To do a sequel to a classic, loved and timeless musical is generally not a good idea. So when the rumours about a Mary Poppins sequel started circling a couple of years ago, the collective moan from nostalgic moviegoers was audible from London to Lima. And when the film was finally released this Christmas, only those who manage to separate the musical numbers from the paper-thin plot, or those who are too young to know there is an original, truly appreciated Rob Marshall’s return of The Nanny.
Mary Poppins Returns is set 30 years after the original film. The Banks children, whom Mary Poppins alternatively disciplined and pampered in the original, are now adults, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now has two kids of his own. He still lives in the surprisingly enormous house on Cherry Tree Lane, where his sister, Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), hangs out when she’s not out protesting. The plot is laid flat – yes, flat – on the table within the first five minutes of the film; Michael has taken out a loan, which he has not paid back in time, and the bank’s henchmen come to his door with a notice of repossession. Michael must find a way to pay back the money within five days, in order to keep his family home – and, presto, the film has a time-lock. But who will take care of the Banks children – both young and old – during this distressing time? Enter Mary Poppins (A Quiet Place and The Devil Wears Prada’s Emily Blunt), and the lamplighter, Jack (Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda).
Even though one can debate whether a sequel does anything for Disney except making them a supercalifragilistic amount of money, they did at least choose the right actress to carry the movie. Knowing she can never copy Julie Andrews’ charming coyness, Blunt takes on the challenge and creates her own Poppins. She gives the iconic character an adorable sense of charm and confidence that entice both the youngest Banks’ children and the audience. Her ramrod posture, get-things-done attitude and clipped accent give her just the right amount of British authority too. Mary Poppins’ side-kick, Jack, is also perfectly cast. This is tough a not-so-cheap trick by director Rob Marshall; putting Lin-Manuel Miranda in anything that involves music in 2018 is like bringing Rain Man to the poker table. And even his cockney accent is jolly good.
But that is pretty much it.
All the charm, talent and presence is held by Blunt and Miranda. Whishaw, Mortimer and the three kids are sweet, but that’s about it. Their valiant attempt to engage the viewer in the forgettable plot falls flat. Even Jack seems more impressed by Mary Poppins “whimsicality” than the overly precocious children do. The film is oddly genderless and non-offensive, even for a children’s movie. You don’t believe Michael Banks fathered the three children or that the flirting between Jane Banks and Jack the lamplighter does anything for any of them. You sense that if you undress them, they’ll look as genital-less as Barbie and Ken. The film has no romance or true risk. The jokes are squeaky clean and all the winks are with an open mouth and an eye forced shut. Even though the original was child-friendly as well, it at least had a believable flirt going on between Mary Poppins and the chimney sweeper, and a wonderful subversive scene where rejected nannies are violently airborne upon Mary’s arrival in Cherry Tree Lane. This incarnation of Mary Poppins, on the other hand, is too scared of the offended Ayatollah-moms of social media.
Even the music is a moral lesson; there is no whimsical “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “Chim Chim Cheree”. Instead, we are told the tired old lesson that “The Cover Is Not The Book” in the film’s big showstopper, which neither stops the show nor sets up camp in the back of your head like the Sherman Brothers’ originals score did. However, director Rob Marshall and his composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman make a valiant effort. Blunt, and especially Miranda, get to showcase their immense talents as musical performers and the animation is grandiose and unquestionably fun and entertaining to watch. Especially as they’ve chosen traditional 2D animation for many scenes, instead of intricate CGI, in an effort to supercharge nostalgia. This makes the musical numbers the highlight of the film and the sweet relief to the lifeless plot. Rob Marshal must be somewhat aware of this, as he treats musical numbers the same way Michael Bay treats explosions – he uses any excuse to squeeze one more in.
Ultimately, all that is good in Mary Poppins Returns is a mere homage to the 1964 original. And if you miss the nanny, stream the old one instead. The cover may not be the book, but then again, the sequel is not the film…