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Many Happy Returns

Emily Blunt
Emily Blunt
Walt Disney Studios
 130 Minutes
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda   
Mary Poppins Returns

Long before the other major movie studios made any serious effort to recycle their best films, Disney recognized the enormous value of his film library and set out to milk every dollar possible out of each property. So, popular movies became attractions at Disneyland (and later Disney World), and those same movies were cut up and parceled out on The Wonderful World of Disney throughout its 30-year-run. Later, animated films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast became popular Broadway musicals and then equally popular live-action films. But what could the Mouse House do with arguably its best (the only Disney film to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination in Walt’s lifetime) and most beloved live-action movie of all time, Mary Poppins? After all, you can’t turn one live-action film into another. Well, yes you can, after a fashion, by fashioning a sequel instead. And so, we get Mary Poppins Returns, certainly not a remake, but less of a real sequel than a reworking.


Mary Poppins Returns takes place in London during the Great Depression, some 25 years after the original. The Banks home, where Mary looked after Michael and Jane Banks, is now the home of a newly widowed Michael (Ben Whishaw) and his three children. Michael really wants to be an artist but took a job at the same bank where his father worked to support his family. Since his wife died, however, his heart hasn’t been in his work, and he is on the verge of having the house foreclosed. At this moment, who should arrive but Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), descending from the heavens, umbrella in hand. She reassumes her position as the nanny of the house and proceeds to amaze the children with her seemingly magical powers, which are inevitably accompanied by various song-and-dance routines.


Although Mary quickly brightens up the Banks home, saving that home is a different story. The bank’s new manager, Wilkins (Colin Firth), warns George that his house will be repossessed unless George comes up with the money he owes by a midnight deadline. George has no money, but he has stock in the bank that the owners gave his father years earlier. Of course, the stock certificates have gone missing, and no one can seem to find them.


The storyline of Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t get any points for originality, but the plot wasn’t the point of the original movie either. Instead, the plot of the classic Disney film served merely as an excuse for Julie Andrews to belt out several now-classic tunes and charm the children in her care, much as she would do a year later in The Sound of Music. And, whenever Julie had to catch her breath, her co-star, Dick Van Dyke, was on hand to show off his dexterity in some comic song-and-dance routines.


In constructing the screenplay for Mary Poppins Returns (for this script is less a work of art or literature and more an exercise in assembling a movie), screenwriter David Magee set up as many scenes as he could that mirrored similar moments from the original. The effect is much like that of a football scout team, second stringers who run the same offense as the team’s upcoming opponent so that the first-string defense can be better prepared.


The results are scenes that are generally pleasant enough and occasionally magical but which lack the single best element of the original film, its memorable songs. Mary Poppins introduced the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragalistic,” “Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Jolly Holiday,” among others, People who never saw the first movie can sing these songs some 60 years later. The songs in Mary Poppins Returns are enjoyable and serviceable, but I doubt people will remember them six years from now, let alone 60.


The songs in Mary Poppins Returns may not be memorable, but director Rob Marshall, who won the Oscar for the musical Chicago, has carefully chosen the settings and stylings to recall their predecessor. For those old enough to be familiar with the original Mary Poppins, the new musical numbers will rekindle fond memories. For newcomers to the franchise, the same factors that made the original work are at present here, starting with the two leads. Obviously, Emily Blunt lacks the enormous star presence that Julie Andrews had, even in her film debut. But Blunt makes the character of Mary Poppins her own, softening the harsher edges a bit and projecting an air that she’s well aware of the situation she’s in and her abilities. The biggest surprise for many people will be Blunt’s singing voice, one that easily handles the various songs in the new movie (see clip below).


Blunt’s co-star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, doesn’t play the same role that Dick Van Dyke played initially (Bert the chimney sweep), but, instead, Bert’s former apprentice Jack, a lamplighter, who’s already quite familiar with Mary’s charms and ways. Miranda struggles at times with a Cockney accent, but he’s at his best in the dance routines, including an ensemble routine (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”) with the other London lamplighters that is a direct descendant of a similar number in the original film.


The technical highlight of the original film was the mixture of live action and animation in some of the fantasy scenes, most notably Dick Van Dyke doing a dance routine with penguins. The techniques used were state of the art in 1964, but, of course, animation today is far advanced. But Marshall makes an excellent decision to adopt a similar animation style for a sequence in which Mary, Jack, and the Banks children go inside a ceramic bowl and wind up in an old-time vaudeville hall where they interact with a cast of animated characters. The musical number (“The Cover Is Not the Book”) is the best realized in the entire movie.


Mary Poppins Returns includes a number of mostly delightful Easter eggs for fans of the original, beginning with a not-so-surprise appearance by Dick Van Dyke in a vital role that those familiar with the first movie will especially appreciate (Karen Dotrice, who played one of the Banks children in the first movie, also appears briefly). Later, Angela Lansbury shows up in a role that was intended for Julie Andrews, who declined, saying she didn’t want to take anything away from Emily Blunt. One cameo that doesn’t work is an appearance by Meryl Streep with a “wacky” Eastern European accent, in a scene that would have been better served on the cutting room floor.


Those who criticize Mary Poppins Returns for ripping off the original may perhaps have forgotten some of the first movie’s flaws, beginning with its minimal plot. Rob Marshall stages this movie well, building on the nostalgia associated with the first movie and giving those new to this type of musical an appreciation for what made the earlier film work. He’s aided immensely by a terrific performance by Emily Blunt, who succeeds as an actress where Julie Andrews succeeded in large part by her incredible persona. The result is a movie that, quite frankly, is far more than the sum of its parts, a lively winner that works far better than a straight remake would have. Mary Poppins Returns is not practically perfect in every way, but it’s perfect enough where it counts. 

In this clip, Emily Blunt sings "Can You Imagine That?."

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Mary Poppins Returns (2018) on IMDb