“Mary Poppins” is one of Disney’s most beloved, and frankly most infamous films. It’s catchy songs and award season success have made it an undeniable classic, but the story behind Disney’s relationship with author P.L. Travers and his attempt to obtain the property rights has put a stain on the film’s legacy. After all these years Disney has decided to explore the world of “Mary Poppins” once again in “Mary Poppins Returns”. After 54 years many questioned whether this sequel would even be necessary or if it could capture the same charm and fun as its predecessor for a new generation. After viewing the film myself I’m ready to give my take. Is this a worthy successor to one of Disney’s most notable features or is it a sequel that should have never been made? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Mary Poppins Returns”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Mary Poppins Returns” takes place in 1935 London with the Great Depression at its peak. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now a grown man, is still living in his parent’s old home with his three children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and George (Joel Dawson). Michael’s wife has passed away which has caused Michael to take out a loan from Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, the same bank his father worked for in the previous film and that Michael works for as a teller. After a few late payments the bank, along with its new president William “Weatherall” Wilkins, Jr. (Colin Firth) decides to repossess the Banks home unless Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) can locate the share certificate left to them by their father. This stress causes a rift in the Banks household leading Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to return and help the Banks family once again. As the nanny bonds with Michael’s children she takes them on magical adventures with her friend and lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) teaching a new generation of Bank’s children and their father several life lessons along the way.
So, while it can certainly be argued that “Mary Poppins Returns” isn’t the most necessary sequel in the world it does more than enough to bring back the same magic and heart of the original even if it doesn’t up the ante. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a pretty fun experience and one that takes many elements from the first film and adapts them to a modern filmmaking style. I’ll openly admit that while the familiarity of it all might not sit well with some, the fact that this sequel leans so heavily on what worked before is both one of its greatest weaknesses and one of its greatest strengths. As a positive the film does manage to remind us all why the original is so beloved while also making us smile that we get to see it all again in a new way. There’s this never-ending sense of whimsy and spectacle about it that kept me glued to the screen the entire experience. If you’re going to outright copy “Mary Poppins” this is the way to do it, by providing us with a delightful and layered musical adventure that takes Poppins’ magic and personality and adapts it properly for a new generation to appreciate.
The lead actors are amazing in this movie. Emily Blunt is a true force as Mary Poppins layering the famous nanny with spunk, attitude and appropriate tact. She’s a much more serious woman this time around and is not afraid to tell it like it is even more than before. Blunt took on a role with a lot of expectation on her shoulders and she pulls it off perfectly. She might not match Julie Andrews’ original charm to a T, but she comes damn near close. Flanking her is Lin-Manuel Miranda who acts as Marry Poppins’ new right hand man Jack, a lamplighter and former apprentice to Poppins’ original sidekick Bert. Miranda hasn’t appeared in a lot of films and is more well known for his contributions to theater (“Hamilton” anyone?) but he brings the same charm and pitch-perfect performing we’ve come to know him for on the stage to the big screen and is a delightfully lovable successor to Dick Van Dyke as the leading man. Both of these actors bring their A-game and honestly help lift the entire cast to a whole new level with not only their character performances, but also their singing ability as these are by far the best vocalists in the film who belt out every note with vigor and gusto.
And that brings me to the music and there are PLENTY of great songs in this film all composed by Marc Shaiman. Now the soundtrack is nowhere near as catchy or memorable as the first film’s, but every tune is delightfully produced and written to evoke the emotions and energy of the moment. Having great vocalists like Blunt and Miranda at the helm helps each musical number feel lively and impactful, but these songs don’t lean specifically on the performers to draw viewers in. They’re mixed with entertaining visuals and injected with fun lyrical compositions to help tell a story and play into the different messages each segment of the film has to teach rather than simply being a musical number for the sake of being. Some of my personal favorites are “The Cover is Not the Book”, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” but the soundtrack as a whole is catchy, fun and memorable even if it doesn’t stand a chance against the iconic songs from the first film. It’s just another great example of how the musical genre is not dead in cinema and we still have great composers working behind the scenes to bring films like this to life each year.
Finally, the visual style of this film is fantastic and not just the costume designs and backdrops either. While the costumes and sets are fun and well crafted the animated portions of the film are also very smooth, colorful and eye catching. The use of traditional animation for these scenes not only matches the aesthetic of the first film but also makes the worlds Mary Poppins and the children explore that much more fascinating. It would have been easy to create something with CGI and keep it modern, but the use of a more traditional animation style works to the film’s benefit by giving us clear disparity between what is the fantasy and what is the reality. It’s a fun little nod to Disney’s past and a refreshing look at how this type of animation could look in modern day. I actually enjoyed the animation from THIS movie more than the original. I’m a little disappointed we don’t see more of it throughout the project.
