Movie review: Mary Poppins Returns

(image via IMP Awards)

Attempting a sequel to any well-loved film is a challenge but after 54 years, when time has rendered it near-iconic and placed it atop a nostalgic pedestal of near-unreachable proportions, it is an almost impossible undertaking you might think.

Possibly, but clearly this didn’t faze screenwriter David Magee and director Rob Marshall; or it if did, they didn’t let it defeat them because 1935-set Mary Poppins Returns is one of those superlative sequels that stares down its much-storied predecessor, paying it due homage but emerging very much cut from its own brightly-memorable, emotionally-resonant, highly-singable cloth.

It can’t help but echo many of the touchstones of Mary Poppins; not least because, like the film before it, it is based on the books of Australian author P. L. Travers who fashioned the tough-love nanny as the only person capable of solving the problems of the life-ravaged Banks family.

Rewatching Mary Poppins, you appreciate anew how loving but uncompromising Poppins is in the hands of Julie Andrews, and in Mary Poppins Returns she is no less formidable with Emily Blunt fashioning her as a no-nonsense therapist of sorts who shows the children wonder and magic in the aftermath of their mother’s death but also pushes them to embrace life’s harsh realities so they can better draw together and support each other.

That has always been Poppins’ modus operandi; take the people in her charge away, temporarily at least, from the troubles of their lives but then place them straight back in it, a few salient life lessons learned and let them figure out the rest.

Blunt’s performance is appropriately vulnerable, joyous and stern all at once, her mission to rescue the family of artist-turned-banker Michael Banks, his three children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) and labour activist sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) from the grief that has followed in the wake of the death of Michael’s wife.

Like his father before him, Michael is a good man who has lost his way, a loving father and caring brother, who can’t quite surmount the emotional and financial fallout of his wife’s untimely passing.

His sense that life is falling apart is compounded by the fact that the bank, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where he now reluctantly works, is calling time on the loan on which he has defaulted, giving him five days to find the full amount borrowed or face repossession of his beloved 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

It is a wholly unpalatable reality for a host of reasons but mostly because the home is filled with the memories and sense of his wife’s presence, and Michael feels, not unreasonably, that losing the house would mean losing his wife all over again.

Into this messy situation, steps Mary Poppins, riding in on the very same kite that made the ending of Mary Poppins such an uplifting delight; discovered by Georgie in the park after it has flown, seemingly under its own wind-assisted cognisance to the park, it flies aloft, collecting the one person who can make everything better.

Like the first film, Poppins does this with uncompromising grit and determination but also a loving, knowing sense that the kids need to step beyond their world and experience the magic that life has to offer again.

This happens, of course, with a captivatingly, earworm-worthy array of songs by Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Wittman (words) – one half of the original brotherly songwriting team of Mary Poppins, Richard M. Sherman, acted as musical consultant, lending the soundtrack a music resemblance to its predecessor without once sounding exactly like it – including soon-to-be-classics “Can You Imagine That?”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

There will no doubt be those, and they are emerging already I suspect, who will claim the new songs aren’t a patch of the original; the fact is though that the memorably-wonderful songs of Mary Poppins have had 54 years to burrow their way into our collective consciousness and hearts while the new assemblage of magical Poppins accompaniments, sung with gusto and verve by Blunt and lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the one-time assistant to chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke), have only just begun their journey.

They are every bit as emotionally affecting and magically-transportive as the original songs, each of them contributing to the vibrancy and colour of a film that is every bit as unflinching honest about real life as was Mary Poppins.

Songs aside, and they are practically perfect in every way as is Blunt as Mary Poppins, who harkens back to Andrews’ performance but very much makes the role her own, Mary Poppins Returns builds and expands many of the touchstones of the original film without once falling helplessly into its alive and talkative shadow.

Everything from the matte paintings that begin both films, the appearance of Jack singing the delightful “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” at the start mirroring Bert in Mary Poppins, the admiral living next door (who’s still out of time with Big Ben), the elegant woman with her dog (played by the original Jane, Karen Dotrice), the cartoon worlds into which Poppins, Jack and the children escape – the bath sequence and the trip into the Royal Doulton bowl are worth the price of admission alone – the riding of Poppins up the bannister (which doesn’t faze long-time housekeeper Ellen (now played by Julie Walters) and the effortless cleaning up of messes and references to codfish and phrases like “Spit Spot” all recall the first film without making the sequel feel like a slavish retread.

Also worth a mention is the visit to Poppins’s Eastern European cousin Topsy who lives down the same kind of out-of-the-way lane that laughing Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) in the first film inhabited; both provide levity and lighthearted silliness in films that are more serious that they otherwise appear.

It’s quite a feat but Mary Poppins Returns manages the balance between old and new with aplomb, helped along mightily by a substantial storyline in which Michael, Jane and the children, with help by Poppins (who naturally disavows she is doing anything at all) have to fight conniving bank chairman William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth) who is out to bolster profits by any means at his disposal.

This battle delivers up an outside enemy against which to fight, but as always, the greatest fight is for the heart and soul of the Banks family, and in this case Michael who faces a life crisis with which only Mary Poppins can assist.

Nostalgia can be both a boon and a hindrance when an unexpected addition to something much-loved and treasured comes along but in the case of the luminous wonder, musical joyousness and life gravity of Mary Poppins Returns, you should approach this perfectly-executed film on its own marvellous merits, appreciating what it draws on and pays homage, but appreciating like Poppins herself, that life changes (while often staying the same in its challenges and rewards), and we must, singing as we go of course, change along with it while remembering that important things like family and loyalty never go out of vogue and must always be fought for.

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