Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and there is perhaps no other major film studio that wields this knowledge quite like Disney. It’s been over five decades since Mary Poppins first floated down from the London sky onto Cherry Tree Lane, and now she’s back to delight a new generation of viewers in this dazzling musical extravaganza meticulously designed to evoke the joys of the 1964 classic.
Mary Poppins Returns takes place some 30 years after the events of its predecessor. Britain is in the throes of the Great Depression and the Banks children, Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), are all grown up with the latter having three young ones of his own – twins John and Anabel and their little brother, Georgie.
Still reeling from the death of his wife, Michael abandons his trade as an artist to take up a job as a bank teller to pay back a loan. But he falls behind on the payments and the beloved family home is in danger of being repossessed by the bank which is now run by a sly new president, William Wilkins Jr. (Colin Firth). The only thing that can save it is some shares that Jane and Michael’s father left them but they must find the certificate as proof in five days before they are forced out of their own house.
Like deus ex machina in sensible shoes, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) swoops in with the changing wind and through a series of magical escapades that also function to impart profound lessons, she guides and enables the Banks family to save themselves. They are joined by other eccentric characters in these adventures, most notably a lamplighter with an OTT Cockney accent named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Jack was once an apprentice to – surprise, surprise – chimney sweeper Bert, whom fans will remember was Julie Andrews’ main accomplice in the 1964 movie and played by the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke.
Director Rob Marshall has gone to great lengths to recreate the magic of Mary Poppins, from the quaint but ravishing visuals to the toe-tapping music to the emotionally-resonant moments that accompany the characters’ epiphanies. Although this sequel isn’t quite the singular film like its predecessor, it is well-crafted and well-acted enough to put a tear in your eye and a smile on your face.
In the spirit of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (see our review),Disney’s other revived blockbuster that repurposes similar narrative tropes from the source material, Mary Poppins Returns also doesn’t stray far from the template. In this respect, the House of Mouse demonstrates a keen understanding of its fan base and the significance of nostalgia as an emotional time machine.
It opens with the camera sweeping over the London landscape, looking like a painting, before segueing into an evocative overture very much like the opening sequence in Mary Poppins. When Mary whisks the children off to an underwater adventure during bath time, it’s clearly this sequel’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” moment.
In a dazzling sequence where Mary, Jack and the children “jump” into the pattern of an antique Royal Doulton bowl to sing and interact with 2D animated characters, it’s the comtemporary answer to the “Jolly Holiday/ Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious” sequence. There are many more examples like this peppered throughout the film.
There are those who have opined that the new songs, composed and written by Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are not as memorable as the now iconic Mary Poppins soundtrack. I think it’s rather unfair to draw a comparison right this instant considering that Mary Poppins has had decades for its music repertoire to become one of the greatest Hollywood songbooks. And the new tunes are quite catchy and prove to be earworms even hours after the movie has ended.
And how does Emily Blunt fare as the enchanted nanny immortalised by the great Julie Andrews? I’m happy to report that Blunt is practically perfect in every way. Her vocals may not have the same tinge of sweetness as Andrews’ but she’s still a fine singer and manages to capture the dignified yet tender persona that generations of viewers fell in love with. In fact, Blunt delivers an even sassier performance.
Miranda’s Jack is a worthy successor to Bert and proves to be just as irresistibly likable. Whishaw is heartbreaking as the struggling widower and while Mortimer and Firth performed admirably, they had little to do. Look out for Meryl Streep and Angela Lansbury who have a memorable musical number each too. And fans will surely be delighted by a cameo by Dick Van Dyke and it’s worth to taking note that the man was 93 years old when he filmed it.
As much as I enjoyed Mary Poppins Returns, I am not completely immune to its flaws. At best, this sequel showcases a deep respect for its predecessor and, at worst, it may come across as rather paint-by-numbers.
So while fans looking to relive the magic may be entertained, those hankering for something new may leave the theatre feeling disappointed. But it’s a heartfelt film about facing hardships together and it exudes such good vibes and that, to me, can never be a bad thing.
Mary Poppins Returns is out in cinemas now. Have you seen it? Tell us what you think below.