As much as I want to defend “Mary Poppins Returns” it’s pretty impossible not to admit that this is a sequel that leans too heavily on what made the first movie great. While I won’t say “Mary Poppins Returns” is a pointless film (because it’s not) one could argue it doesn’t justify its own existence as much as it needs to. There are a lot of fun throwbacks to the original movie and it’s nice to see where the Banks children went after growing up, but a lot of this film’s elements are stripped right from the first movie to give viewers what they expect without taking any real leaps to add something new to the “Mary Poppins” legacy. It settles for being what it has to be to pass as a worthy sequel but barely tries to be anything more. The original is such a classic and nearly 55-years-old. A sequel definitely needed to up the ante and this one really never does. Sure, we get a few new elements to Mary Poppins as a character like learning about one of her relatives or realizing that the memory of her magic wears off in adults, but none of this really adds enough substance to gives “Mary Poppins Returns” its own identity. In an odd way this film would have worked just fine on its own had the original movie not existed, but BECAUSE the first movie is such a classic “Mary Poppins Returns” feels more like an update at times than a real sequel.
Not all of the characters or performances are incredibly memorable either. I could have done without the odd side quest introducing Poppins’ cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and the older versions of Michael and Jane Banks (played by Ben Wishaw and Emily Morimer) didn’t exactly leave a memorable mark on me either despite being well acted. This film is pretty much about the kids, Mary Poppins, and Jack and it’s those characters that stand out while everyone else just kind of fades into the background. To me the biggest sin in this department though is Colin Firth’s villain role as William Wilkins, the new president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. This role to me was so cliché and so forced and while Firth doesn’t do bad with the role it just felt like a generic bad guy who is destined to get his just desserts by the end of it all. Even his plan is stupid. He wants to repossess the Banks house likely with hopes of selling it to make a profit but they’re in a depression. How does he expect to make money of such a nice house in that market? His plan also depends on him preventing the Banks family from retrieving their shares from the bank, but why not help them there? Wouldn’t he make more money by getting the shares than selling a house in a sour market? I mean it would make sense if he wants to get both but he never shows any interest in obtaining he shares…I don’t know the whole plan itself feels convoluted and forced to create the main conflict of the film and this character feels much more generic and cliché than the antagonists that forced the father’s hand in the original film.
And that brings me to my biggest complaint of the movie, the conflict. I already ranted about the bad guys plan but the fact that there is a defined villain rubbed me the wrong way. Sure the bank owners were the “villains” in the first movie but really the bad guy was growing up. Mr. Banks had forgotten the value of family and what it was like to be a child and while that’s a theme touched on in the sequel it’s not the main message of the film. Instead the story revolves around the kids trying to stop a big baddy from taking their home and their little side quests with Poppins are meant to teach them different smaller lessons that inspire the kids to convince their father of his boss’s wrongdoing. The kids are meant to learn and then teach their father how to recover from his losses. The problem is the story is so caught up in its generic villain conflict that all of these smaller, very valuable lessons are more a means to an end whereas the original presented these lessons as something that both the character AND the viewers are means to hold on to. I guess what I’m saying is where the original “Mary Poppins” had focus and conviction to what it was trying to teach and say, this film is content diving more into generic territory while downplaying the powerful themes that are written into the narrative. There’s still plenty of substance and emotional weight, but the story itself feels much less inspired and much less impactful this time around.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is a very good film. It’s an awesome musical with fun songs, great acting from its leads and awesome visuals and style. However, it’s hard not to compare it to the original “Mary Poppins” and to that end it’s inferior. The side characters are not as memorable and there’s not enough here to justify this film on its own as a sequel even if it would have worked well as a standalone product. It doesn’t add a whole lot of anything new to the “Mary Poppins” legacy, but it DOES do enough to keep you entertained and engaged throughout the whole story. Even still that story is probably the worst part of this film because it depends on a generic villain and the powerful themes aren’t as prevalent as they were in the previous movie, and yet this sequel still packs plenty of charm and does take the time to tackle of powerful life lessons nonetheless. So, you can see the bind I’m in. When you get down to it “Mary Poppins Returns” is not a revolutionary follow-up to a 54-year-old classic and it’s not going to please everyone simply because it tries to hard to replicate the first movie and not hard enough to chart its own path. But what it does give us is a delightful musical adventure that satisfies more than it disappoints and for me that’s plenty good enough to recommend it and want to experience it all over again.