Mary Poppins Returns and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Rob Marshall
Well this one has certainly been a long time coming, hasn’t it? I mean with the pace at which Disney is cannibalizing its older properties to make billions at the box office, it was only a matter of time before one of their most iconic features gets a shiny coat of HD paint! Just over the horizon, we still have The Lion King, Dumbo, Mulan, Aladdin, and the list will certainly keep growing from there. Still, this isn’t quite a Beauty and the Beast shameless shot for shot retelling of an animated feature since this is an ACTUAL sequel that continues from the original film! It’s been so long since I’ve seen the first Mary Poppins that I’m not sure what to expect here, but the cast is strong and Rob Marshall is made for this kind of material. Will it be a fun and engaging experience for audiences of all ages who need a little bit of nonsense and silliness in their lives, or has modern Disney failed to understand what made that classic film so memorable for so many people? Let’s find out!!
The movie picks up about twenty years after the first one where the Banks Children are now the Banks Adults. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has had a particularly rough go of it as his wife had just died a year ago and he had to give up his dreams of being an artist to get a job at the bank, but he’s still go the house he grew up in and three perfect children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson); not to mention his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) who helps around the house between labor protests, and their housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) who’s still cleaning up after them all these years later. They’ve weathered a storm so things can only be looking up, right? Well as it turns out, Michael took out a big loan at the bank to cover expenses this last year and now they’re gonna repossess the house unless he can pay the loan back in full within five days. Well shoot! If only they had a magical nanny who could make all this better with songs and animation! Well it turns out that the Banks family is in luck because whatever mystical force is watching over them has sent Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to once again fix their problems and watch the kids while Michael and Jane try to scramble to find their father’s old bank stock they could use to possibly pay off the loan. With the help of a friendly lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and various colorful characters including her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), Mary Poppins is on a divine mission to introduce a bit of whimsy and discipline into these children’s lives, and maybe help Michael and Jane rediscover their childhoods along the way! Will Michael and Jane find what they need to save their childhood home? What can the kids do to help the situation, and can Mary Poppins be the key to it all? Why the heck didn’t I get a flying magical nanny when I was a kid? I don’t even think they had to pay her!
I’m either too old for this, or I’m too young for this. I can’t tell which one. I really don’t have nostalgia for the original film (if anything all my Mary Poppins nostalgia pertains to that one Simpsons episode) and it’s been a heck of a long time since I’ve seen it, but then I’m also a grown adult with no kids sitting in a theater on a Thursday night watching children pretend (or maybe not pretend?) to go on fantastic adventures with lots of singing and dancing; two things I’m not very inclined towards myself and really only appreciate in certain circumstances that more often than not don’t involve kids. I don’t know, maybe I’m the exact wrong person to judge this DISNEY FAMILY FILMTM, but where something like Christopher Robin felt like an interesting extension of the original stories, this feels like a celebration of its legacy. It’s fine for those who either have a deep connection to the source material or are young enough to engage with the surface level pageantry, but it all just felt so hollow and clichéd underneath the admittedly impressive set pieces. There’s just far too much whimsy for me to safely consume without getting a dozen cavities, but I guess that’s just proof I’m getting too old for this stuff and should leave the films about giant bathtubs, singing penguins, and Colin Firth with an evil mustache to the younger generation.
If I can describe this movie in a nice and pithy way, I’d say that its heart is SO much in the right place that it ultimately feels shallow. It wants nothing more than to recreate the feeling of the original film and that era of film making which it DOES succeed at, but in doing so feels a bit antiquated and there were a lot of missed opportunities here to do something new instead of just throwing a party for its own existence. I brought it up before, but the big question for me is; who is this movie for? Am I just perfectly situated on the bell curve between those who miss this kind of movie and those who aren’t all that jaded by excessive treacly to find the experience rather lacking? I’m not quite sure, but I just felt the garish aesthetic was overwhelming and that there wasn’t a whole lot to ground the experience to make this much of a story in its own right instead of a sightseeing tour with a pre-determined happy ending. Now maybe that was how the original film was as well. I have no idea as it’s been a very long time since I saw it, but in any case I don’t think it makes this film all that compelling to sit through. I like quite a few of the musical numbers in here, but there’s just so many and they go on for so long and are strictly self-contained. The most we get out of any of them is that the kids pick up a lesson or memorize one of Mary Poppins’s aphorisms to use later, but the story they’re applying these lessons too is still rather mundane and contrived; not to mention the fact that the villain of the piece has no clear motivation for singling THIS family out the way they do. Christopher Robin is the most apt comparison to make here and not just because both are continuations of Boomer nostalgia properties, yet while that film is much less fantastical and splendid to look at, it felt like all the pieces fit together into a well-crafted examination of his psychological state and how it affects people. Maybe asking for THAT kind of movie from a new Mary Poppins film is missing the point entirely and this film is really not for someone like me, but I feel it’s gonna be kind of difficult for this film to really stick with people considering how slight it all feels.
