“Mary Poppins Returns” brings optimism to a pessimistic world
January 15, 2019
When I was four, I would watch the original Mary Poppins on repeat. When I was 14, I played Mary Poppins in the stage version at our local children’s theater. So before I go into this review, let me warn you: I have a very substantial bias. However, if you (like myself) are fatigued by the beginning of the second semester, by the winter rain, and/or by the never ending government shut down, I believe that Mary Poppins Returns may be just the sort of magic you need.
Disney marketing teams (and the cast on Twitter) were sure to emphasize that Mary Poppins Returns is not a remake, but a sequel of the original. This sequel takes us forward in time to a grown Jane and Michael Banks, the former organizing rallies like her mother and the latter struggling to keep his family afloat after being recently widowed.
The film opens on Lin Manuel-Miranda (creator and star of musical giant Hamilton) bicycling down the brick roads of London, complete with a newsboy cap and a cockney accent. Miranda, a la Dick Van Dyke, is just a little off on the accent, though Miranda’s is somehow much less forgivable.
Set in a colorful, twinkly London, the return to the Banks house brings a rush of nostalgia to Poppins fans. Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer play Michael and Jane Banks, and are fitting in their respective roles. Jane is both a strong ally to her brother in the wake of his recent tragedy and a woman of her own goals and ambitions (You couldn’t tell? But she wears pants!). Ben Whishaw, recent Golden Globe winner for his very very good work in the very good mini series A Very English Scandal (very count: 4), was a standout for me in the movie, delivering a genuine, heartening performance as a father trying to keep his family together. He presents a counter to the traditional father shown in American media, shedding tears for his wife and leaning in to humility and vulnerability.
The Banks family falls on hard times when they learn that their house is being repossessed by the bank, their main source of income having vanished after their mother’s death, Michael’s career as an artist no longer able to maintain his family’s needs. The plot is centered around the family’s search for a bank certificate that would allow them to pay off their debts, left by Michael and Jane’s father. Michael’s overly mature children Annabel, John, and Georgie want nothing more than to help their father, but as the walls fall apart around them, there’s only one thing that can bring this family back together: Mary Poppins.
In an entrance that had me sobbing as my inner four year old clawed out through my tear ducts, Emily Blunt flies down from the sky with her bird umbrella, bringing with her the solutions to all the problems of the world (The ice will stop melting! The government will reopen! Teens will stop eating Tide Pods! – Just kidding. These things are all still happening in our world.) Instead, Mary Poppins employs herself at the Banks house and reintroduces the children to magic and fun, saving them from their misery. (But what about mine, Mary? All the coral on the Great Barrier Reef is dying! I have to take AP Gov as a senior!)
This magic and fun is another extremely nostalgic element of the film, although in this version this whimsy is created by employing BMX bikers, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s rap skills, and Meryl Streep to add extra flare. Although these moments are enjoyable (Newsies – but with bikes! Rapping! Meryl Streep using a completely random accent!), the movie and its music are strangely forgettable after you leave the theater. In an effort to take something classic, keep it classic, and bring it to modern audiences, there is just some ingredient in the formula that isn’t quite right.
However, the not-so-secret secret ingredient that does shine within the film is Emily Blunt. Blunt steps into Julie Andrews’s massive, Oscar winning shoes with a terrific performance. She is mischievous, caring, and truly embodies the nanny that we all wished we had.
Some other players in the film include British treasure Colin Firth playing a villain (the only trouble I had with him was that it was the very loveable Colin Firth playing a villain), and of course, the incomparable Julie Walters stepping in as Ellen, the Banks family housekeeper.
Mary Poppins Returns attempts a momentous feat in following a true classic, and while it doesn’t quite measure up, it does provide some much needed optimism in an increasingly dark world. So if you need a reason to smile, head to the theaters and catch Mary Poppins Returns with an open mind and a childlike lens. With excellent performances from Ben Wishaw and Emily Blunt, a supporting cast of the greats, and the classic Disney magic, it’s a lovely film to fill your cold, pessimistic heart.