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Review: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

AWN ‘s ‘Miscweant’ waxes nostalgic as he breaks down Disney’s return to the world of their 1964 classic, ‘Mary Poppins.’ 

Remember Disney’s direct-to-video sequels to their animated classics? While they varied in quality from mediocre to pretty good (my favorites are still Cinderella III: A Twist in Time and 101 Dalmatians: Patch’s London Adventure) most of them had a “shuffling the deck” feeling, echoing plot points or emotional moments from the original films.

Mary Poppins Returns is far from a DTV effort, but it feels like the studio wanted to play it safe with their big 2018 holiday movie by (short of an outright remake) evoking the original at every opportunity. The credits list Richard M., the surviving member of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, as musical consultant, acknowledges their “instrumental phrases” in the new tunes and for good measure salutes the original film’s “legendary” matte painter Peter Ellenshaw. Emily Blunt does a yeoman job channeling Julie Andrews’ 1964 performance. (Otherwise it wouldn’t have been Mary Poppins returning, so much as Mary Poppins regenerating, Time Lord-style, into a different person bearing the same name.) Blunt adds a touch of sly self-awareness to her mischievous behavior, whereas Andrews-as-Poppins treated everything she did as entirely natural and logical.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (he of Broadway Hamilton fame) Jack the lamplighter, on the other hand, could’ve been Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the chimneysweep post-name change, with day-old chin stubble in place of chimney soot and less of a Hollywood cockney accent. When Blunt’s Poppins asks Jack “how is dear old Bert,” he tells her the now-retired chimney sweep is “off to see the world.”

The film is set in London, during the “The Great Slump,” or as it was called here, the Depression. The Banks siblings are now adults: Michael a widower with three offspring, Jane an unmarried labor organizer. (One wonders what Walt would’ve thought of her career choice after his animators’ bitter 1941 strike.) That Jane is a social activist like her suffragette mother is one of the original film’s many echoes resonating through Returns.

Due to plot complications, Michael is about to lose 17 Cherry Tree Lane (the film lovingly recreates the original film’s street and house interiors, complete with Jane’s dollhouse and St. Paul snow globe), setting off a MacGuffin hunt for missing bank certificates that can save the day.

Returns offers not one, but two big fantasy set-pieces. The first, an elaborate undersea CGI sequence brought to mind a not-dissimilar musical number from Disney’s first attempt to replicate Poppins, 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The second set-piece, more akin to the original movie, takes Poppins and the Banks children into a 2D animated world, this time a hand-painted porcelain bowl rather than a sidewalk chalk drawing. It’s far more elaborate too, as Poppins and Jack perform a spirited music hall number, assisted by a quartet of penguins (offspring of Bert’s dancing partners?) for an audience of appreciative, well-dressed cartoon animals. Unlike the original, the sequence dabbles in darkness with a furious horse cart chase between a larcenous wolf and the Banks children. (Hey Poppins and Jack, weren’t you supposed to be watching the kids?)

Yet another sequence echoes the 1964 Poppins, as she, Jack and the siblings visit one of her relatives: not gravity-defying Uncle Albert but Meryl Streep’s vaguely east European “Cousin Topsy” in her upside-down repair shop. It’s evident there’s a bit of hostility between Poppins and Topsy, something that would’ve felt out of place in the ’64 Poppins, and like the cartoon chase, an interesting twist on the original film. (Streep performs a tongue-twisting patter song that’s a joy to watch.)

One of the strangest echoes—if that’s what it is—to the original film is Colin Firth’s evil banker, out to repossess the Banks house. It might’ve been my imagination, but the character looked unsettlingly similar to David Tomlinson’s Mr. Banks.

Then there’s Jack and his fellow lamplighter’s big production number, the new film’s answer to 1964’s spectacular chimneysweepers’ dance—but it’s set in a claustrophobic underground courtyard and doesn’t have the first film’s expansive, in-depth vistas of silhouetted sweeps dancing on distant rooftop chimney pipes. (This one shoehorns bicyclists into the dance, making the set feel even more cramped.)

I wish there had been more divergences than similarities between the ’64 Poppins and 2018’s Returns, more moments like the animated chase or Michael’s breakdown in front of his children when he feels he’s failed them and lost without his wife. Early on we’re told he’s an (evidently unsuccessful) artist and reluctant part-time teller at his father’s bank, but we never learn why his art career failed to ignite. There’s a fascinating hint of a possible relationship between upper-class Jane and workman Jack where he confesses to a childhood crush on her, but it’s likewise never followed up. A dramatic race against time to save the house is a fresh but ultimately anticlimactic twist. (Then again, since it involves Big Ben, Poppins just might be a Time Lord after all…)

The film ends not with a sky full of kites…but a sky full of characters, as magical balloons hoist just about everyone in the into the air. Dick Van Dyke makes a delightful two-tuppence appearance as the now elderly son of the elderly banker he portrayed in the ’64 Poppins, and Angela Lansbury (who has more than a bit of Disney history to her own credit) turns up in a cameo that tops off the film.

Don’t get me wrong: Mary Poppins Returns is hugely entertaining and people in the mood for reassuring, expertly crafted nostalgia will be richly rewarded; I just wish Mary had, along with her bottomless carpet bag and parrot-headed umbrella, brought a few new tricks with her.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.