There’s always a risk when returning to a long-dormant franchise of tainting the originals legacy. Yet it seems fashionable now to revisit series thought long-dead in the hopes of attaching a pair of jump leads to its corpse and wringing a few more million dollars from it.
It probably sounds from that opening paragraph that I was down on Mary Poppins Returns from the outset, which isn’t quite true. I was heartened from the trailers to see that they had seemingly captured the originals charm, even half a century on, as twee as that seemed in 2018, it was a welcome change of pace from the usual blockbuster fodder.
There may have also been a hope of cashing in on the niche that The Greatest Showman had left behind, that of the monstrously successful soundtrack. As much as Greatest Showman failed to woo critics, audiences couldn’t get enough and maybe Mary Poppins Returns was hoping for similar returns (pun intended). Still, it had a reputation to live up to and a long, long history, so the opportunity to fail was vast, but was the return to Cherry Tree Lane as practically perfect as the original?
The grown-up Banks children, Michael and Jane, (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, respectively) are facing financial difficulties during The Great Depression. Michael faces losing his family home in the wake of his wife’s passing, when Mary Poppins, their childhood nanny returns to lend a helping hand.
One of the greatest concerns going into MPR was that of the inevitable re-casting of Mary Poppins. While Julie Andrews is very much still with us, she is not particularly suited to such a taxing part at her advanced age. That being said, they really couldn’t have done a better job in finding a Mary for the modern era.
Emily Blunt towers as the maypole around which the film dances, being the film’s musical and emotional heart throughout, and while she isn’t the only stand-out, she throws herself into the role with such admirable aplomb that you begin to forget there was ever another Mary.
The appeal of this film lies within its devotion to the nostalgia that surrounds it. The film is brimming with call-backs to the original and its style is shockingly close to what would have been the norm 50 years ago, it sets out to make you forget there has been close to 55 years between these two films, immersing you in its unique sense of nostalgia from the outset.
Its setting may have moved on to the 1930’s but its heart remains the same, set in a lovingly re-imagined London, you spend most of the film with a sense of wonder that you probably felt watching the original, revisiting a world that is now so foreign and alien to modern eyes, yet warm and comforting at the same time.
It helps the film immensely to be helmed by someone with as much musical experience as Rob Marshall, now a veteran of the Hollywood musical, with a resume including Chicago (for which he won multiple Oscars) and Into The Woods (he is also scheduled to direct the forthcoming Little Mermaid remake) his steady hand is a welcome addition to the formula, you really get a sense that the film comes from a place of love, creatively, in the way the world is realised, and in its visual style, the animation section being a particular stand-out.
It is not only Emily Blunt that carries this film from an acting perspective however, as the supporting cast is littered with such talent as the mercurial Lin-Manuel Miranda, slipping into the dancing shoes left behind by Dick Van Dyke, who also appears in a cameo role, Ben Whishaw as the disaffected Michael Banks, visibly hurting with grief, and the appealing slimy villain role filled smartly by Colin Firth, it’s an all-star cast filled to the brim with life and charm.
The main issue I harboured with Mary Poppins Returns was also an acting issue, as unavoidable as it seems, I found the child actors to be very below-par. Now, I know it’s very difficult for a child actor to compare in any way to their adult counterparts, but there have been stand-outs in the past, and their occasionally wooden performances drag down the lively and colourful cast somewhat.
That aside, I feel there should be special praise directed at the film’s soundtrack, which also had pretty sizeable shoes to fill following the iconic score of The Sherman Brothers, but again, Disney turned to an experienced hand, and it paid off. Marc Shaiman (best known for being the musical mind behind Hairspray) delivers a score that matches the performance and visuals, it’s light, vibrant and memorable, with enough call-backs to the classic songs to reward the long-time fans without every feeling like it’s pandering to the past. It especially delivers in its larger production numbers; ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ and ‘Nowhere to Go but Up’ being good examples of this, taking a cue from the past and running forward with it, with sensational results.
In conclusion then, an exercise in nostalgia can offer just the tonic for a cinema-going crowd, and Mary Poppins Returns delivers that in spades. Wonderful performances, Memorable songs and some breath-taking visual set-pieces make Mary Poppins Returns another supercalifragilisticexpialidocious journey into the past.