What was also a missed opportunity, at least to me, is that we never really get into who exactly Mary Poppins is, and while that’s not really what these movies are ABOUT I still think it’s an interesting idea to explore. I mean she doesn’t age, she has magic powers, and as far as I know she ONLY appears when she’s needed which presumes some sort of purpose to her existence. Is she a witch? A GOD!? Maybe even The Doctor? I mean all I have to work with is the Wikipedia page which doesn’t specify much about her other than she’s magic, the perfect nanny, and blows in with the East Wind, so maybe there was a conscious effort by the filmmakers to not rock the boat too much with this character and give her a backstory or anything like that, but then I guess that’s kind of my problem here. I WANTED them to rock the boat at least a little bit! Heck, the two grown up kids from the first film barely even register how freaking bizarre it is for her to just show up out of nowhere looking no different and offering to nanny! Fine, maybe this era of continuity driven blockbusters has gotten me a bit too jaded to take for granted the magical abilities of a British Nanny, but in being so perfect and ethereal, she never feels human enough to care about all that much. Despite Michael and Jane being grownups now, they never try to have an actual conversation with her at any point which you’d think they’d do considering they haven’t seen her for twenty years! At least one “how’ve you been?” or even a “what have you been up to?” to make it feel like they ACTUALLY know that she’s there! I like that they gave her a cousin in this played by Meryl Streep, but even with her now having a family she still never seems to have a life outside of her role as protector of Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. She is absolutely charismatic, a solid role model, and Emily Blunt plays the role for all its worth, but her character is just another thing about this movie that ultimately feels shallow.
Now I don’t want this to come off overly derisive as what negative things I have to say about it never bring the movie down enough that I’d consider it bad. Ho hum perhaps, but nothing jumped out at me as having a bad message or being done poorly. Rob Marshall’s direction here is what you’d expect from a guy with his filmography and Disney’s backing (I still say that On Stranger Tide’s is one of the better Pirates movies), and it feels like everyone pulled out all the stops to make this film a never-ending pageant of visual flair and nostalgic warmth. Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda work quite well together and feel very natural in the overtly artificial set pieces, and while I wasn’t too impressed with the kids here who are basically just around to go WOW at everything, they didn’t end up bothering me all that much if nothing else. They even made the animated sequence look like they were using the old school techniques! I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actually animation cels and was just made to LOOK that way, but it’s more convincing than anything else I can think of that tried to do something similar. For the most part the songs are pretty delightful with the Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover song and the Topsy sequence being the highlights for me, though I think they were pushing it a bit at the end with Lin Manuel Miranda’s big set piece and the Balloon song just feeling kind of extraneous when this movie should be wrapping up. Also, trying to follow the lyrics of these songs is like doing algebra in an earthquake. Not impossible and some of it might be coherent, but there’s too much going on to get a real grasp on it. I THINK the book song included a part about a nudist as well as a sex joke, but that could just be my brain wandering off while all the pretty lights were flashing.
There seems to be a certain amount of meaning to this movie that I just haven’t been able to grasp, and so the whole thing feels rather lacking because of it. Maybe I’m being overly cautious about my opinion because of how much weight that original film and this character has to family entertainment and film fans in general, but absent that what I see is a GOOD movie but nothing above and beyond plenty of other films that are in theaters right now. I’d certainly recommend seeing Into The Spider-Verse over this as that movie had a phenomenal narrative as well as jaw dropping visuals, but I’m sure seeing this character again will be enough of a reason for plenty to see it in theaters, and you might as well because of great the production is even if it goes on a BIT longer than it should. Maybe in forty years’ time if I’m still doing this (I better be getting paid by then) I’ll see Mary Poppins: Third Times The Charm and actually have a great and nostalgic time, but until then I’ll probably find a few clips of this on YouTube and call it a day.