OnScreen Review: "Mary Poppins Returns"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

Pretty much everyone who loves movies as a kid gets exposed to Disney’s catalog, though there usually ends up being gaps here and there. My sister was obsessed with a handful of Disney animated movies, so those were on constantly in our house growing up, but a few slipped through the cracks, as did much of the older Disney live-action movies. Mary Poppins was one of those films I missed growing up, only to cause quite the consternation amongst my friends who adore it when I revealed that when Saving Mr. Banks came out a few years ago. Shortly after seeing that, I remedied the situation and did quite enjoy Mary Poppins, though I suspect not to the same degree I might have if I’d seen it when I was younger. Over 50 years later, Disney has returned to the character with Mary Poppins Returns.

Emily Blunt takes over the iconic role that won Julie Andrews her Oscar, returning to visit the Banks family in their time of need. The children are all grown up, with Michael (Ben Whishaw) having a family of his own and Jane (Emily Mortimer) regularly involved in the lives of his three children. Michael is recently widowed and facing financial difficulty after taking out a loan with Fidelity Fiduciary Bank to pay for his wife’s care and living expenses. The bank is threatening to repossess the family house if the loan is not repaid by the end of the week. Mary Poppins, with the help of another lamplighter in Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), brings the fantastical into the lives of Michael’s three children while Michael and Jane search for shares their father left them that could save the house.

Beyond just both films being musicals, the sequel hews very closely to much of the original film and manages to recreate much of its charm too. And why mess with a successful formula? There are echoes of Michael and Jane’s parents in both of them; like his father, Michael works at the bank and where their mother was a suffragette, Jane is actively involved in labor organization. The narrative beats are quite similar, and, while I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, I suspect that most of plot points and kinds of musical numbers would match up pretty well. There is an extended animation sequence in this one just as in the first film too. Miranda’s presence replicates that of Van Dyke in the original, minus the famously awful accent.

Of course, the music is integral to everything here. The original Mary Poppins is probably most famous for at least three songs: “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, and “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, which ended up winning the Oscar. Again, there are echoes of the original soundtrack and score in Mary Poppins Returns, which is a subtle and effective tool to employ in doing a sequel more than 50 years later. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” are probably the two stand-out songs from this soundtrack, which is good, but it’s hard to imagine any of these songs having the kind of staying power that a song like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” has had. Despite writing movie reviews for a site that is mainly about theater, I have little input on the choreography of most of the musical numbers. The only thing that stuck out to me is that the bike stunts during “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” felt out of place for a film set during the 1930s.

The film features a fine cast, headed by Blunt. I’m not sure what more there is to say about Emily Blunt’s talents as an actress at this point. For my money, she may be the most versatile actress in Hollywood. I find her completely believable in practically every role she takes, whether it is a warrior in Edge of Tomorrow, a mother in A Quiet Place, or Mary Poppins in a musical. She is the total package. Charlize Theron is probably the only other actress currently in the conversation. Blunt gives an assured performance as Mary Poppins that never once feels the need to be competing against or compared to the performance of Julie Andrews. Lin-Manuel Miranda gets to branch out a bit more into Hollywood after incredible success on Broadway. Colin Firth pops up as the evil operator of the bank that is intent on seizing the Banks’ home and gets to do some family-friendly moustache-twirling. There are also a few pleasant cameos in the film that need not be spoiled. The emotional heart of the movie is in Ben Whishaw’s performance as a widowed father of three, with some very poignant moments.

Mary Poppins Returns does a suitable job of building upon the foundation laid by 1964’s Mary Poppins. It features a lot of nods to the 54-year old classic but with enough courage to not rely entirely on nostalgia and be completely beholden to the past. It looks to bring the character to a new audience of children and families. It’s also worth noting that there’s an undeniable joy involved in the filmmaking here that comes through in the final product. It may fall a bit short of being practically perfect in every way, but it is perfectly fine as family entertainment.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars