Review: Mary Poppins Returns
Rob Marshall debuted as a filmmaker in 2002 with Chicago, one of the defining movie musical of the 21st century. After that, he stumbled considerably with the beautiful but narratively misguided films Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine. He was then hired to make Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and then went on to adapt Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Both of those films were financially successful, and Marshall still had some leftover goodwill from the Best Picture winning Chicago. And so he was hired to direct the long-awaited sequel to the 1964 classic Mary Poppins. Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, and Meryl Streep, Mary Poppins Returns is a delightful and joyous throwback and Marshall’s best film since Chicago.
20 years after the original, Michael (Whishaw) and Jane (Mortimer) are adults struggling during England’s Great Slump. Widowed a year prior, Michael is forced to take a job at the same bank as his father to support his three children, Annabel, John, and George (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, respectively) and his loopy housekeeper Ellen (Walters). Jane is an activist, like her mother, fighting for laborers’ rights. With their family home in danger of being repossessed, the family is visited by a familiar face: Mary Poppins (Blunt), who returns to help the family. Along with the jovial lamplighter Jack (Miranda), Mary takes the kids on adventures with her signature brand of magic.
The original Mary Poppins is a family favorite. I must have seen the movie about half dozen or more times. Julie Andrews’ performance is iconic, both wryly funny and sweetly warm. And the running theme—not letting adult responsibilities get in the way of enjoying your family—is resonant even now, 54 years later. I admit I was excited about the sequel, especially when Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda were cast. If it was bad, their typically energetic and loving performances would save the movie. Luckily, Mary Poppins Returns is a sweet, pleasant film with a number of dazzling sequences and a heartfelt backbone.
Rob Marshall, with screenwriter David Magee, took the basic elements of the original and plugged in new characters, situations, and songs. Essentially, the film is a rehash of Mary Poppins, though the nuances of the story are different (much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Sure, the movie could have been more original and riskier but I had too much fun to really care about that. The people in front of and behind the camera are sincere and enthusiastic in their showmanship, and it’s infectious.
The film looks gorgeous, with eye-catching costumes (Sandy Powell) and production design (John Myhre). Dion Beebe’s cinematography beautifully pays homage to Disney’s 1960s live action musicals.. Mary Poppins Returns features a sequence that combines 2D animation with live action characters like the original and the result is absolutely spectacular. My main issue with the film is the editing, which does not do the choreography or the dancers justice. Rob Marshall’s sharp cuts worked well in Chicago, but here it sometimes hides the talent of his ensemble.
The musical numbers themselves are quite nice. Whether it's the magical “Can You Imagine That?,” the show-stopping “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” or the airborne “Nowhere to Go But Up,” the songs will have you swept away with their lilting melodies and cheerful picturizations. The cast of actors is uniformly excellent, both the adults and children. Lin-Manuel Miranda in his first lead role is tons of fun, and thankfully he gets to rap to screen. Of course, Emily Blunt is the main attraction. The versatile actress commands the screen through her fierce comic line readings, her stunning singing voice and dancing, and her radiant charisma. As a showcase for Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns is an achievement.
Much like most Disney movies, you know whether Mary Poppins Returns is your thing or not. I like big-budget, comforting, well-performed musicals and I really enjoyed this. But I can see how the movie could grate on people. It’s definitely too long (though still shorter than the original Mary Poppins) and its whimsy can be on overdrive. If anything, this movie is worth the price of admission for Emily Blunt alone, as she is practically perfect in every way.