It’s been half a century since Disney’s Mary Poppins took the world by storm, much to the annoyance of P.L. Travers if you’ve read your history past Saving Mr. Banks. The actors felt ripped out of a cartoon with their big expressions and fast movements. Most prominently, Dick Van Dyke, the fairest and most charismatic of the group even with his phony cockney. The effects in live-action and animation still hold up considering all the bells and whistles today’s film makers have at their disposal. Was the writing episodic? Yes, but the story broke the workaholic parent cliche that modern movies annoyingly continue to emulate. Watch Christopher Robin as a prime example. So the thought of a sequel sounds quite atrocious considering how high a bar the musically gifted director, Rob Marshall (Chicago) needs to reach in attracting two kinds of crowds: newcomers and nostalgia hungry fans. There could be room for something different since there are eight books in the series. If it can’t be the equivalent of The Godfather Part 2, at least it could stand on its own legs, right?
It’s no longer grand to be an English civilian in 1935. The great depression’s hit everyone complete with soup kitchens and low work hours. Even the now grown up Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) have fallen on hard times. Jane’s widower brother is about to lose the family home to the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank after failing to pay a loan while juggling three kids. This prompts Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to comeback to Cherry Tree Lane for more adventures with her new tag along friend, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
For something that doesn’t need to exist, the new cast works incredibly well with what they’re given and help sell the emotional moments. Particularly Ben Whishaw as Michael during times of crisis alone or with the family. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins opts for a more faithful take on the character with increased stern impatience and more reverse psychology. It’s not a copy paste approach of Julie Andrews’ iconic performance, it’s her own take along with a couple of heartwarming cameos. And maybe it’s because of the empty landscape of animation variety, but the 2D sequence is the highlight of the adventure. The colors bloom with bright life, the 1960’s style gets a fresh update and the smooth frame-rate blends seamlessly with the real actors. Delving deeper into this segment is the diamond in the rough song, A Cover is Not the Book. It’s upbeat, gives more insight on a character and boasts the best dance sequence with humans and animals by co-choreographer John DeLuca. Which is more than what can be said for the rest of the experience lock, stock, and barrel.
It suffers a great deal of tonal whiplash between the forgettable songs and the harsh reality it creates for itself. Going from an animal carnival back to a complete nervous breakdown from Michael, it’s very jarring putting the two side to side in a plot that’s really out of place with the name Mary Poppins attached to it. Not at all helped by the clumsy third act that slows down the raised stakes. There’s a lot of urgency near the end, and a deus ex machina that stalls for time. After a certain point the new songs sever ties to the story and characters just to rehash iconic moments from the last movie as if going from drinking cherry coke to diet coke. The chimney sweepers from Step in Time are replaced with lantern lighters that somehow learned BMX bike tricks yet fell like they’re dancing to the speed of The Matrix without the element of surprise. Meryl Streep fills in for Uncle Albert’s I Love to Laugh number and the final song, Nowhere To Go But Up, can’t escape the memories of Let’s Go Fly a Kite. Whether from lack of originality or any connections to the story or characters, only a few tunes will linger before Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! comes in with a hammer to shatter the rest of the factory produced songs into little, tiny, bite-sized pieces. With such a high bar to live up to, the story takes a backseat to the many repeated moments that turns the icing on the cake into an unstable foundation. Even moments from the books are just background extras that don’t aid in adding new material.
Mary Poppins Returns attempts to be different from the trend of live action Disney remakes to a certain degree. But in re-creating too many moments from the original, it never fully justifies its existence. In fact it’s surprising that Disney didn’t just full on remake it like The Lion King or Aladdin in this current climate of accepting Gus Van Sant’s Psycho style of shot-for-shot experiments. Then again, this was a battle that had everything going against it because of the first film’s strong legacy that’ll continue to live on for another 50 years. It’s painful to sit through all the repeats that’s part of Disney’s practice of reselling their older properties as nostalgic cash grabs. Much like Wreck-it-Ralph 2 it’s a sequel that’s above the worst of the year and their infamous direct to DVD bargain bin, but only because there’s more money thrown into it. Given the rotten tomatoes score, this is just a minor dent on the certified fresh seal of approval. If you’re a fan of the books or the original, see it yourself and let your voice be heard. But if the same standards of Julie Andrews’ voice keep overshadowing your anticipation, it’d be better to pop in the one and only classic for older and younger generation to experience. That or its close cousin Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Similar in setup, but much more distinct in execution.