An obvious money-grubbing sequel that’s amazingly both a great flick and a worthy successor.
A recent widower, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has traded his art brushes for a teller window trying to make ends meet in Depression-era London. His children Anabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson) know something’s up but have no idea how bad their father’s finances have gotten. Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps out where she can, but she too has been kept in the dark. With the family growing apart and secrets coming to light, a friendly lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) bears witness with the children to the return of an enigmatic magical nanny who once assisted the Banks’ children in their time of need: Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt).
It can make even the most hopeful cinephile cringe: the mere announcement of a sequel/reboot of the Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke 1964 Disney classic Mary Poppins. As the project got rolling, however, it was clear the Mouse House had tipped the right pedigree: Lin-Manuel Miranda, “an American composer, lyricist, playwright, singer, and actor widely known for creating and starring in the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton” (according to Google). Reportedly only invited to write a song or two, he brought his everything — himself included. Still, the individual shouldering the most risk if not all of the blame for failure herein is the star of the show: Emily Blunt. Is it possible to fill the dancing shoes of Julie Andrews with her own take on the title character?
The result is nothing less than fun, adventurous, and enchanting. With state-of-the-art film effects and an exemplary cast, Mary Poppins Returns does the impossible: pays proper respect to the source material, furthers the original narrative, and expands in ways that felt necessary without needless duplication; Returns feels like a Mary Poppins story should. Physically, emotionally, and wonderfully, Emily Blunt is practically perfect in every way, from singing and dancing to meddling and distracting. Grace, charm, wit, and a slightly sinister (and sexy) silent glance is a firm reminder she is not to be trifled with; dismiss her at your own peril. It doesn’t take long for Ms. Blunt to not only fill the magical nanny’s shoes but casts doubt that anyone else on the planet could have brought so much to the role.
In some ways, Returns outpaces its predecessor, especially in the handling of the children. Mary Poppins is a catalyst and enabler, a muse who provides inspiration to get things done and do the right thing — a thing she must never do herself so much as clear the way for others to do. The story hinges on Mary helping the Banks’ children of two generations: Michael and Jane whom she helped before and Michael’s own kids. Most films shy away from realistic threats and danger when children are championed as the heroes, often showing all of the adults to be fools for the sake of the kids being heroic; Returns dares to paint a parent not as a fool but actually human, failing in spite of their best efforts. Even an animated chase feels more dangerous than it has any right to be, one of many thematic elements that earned the film a PG rating over the original’s 1964 G-rated recommendation.
The production design takes complete advantage of modern technology to its fullest, from costuming that appears two-dimensionally correct to seamless integration of live and animated characters. While La La Land gained attention the year before last, its success didn’t evolve into a renaissance of theatrical musicals… and was in many ways rejected. In comparison, Returns isn’t just a throwback, it’s a modernization of the entire genre, a proof-of-concept that may serve as blueprint forward into similar escapism. After a regeneration as amazing as this, is there anyone out there who still doubts Mary Poppins is a Time Lord?
Mary Poppins Returns is rated PG for some mild thematic elements, brief action, and turning back the hands of time figuratively and literally.
Four skull recommendation out of four