‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Is the Spoonful of Sugar the World Needs Right Now
The new ‘Mary Poppins’ film may be practically imperfect in every way. (Its songs especially.) But there’s a simple, necessary pleasure in its timely joy and hopeful message.
Mary Poppins Returns opens on a flickering street lamp along a dark London street, waking it up with its warm light on a damp morning. The score swells, and Lin-Manuel Miranda begins to sing: “There’s a different point of view awaiting you, if you just look up.”
It’s not reaching to see this as a metaphor for watching Mary Poppins Returns at this cultural moment, one starved for the kind of invigorating warmth that only a certain brand of Disney nostalgia can provide. It’s a time, too, that warrants a reminder to look for the hope in a desperate situation.
Miranda’s Jack, a lamplighter who apprenticed under Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the original film, is also teasing the arrival of the titular magical nanny. And when star Emily Blunt’s Mary descends from the skies dangling from her iconic umbrella, it’s almost a shock how much of an emotional thrill it is, how much we needed to see her. The audience at my screening erupted with spontaneous applause.
There’s a feeling of grandeur to Mary Poppins Returns, of it being an event. It’s an integral part of the movie’s appeal, but also perhaps its greatest liability. (The stakes are high!)
It is the rare film in which multiple generations of people are invested—deeply, personally, emotionally invested—and, more specifically, invested in it being good. People may be craving the singular joy of a new Mary Poppins film, but fear the wrath of the nostalgic should the beloved property be bastardized.
When a film arrives with that much baggage—a bottomless carpetbag of it, really—you want to love it. How great for it, then, to be worthy of that love.
The film, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) with new music from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Smash), arrives 54 years after Julie Andrews’ Mary was last seen taking off from 17 Cherry Tree Lane, bidding the Banks family goodbye from the London skies.
Twenty years have passed since the original, and Michael and Jane, now played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, are all grown up. As this is a Disney movie, there’s a dead parent that gives the film its emotional backbone. Michael recently lost his wife and is struggling to raise his three young kids on his own, though Jane, a civil-rights worker taking after her suffragette mother, does her best to help.
Michael takes out a loan from the bank where his father once worked in order to keep the family house, but the bank is demanding he pay it back in five days or the Banks family loses the home. Enter Mary, the plot, and the ensuing two hours of magic and hijinks.
It’s not long before Blunt is whisking the young kids down bathtub trains to sing and swim in the sea, to cartoon musical halls to dance with penguins, and through the streets of London with a gang of lamplighters-turned-BMX-stunt-riders to the top of Big Ben. (There is an odd preponderance of BMX bicycle choreography in Mary Poppins Returns.)
These adventures are a much-needed antidote to the worrying reality that, by circumstance, these children are being forced to grow up far too fast.
They’re at dire levels of precociousness. A spoonful of sugar won’t cut it in this situation. But maybe a trip to visit Mary’s kooky Cousin Topsy to dance on the ceiling while Meryl Streep energetically belts a showtune in an unplaceable Eastern European accent will. (Oh, you bet it does. Aside from an energetic 11th-hour Dick Van Dyke cameo, it’s the best scene in the movie.)
It’s all in reaction to Michael’s despondent handling of the family’s crisis. From now on, he says, there’s no use in looking to the past, mourning the loss of their mother and, with her, simpler, more innocent times. It’s not a spoiler to state the obvious: that looking back is exactly what Michael needs to do in order to rescue the house, the family, and his own happiness. He must look back to his own childhood, to Mary, to magic, to a time when all could be solved with some sugar, a meddling nanny, a delightful chimney sweep, a carpetbag of tricks, a kite, and, of course, the power of unconditional love.
Mary Poppins Returns is a movie about how dangerous it can be to let the childlike parts of us go, and the need to revisit them from time to time. Especially at this time.
At one point in the movie when Mary arrives, Mortimer’s Jane, with fuzzy memories of her own time with the nanny all those years before, wonders to Michael, “Those things from when we were young, they didn’t really happen…?” One could look at Mary Poppins as an interloper who facilitates the most thrilling experiences of children’s lives and then gaslights them into thinking they never happened; or you could view her as a catalyst, the manifestation of the nudge we all need to reach back into the innocence we’re all worse off for burying away.
To that latter interpretation, Blunt is terrific.
Her Mary Poppins, which Blunt said was based more on P.L. Travers’ books than what Julie Andrews did in the original film, is as curt, poised, and, to be honest, rude as Andrews’ was. But there’s also more of a friskiness, a strangeness, and a giddy recklessness to this Mary—a juxtaposition of primness and silliness that is absolutely infectious. You also see more of Mary legitimately enjoying the adventures. Blunt’s delivery of “off we go!” as she plunges into the first fantasia is one of the most jubilant moments of the year.
Working in Blunt’s favor amid the conversation of how anyone could possibly live up to Andrews’ iconic performance is the fact that, as in the first film, it’s not her narrative we’re watching in Mary Poppins Returns. Mary comes and goes in the Banks’ lives when they’re in need of her assistance. But it’s them who we are watching change over time, not Mary. Heck, she hasn’t even aged. Because we’re not emotionally attached to her journey, we’re more willing to forgive—and enjoy—a new characterization in a sequel.
It’s the music, then, that faces the toughest scrutiny here, and is, sadly, the sequel’s greatest failure.
The songs are serviceable, but serviceable isn’t what you desire when you’re talking about Mary Poppins, a film that we’d venture has the best top-to-bottom roster of original songs of any movie-musical.
And while modern technology allows for exhilarating staging of these numbers, the set pieces don’t necessarily have any believable narrative connective tissue. (This is most noticeable during the lamplighters’ big number, which is phenomenally choreographed and shot, only for you to realize when it’s done that you have no recollection of how the characters ended up there in the first place.)
That Mary Poppins Returns is practically imperfect in every way is somehow part of its charm. Just as Mary comes in to do the job and then takes off again once the mission is accomplished, there is a workmanlike execution here, ticking off all the boxes of a “What You Want From a New Mary Poppins Movie” checklist. Its optimism, its whimsy, its sense of wonder do at times feel forced, but an assault of positivity is hardly unwelcome, even if slightly manufactured.
The resounding complaint we’ve heard from the film’s critics is that it is, in form and spirit, very much like the original film, but not the original film, which disappointed them. There is a good argument that a film that essentially seeks to recreate a predecessor’s aesthetic and signature but does a subpar job of it lacks value. Well, pish posh. I just don’t think that is true of Mary Poppins Returns.
In a world of cash-grabbing franchises, reboots, and recycling of ideas, Mary Poppins Returns, at least creatively, is the least cynical sequel we’ve seen in a long time.
Perhaps we’re still on a sugar high, but we truly believe that Rob Marshall and the film’s creative team embarked on the film with a sense of purpose.
There seems to have been careful consideration not only in how to tell this new story, but more importantly, why the story should be told now. There’s a palpable ambition to do something meaningful and magical with this character, capitalizing on our memories and personal attachments to the film—not commoditizing them—to add emotional layers to not just the watching of the film but the experiencing of it.
Is Mary Poppins Returns as good as the original? Are you out of your mind? Of course it isn’t! Should it be judged on its own merits, separate from comparisons to the masterpiece original? Arguably not. Is it still a good film? Yes, very much so! And what do we make of all that? I think Mary herself says it best: “We’re on the brink of adventure, children. Don’t spoil it with too many questions.”