Mary Poppins Returns

[3.5 stars]

Like its title character, the original Mary Poppins (1964) is practically perfect in every way. It is full of childlike wonder, entertaining humor, amazing pacing, fabulous music, and a sweet and affirming resolution. It is also one of my favorites of its type. So it was with both anticipation and not a little trepidation I walked into this sequel.

Ben Whishaw (queers.) and Emily Mortimer (Spectral) do justice to the Banks family. Getting to see Whishaw in a young father role was great and a nice evolution for him on screen.  And Mortimer mirrored Mrs. Banks’s character from the original admirably. Adding to the threads from the past, bringing forward Ellen the maid in Julie Walters (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) was also a nice gift. The new generation of children were also well cast. Pixie Davies (Humans), Nathanael Saleh (Game of Thrones),  and Joel Dawson are a great trio with talent and the ability to work well together.

I’ll get to Poppins, for she is the key to it all, but if I don’t give a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda (Speech & Debate) as the lamplighter that steps in for Dick Van Dyke’s man of all trades to help out Poppins and the family, I’d be remiss. Miranda is incredibly talented, and the movie uses his particular talents well. He isn’t entirely credible as a Cockney, but he has the sense of the character well. And Colin Firth (The Happy Prince) brings his talents to bear well too. Even Meryl Streep (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) gets to have a bit of fun in a throw-away role.

Now on to Poppins herself. Emily Blunt (Sherlock Gnomes) is worthy of the role. She certainly brings some game, has good pipes, and brings a ton of on-screen charisma. But she isn’t quite comfortable in the role. It hangs on her like an oversized dress and feels just a little forced as she tries to make the part her own. Most of this isn’t her fault, but rather the fault of the script and direction. But to get to that, you have to acknowledge the difference in feel of the two movies.

The new installment is big and magical and entertaining, but it is more like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than the original Poppins; much darker and with some bite. I enjoyed the choice to make it a continuation of the Banks family, but that also came with some timing issues. To make it Jane and Micheal’s lives in their prime, it had to happen between the wars…and yet, despite taking place between the wars, there is no hint of that hanging over the tale, which was odd. That darkness in the character and plot reflected more of today than the 1930s and ignored well-established and understood history.

It is the darkness that really changes the Poppins world in this movie. In fact, writer Dave Magee (Life of Pi) and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) feel like they didn’t quite get Poppins at all in some ways. Emily Blunt is allowed to be far too arch rather than matter-of-fact in her actions and attitude. The original Poppins doesn’t have to work for anything, it all happens as she plans; no muss, no fuss. This Poppins seems to take glee in mucking about with people. It is less about wonder and magic and helping people and more about power and control.

And, on a script level, they never deal with her looking different, which felt wrong. They go out of their way to claim she looks “just the same” which is absurd and was unnecessary. Why can’t Poppins be more like Who or the Banks children recognize her but feel they remembered wrong or see her differently? Why pretend when we all know she’s been recast?

But it goes beyond these things. She is much less in control of the children in this story because she’s too intent on being the center of attention rather than controlling from the sidelines. Part of the joy of the first movie is watching Poppins get everyone to do what she wants and they need without them realizing they’ve been utterly manipulated.

In this sequel, she certainly makes demands and has some control, but the manipulations don’t feel much like they’re in her control at all. Also, one of the great things of the original was how utterly feminist it was. All the important decisions were by women. This sequel isn’t as feminist a movie…it is all about the actions of men and men’s decisions. Rather surprising given the current culture and 54 years in between flicks.

There is also another oddity in making the sequel. In the first movie, the story is really about saving Mr. Banks. The same focus is in this sequel, but because the father was the child in the first film, it somehow feels like she’s there for the children (even if the children are adults now). This isn’t an error in choices so much as just an unavoidable result, and brings in some odd echos.

