Friday 17 May 2019

Mary Poppins Returns ★★★★☆

Mary Poppins is perhaps one of the most iconic and beloved films in Disney’s entire back catalogue. It’s become so ingrained in the public’s consciousness that you’d be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t know of the word ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious‘, Dick Van Dyke’s awful cockney accent, or the significance of feeding pigeons on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

So it’s a brave move on Disney’s part for them, fifty-four years down the line, to release a sequel to their classic (well...brave, or cash-grabbing, anyway. Going by the theme of their latest releases, perhaps it’s more of the latter...but that’s not for me to judge). But release it they did, and actually - surprisingly - it’s quite a fantastic film.

Smartly, writer David Magee, along with John DeLuca and director Rob Marshall, take steps to distance themselves narratively from the original story, setting their sequel twenty-four years after Mary Poppins first visited the Banks family to remind them all of the joy of childhood. Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw), now a struggling artist with three children of his own, is desperately trying to cobble together a living with his sister (Emily Mortimer) in the house they grew up in after the death of his wife. Having taken out a loan from the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and now unable to pay it back, the Banks family receive a visit from two of the bank’s associates who notify Michael that unless they pay the sum back in full, their house will be repossessed. With only two weeks to find the money before they lose their home, the siblings remember that their father left them shares in the bank which would cover the amount they owed...providing they could find the share certificate to prove it. And, with the family at their emotional lowest, who should arrive from the clouds to help them along but everyone’s favourite nanny, Mary Poppins.

As with any iconic character, it’s often hard to separate the role from the actor, and let’s be honest; Julie Andrews left some massive shoes to fill. So what a relief it was that Emily Blunt has some...equally massive feet? I don’t know, that idiom got away with me a little bit. Anyway, Emily Blunt’s casting is practically perfect in every way; true, her Mary Poppins is a slightly different beast to the one we know and love, but the film is all the better for it. She's somehow managed to be simultaneously both sterner and more joyful than her previous iteration, and she’s a delight to watch.

‘But what about the music?’, I hear you cry. ‘With the original film sporting so many classic and iconic songs, how do Mary Poppins Returns’ tunes hold up in comparison?’ Well...not quite so well, unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong; they are excellent - some even will go down among the ranks of the likes of Chim-Chim-Cheree and A Spoonful of Sugar - but for the most part, they’re not quite as instantly memorable as those that appeared in the 1964 film, sadly. It’s also hard not to be reminded of songs and sequences from songs and sequences from the original when listening to the soundtrack of this film. Let me put it this way; imagine a scene in which Poppins and the family go on gravity-defying hijinks with a relative. Now is that ‘I Love to Laugh’, or ‘Turning Turtle’? What about a semi-nonsensical song in which our protagonists interact with cartoon characters? Is that ‘A Cover is Not the Book’, or ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’? A bittersweet song to help the children fall asleep…’ Stay Awake’, or ‘Where the Lost Things Go’?  You get my point. Now again, this is not to belittle the songs in Mary Poppins Returns; they are all excellent. But the bar was set incredibly high by the Sherman Brothers back in 1964, and Marc Shaiman, whilst doing an incredibly admirable job of it, doesn’t quite reach those heady heights.

That said though, Mary Poppins Returns is a wonderfully charming film and a worthy successor to its predecessor. Marshall has clearly made a conscious effort to craft a film - actually defying Disney’s wishes in the process - that draws on the magic and wonder of the original. It is incredibly well-cast (a special nod to Ben Wishaw, as well as musical maestro and well known Very Nice Person Lin-Manuel Miranda as Bert’s proxy, the lamplighter Jack), the music is super catchy, and it has imagination by the bucketload. A film well worth watching for kids and grown-up kids alike.

Phil Taberner

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