You’d be hard pressed to go into Mary Poppins Returns wanting to love it and not walk out that way. Director Rob Marshall, along with his stellar cast and crew, have beautifully rekindled the spirit of the original 1964 Disney film and infused it with new life, music, and technology. It’s a film brimming with joy, color, and passion, which, somehow, still feels like it forgot a little something along the way.
Set several decades after the original film, Mary Poppins Returns is about the now grown up Banks kids, Jane and Michael (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw), who are dealing with the kind of adult problems their parents used to deal with. There’s also the matter of Michael’s three young children who lost their mother and have started to grow up a little too soon.
Sounds like the perfect time for a magical nanny to fly down from the sky and remind the Banks children, both young and old, what’s really important in life. Emily Blunt plays Mary this time around and does so with a magnetic, cunning glee. You can’t take your eyes off her. She witty, she’s curt, she’s bubbling with excitement, and she makes the iconic character all her own. At times, Mary is joined by the lamplighter Jack, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Jack remembers Mary Poppins from the last time she was around and is one of the few adults who believe in her magic. Thankfully, he can also sing his heart out and has an equally optimistic demeanor. (There are also small roles by Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Angela Lansbury, and even original star Dick Van Dyke. It’s an amazing cast.)
And so Mary and Jack do their best to help the Banks solve problems, do chores, and provide general merriment to everyone through several incredibly elaborate musical set pieces. These range from straight-forward solo singing, to your more typical Bob Fosse spectacle, all the way up to some absolutely jaw-dropping technical achievements. There are sequences blending hand-drawn animation with live-action, full computer-generated environments. There are lamplighters jumping BMX bikes over one other, and more. It’s in these scenes that Marshall takes the essence of the original Mary Poppins and really pushes it to the limit, by extending the audience’s imagination using up-to-date technologies in all kinds of different ways.
Truly, the musical numbers in the film, along with the blissful performances of Blunt and Miranda, really bring Mary Poppins Returns to another level. The happiness practically oozes off the screen, begging you to smile throughout, hum the songs, and marvel at the non-stop barrage of exciting visuals.
And yet, even with all that happening, something just didn’t quite click for me in Mary Poppins Returns. When the film ended, that pure joy I’d felt throughout left me scratching my head a bit. Then it hit me. Mary Poppins Returns isn’t about anything new. Thematically, it’s almost exactly the same as the first movie; a film about optimism, embracing your inner-child, and the importance of friends and family. Those are all really nice things to watch a movie about, but we’ve seen them before. A lot. We’ve seen them already in a Mary Poppins movie. In the end, all of what’s on screen doesn’t really add up to much outside of “Wow, that was pretty.”
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor should the movie have to be more than that. But this is Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel over 50 years in the making. There are some huge expectations attached to that. By their nature, sequels should do something to warrant their existence. They should add and expand to the world they are continuing. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t do that. The film makes it feel like Mary Poppins only exists to help this one family. And if that’s the case, what’s the point? What makes them so special? What has she been doing all these years? The film never touches on any of those things. Instead, it’s content to tell a nice, simple story with a message that feels a little antiquated in these complicated times.
On the other hand, the film also takes a huge risk in that it doesn’t rely on your nostalgia in the way many of the other recent Disney live-action musicals have. While recent remakes of Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella have been very faithful retellings carefully constructed to prey on your nostalgia, Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t do that. Yes, some characters are the same and this is a sequel, but the story itself is new, even if the arc and themes are all too familiar. The songs are all new as well. There’s very little direct connection to the original film outside of some big broad brush strokes.
Marshall and his crew could have easily thrown in a reprise of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to really feast on your nostalgia. But they didn’t. Instead, the film tries to stand on its own, which is admirable but ends up being a little too ambitious.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, though. While I personally may not feel nostalgia for Mary Poppins, others certainly do, and that could bolster the movie in the eyes and minds of those people. I simply don’t have that so, to me, Mary Poppins Returns is a masterfully crafted movie that didn’t leave me with much to think about or wrestle with emotionally.
Nevertheless, the film is undeniably impressive. To craft a brand new, original musical that not just feels fresh but also kind of timeless is quite a feat. And, if you have an adoration for Poppins and her practically perfect persona, there’s little doubt Mary Poppins Returns will work its magic on you. I just wish it was more surprising.
Mary Poppins Returns opens December 19.