American film is currently mired in the age of sequels. Marvel movies make sense; they’re based on comic books, which were once formatted to multiple issues. But there’s also a nostalgia trend that’s making film studios fast-track reboot films like a reinvented Jumanji. These films prey on a childhood fondness for the original without much interest or thought towards the need or the “why” for telling this story again, just with more modern special effects.
Luckily, Mary Poppins Returns has a better approach. It’s an actual sequel that honors the original film, perhaps somewhat edging into mimicry, and feels like an organic extension of the initial story. In this film the Banks children are all grown up: Jane (ever-winsome Emily Mortimer) has taken up her mother’s mantel as an activist, this time for the laborers and her brother Michael (manchildish Ben Wishshaw) is frazzled/bereft after the death of his wife and the prospect of raising three children without her. The need for Mary Poppins’ help is obvious from the beginning. Except it’s unexplained why Jane hasn’t just moved back into the big, family home to help care for her niece and nephews. She is a bleeding heart for the little people, just not necessarily the ones related to her.
Michael also employs Ellen, a maid who can’t do much. But Ellen is played by the delightful, and underused comic talent Julie Walters, so that’s why she’s around—even though the children seem more adept at housework than she is. There in lies the need for Mary in this story—Michael is such a mess that the three children have had to become little adults with no sense of fun. Also, Michael took a loan out on the house that he’s forgotten to pay so now they’re going to lose the house. In this go-around, Mr. Banks isn’t a no-fun workaholic; he’s a self proclaimed artist forced to become a bank teller because his wife took care of everything and it’s unclear what exactly he did. The good thing about the story is the sympathy always lies with the children. Not with Michael. Because Michael kind of sucks.
Mary helps save the day of course. Emily Blunt as the cheeky, sassy, but warm-hearted Mary Poppins is lovely. There’s honestly no complaint with Blunt’s performance because she’s essentially doing a really great Julie Andrews impression. Blunt has a bit more bite in her jokes, but that’s just Mary flowing with the times. She may look the same, but she’s a bit more into the children becoming self actualized while also having a good time. She regularly lets them run off to make their own mistakes.
Then there’s Jack (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda), the de-facto Burt, but in the form of Jack—a lamplighter who was Burt’s young apprentice. That connection helps explain how he knows Mary and a little love connection with Jane is thrown in to help justify his place within the story. The film begins and ends with Jack’s singing and much of the film seems like an opportunity for those who couldn’t afford tickets to see him as the original Hamilton. Of course, Jack is not like Alexander Hamilton—Jack is a perpetually joyful and game for hijinks laborer, but he also takes the time to sing a very quasi-rap song, this time about not judging a book by its cover. Much of the film feels like a show piece for Miranda’s hefty musical talents, which doesn’t always feel necessary, but still charms.
The direction by Rob Marshall is so spot on, with wonderful use of special effects by turning a bubble bath into a ship and incorporating hand-drawn animated elements (in a nice nod to the original) into the live action. His deft touch and his mastery of the movie-musical form are obvious. He even gets winning performances out of the three child actors playing the Banks children, without allowing them to slip into being too cheesy or too much like live big-eyed velvet paintings. This film just doesn’t come close to his other holiday movie musical masterpiece Chicago. It’s more homage then divine reinvention.
Where the film falters a bit is in the music. Songs written and composed by Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, they can bring about toe-tapping in the moment, but they’re just not memorable and don’t necessarily want to make you rush to memorize the soundtrack. The songs’ messages are also a bit all over the place. There’s one, aforementioned, about not judging a book by its cover, which refers to the greedy banker played by Colin Firth who briefly seems out to get Michael Banks. That song, much of it due to Miranda’s bouncy delivery, hits the most high notes. But the rest are a real shrug. One about helping the children remember their mother—that she’s not lost if she’s not forgotten feels like a thrown in thesis for an issue not really discussed much within the plot. Basically it’s hard to live up to the songs from the original: they tried and there’s points for trying, but there won’t be a legacy in this soundtrack.
Like the soundtrack and the performances, Mary Poppins Returns is enjoyable in the moment and makes audiences feel good, which is truly the basis for a successful holiday film, but it’s a shrug and pretty forgettable after Mary floats back into the sky, the lights come up, and the popcorn gets thrown away.