Mary Poppins Returns is no jolly holiday
I spent the last weekend thinking about the original Mary Poppins and trying to figure out what I liked about it, since the plot is so threadbare. Turns out it is the music, the charm, and the sense of escapism into the past that makes it such a joyous viewing experience. There’s no doubt that this sequel attempts to recapture that same amount of joy, but sadly it stumbles when it comes to each element, despite some great efforts by its cast.
While ostensibly a sequel, with Mary Poppins returning to the Banks family twenty years or so after the events of the previous film, it apes the structure of the original so closely that it feels closer to a reboot or a remake. Poppins returns as the children from original film, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) have all grown up. Michael has children of his own, and is struggling to raise them during the midst of the Great Depression, not made easier by the fact that he is a widower. The children are mostly acting like small adults, and Jane is an activist. A crisis emerges when 17 Cherry Tree Lane is served with a repossession notice.
The cyclical concept is introduced at the beginning of the original film, when Dick Van Dyke’s Bert sings, “Can't put me finger on what lies in store, / But I fear what's to happen all happened before,” and it's paid off here, but with the caveat that Michael and Jane actually remember having a nanny named Mary Poppins. They are just unable to recall any of the magic she brought to their lives. This choice keeps their characters in a sort of arrested state of development throughout the film, since they seem to not notice the magical things happening around them, and dismiss the children’s reports as mere fantasy. This is also one of the core problems with Returns.
What is the point of Mary Poppins being a magical nanny if the families she visits fail to learn the lessons she teaches them? While Michael has not thrown himself into his work at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank the way his father did, he still has not allowed his children to live as children. Instead, they shop for groceries and fret about time. Sure, the exact circumstances are different, but I can’t help but feel that having Michael’s shortcomings make his children act like responsible humans who don’t know how to have fun– what his father wanted at the beginning of the original film–undermines the story of both films.
The other major core issue is this “you have 5 days to come up with the money or you lose your home” ticking clock. The original Poppins outing was a plot-less affair, constructed to show off technical prowess of animation and choreography alike. However, there was never any sense of impatience with that film since there was no external pressure for anything. The emotional relationships dictated the length of the film and not an artificial tension that–while it is a staple of stage musicals–feels unnecessary here, since time wasted unraveling this plot is just not terribly interesting.
All this could be rendered forgivable if the songs were captivating. Comparisons to the original aside, the songs provided by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are unmemorable. Unhummable, even. It could be argued that the songs in Poppins are more standalone, and these are certainly more integrated into the film. But if we must abandon magic for “realism” in so much of our fantastical cinema, why must we also do it here. Gone is the pristine London of the Edwardian era, replaced by the grime of the Great Slump.
The instinct to integrate the songs into the story detracts from the songs, and never allows the sort of whimsy one should expect from a Poppins film. Rob Marshall’s directing doesn’t help either, as too often his own choreography is ruined by flat direction. The camera doesn’t sweep around the actors, showing off their prowess. Rather it has all been chopped to pieces, dampening the effect with too many cuts, and sapping the momentum from even “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” otherwise the only number that feels to come alive.
The animation should be commended, and the small touches on the actors’ costumes is a wonderful detail we should have seen more of. The traditional animation style is the only place where my nostalgia felt validated, in particular, merging a art from a ceramic bowl with classic Disney character models is inspired, and it works just as seamlessly the second time around. I especially enjoyed the way the two dimensional clothes looked on the actors.
All of the performers in the film, especially Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, and Emily Mortimer, are well cast, and certainly elevate the film as much as they can. Whishaw’s soulful mourning is especially moving. For her part, Emily Blunt doesn’t try to recreate Julie Andrews’ performance, but makes it clear this is the same character, drawing on specific mannerisms and tone in spite of the script. Oh, and the less said about Meryl Streep’s unfortunate character, the better.
The original succeeded on the strengths of its songs and its charm dazzling audiences while it told a simple story about families and gave a few moral lessons along the way. Mary Poppins Returns feels the need to burden itself with plot and action sequences, making the film feel hurried and impatient, rather than soothing and pleasurable. Disney would have been better off using this cast to do an actual remake.
Mary Poppins Returns opens in Philly theaters today.