OK, let’s face it, creating a sequel to such a classic is a near impossible task. Forcefully mirroring the original in structure, in many ways, hurt the overall result. This story isn’t nearly as tight. The music isn’t as nearly on point for the plot, even if it is entertaining. The story isn’t quite as satisfying. Certainly it is a level of musical in movies that isn’t seen often, making a nod back to the 40s in its scope. Kids will enjoy. Parents will reminisce. Awards will surely be offered if not gained. And it is going to be a huge success. But do yourself a favor and rewatch the original before you see this sequel (or watch it after if you don’t want to compare while watching). There is a magic to the to the 1964 classic that just isn’t replicated here, despite everyone’s efforts. I’m not even sure that it could be done in this time as we’ve become so much more jaded and aware.

I don’t mean to dissuade you from going to Mary Poppins Returns. You should. But it is impossible to see it and not think of the original. Or, for that matter, this delightful 2004 short with Andrews herself still nailing the sense and personality of her original. And, in fact, to bring this all home, I have to bend my rules a bit and go into some of the comparisons below. So don’t read on if you don’t want to have aspects of the movie spoiled.

 

WARNING: Some Spoilerage Lies Below

My frustration began with the opening credits. By preceding the movie proper with a lot of pre-production art, much of the plot was given away, which was a damned shame. Not sure why they didn’t follow the example of the original and just set up the tale and let Miranda be our guide. Instead, the film jumps straight into a musical number rather than framing it all, and easing us into the magical world. This is a fair choice, but it made it jarring rather than feeling like a bedtime story.

As a whole, the music and sequences aren’t nearly as tight as the first film. Everything in the first film comes back to have an effect on the resolution. That just isn’t the case for Returns. For instance, Meryl Streep’s scene, which mirror Ed Wynn’s Uncle from the original, had no impact on the story at all. Wynn’s scene supplies the necessary and plot-turning joke. Streep is just an amusing distraction with an emotional point that could have been done differently.

Likewise, the lead up to the finale with the lamplighter dance sequence has no real place, unlike chimney sweeps in the original. The sweeps seemingly overlong sequence is necessary to trigger the confrontation with Mr. Banks and so that the sweeps can shake Banks’ hand (more necessary for the children to see than the story) and it pushes Banks to his epiphany. The lamplighter sequence has no impact whatsoever. Yes there is a similar confrontation with the children, but it felt, much like Streep’s scene, to be there as a mirror to the original rather than with a purpose.

Taking it a bit further, the lamplighters do nothing for the resolution in this sequel. It is Poppins who turns back time, not the lighters. So why the whole insane sequence scaling Big Ben if she could just fly up there and move the hands?

And speaking of the finale, let’s face it, the location of the stock obvious from the moment we see the paper. I spent the whole movie waiting for them to notice it. I did like how it tied in the original kite. However, I just wish it wasn’t so bloody obvious… or that it was so we could anticipate the discovery as part of the story rather than it having to be a “surprise” near the end.

I did think the tuppence connection was nice from a story point of view. But having capitalism win over emotions and “what’s right” felt wrong for this world. Though, I will admit, it did provide a great thread for Dick Van Dyke’s return, however briefly, for the denouement.

I also do have to say I am so glad Andrews turned down the role that Angela Lansbury took on. Andrews was absolutely right, it would have been a huge distraction and dismissed Blunt’s efforts entirely.

And, finally, there were the choices for the finale, and perhaps this is where it flew off the rails the most. The ending in the original was redemptive all around, for all characters. Let’s Go Fly a Kite is an anthem of joy and possibility. In Mary Poppins Returns, Up in the Air  (or whatever the song title is) just isn’t, which felt wrong for the sensibility of that world. And though I’m sure the romantic in Magee and Marshall drove the choice, having to find Jane a partner was also just the wrong message for the younger viewers.

Again, I enjoyed myself, honestly I did. But it is impossible to see this new movie and not compare and think about the differences. You should still go, just unplug a bit or accept the differences a little more than I could<g>

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