter example, it’s never been a narrative parable to rely on if you want to actually invest your audience in the plot. So, if there’s something I’m willing to ding this movie on, it’s the lack of genuine suspense toward the climax. And you might argue that no one ever expected a Mary Poppins movie to end on a sour note, to which I’d argue that they still could have been more creative. Not to mention a slapdash deus ex machina by way of a callout cameo completely undercuts all the work the protagonists had done to win the day. That said, little of it is so glaring as to distract from what’s really on display, that being the musical numbers and production design.
Which are both dependably solid. Director Rob Marshall may have splashed onto the movie musical scene with the very adult Chicago in 2002, but he’s become quite the go-to choice for Disney, he also having done 2014’s Into the Woods and is reportedly developing a live-action Little Mermaid at that. While that first feature of his remains his best effort, I’m all for his recent pairing with the studio, as they tend to develop some lively adaptations. To that effect, there’s some wonderful visuals going on here, with the live-action/animated sequences being more stunning than they’ve perhaps ever been. Disney Animation Studios hasn’t dealt with old-school, hand-drawn, 2D animation since 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, and while this technically isn’t a Disney Animation Studios offering, it really made me want for them to revisit the technique soon. As for the music side of things – this is still the same paragraph, right? – Mary Poppins Returns does not miss a step. Fresh off an Oscar nomination this week for his work here is composer Marc Shaiman, who’s familiar with the movie musical scene, having done South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Hairspray. Let it just be said, he definitely deserves the nod, even though I have a feeling Nicholas Britell is gonna nab it for If Beale Street Could Talk, even though I haven’t seen it yet. But, never say never, as Shaiman’s work here is bar none, scoring a multitude of whimsical songs that will still be in your head days later. Not least of all “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” which also got nominated for Best Original Song.
Someone not nominated however despite being considered by many to be in the running was the main attraction Emily Blunt, who is definitely someone who should have long been recognized by now. While I may technically agree on the Academy’s decision on this one, let it not be said that Blunt doesn’t give quite the show, perfectly embodying the character to a degree that it feels like she hasn’t been gone for more than half a century. Some may say that she’s merely doing an impression of Julie Andrews in the part, to which I ask only one question. Who is the real master, the artist or the forger? Silly proverb aside, she really does do a tremendous job in being exactly what the movie needs her to be, with nary a line of dialogue even bearing the wrong kind of inflection. So you can go ahead and fault it for not being a top-notch film performance, but it’s not really a film performance. None of the performances are, really. They’re theatre performances, and hers is sublime. Not to mention that of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s, who brings a serious level of levity to the song-work. I’m not really sure if his cockney accent is bad or supposed to be bad or what, but there’s a reason this guy is as respected on Broadway as he is, continuing his filmic winning streak going after Moana.
So while I may have had issues with the climax and denouement, Mary Poppins Returns proved to be quite the jaunty revival of a classic character. You could call it a cash-grab if you want, but at the end of the day, it’s a well made cash-grab made by a butt ton of talented people who know what they’re doing. But hey, Disney, let’s not press our luck, okay? Please?
Final Score: 7/10