Friday, December 28, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Today I saw Disney's MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018), a sequel to the studio's classic MARY POPPINS (1964).

MARY POPPINS holds an outsized role in my life as a classic film fan, being the first film I ever saw in a movie theater, not to mention the first Disney film I ever saw and my first exposure to Julie Andrews, who also starred in another film I love deeply, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965).

I made it a point, given that background, to go into MARY POPPINS RETURNS with fairly low expectations, as obviously this was not going to be "my" MARY POPPINS. And the film had in its favor the fact that MARY POPPINS originated as a long series of books which I had read and reread as a child, so the idea of a MARY POPPINS sequel wasn't completely unprecedented for me.

That said, while I wasn't really expecting to love it, I expected to like it quite a bit more than I did. Put this one in the "disappointing" column.

First, the good: Emily Blunt is wonderful in the title role, Dick Van Dyke is a marvel as Mr. Dawes Jr., the scenic production values are outstanding, the hand-drawn animation a delight to see in this computer-generated world, and there are a couple fairly good songs, "Underneath the Lovely London Sky" and "The Place Where Lost Things Go" by Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman.

That's about it as far as my likes went. For me the rest of the film sadly alternated between dull and irritating.

This time around Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recently widowed artist and bank teller who is raising three children: Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). (Continuity plus: In P.L. Travers' books there are three children born after Jane and Michael, the twins John and Barbara, then baby Annabel, so it was nice to see the names John and Anabel used in the film as Michael's children.) Michael's being aided by his single sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), who spends her time marching for workers' rights or some such thing, and the maid Ellen (Julie Walters).

Unfortunately Michael's doing a bad job of it, allowing the mortgage to go unpaid for three months because paying the bills was his wife's task. (Never mind that he's got three children to protect and house...) When Wilkins (Colin Firth) of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank wants to foreclose and insists the mortgage be paid in full, Michael also can't put his hands on a shares certificate which would provide the money to pay off the mortgage.

Enter Mary Poppins, who returns from the sky hanging on to the end of a kite. She gets to work reassuring the children and setting the Banks family to rights in her unique fashion.

Blunt's Mary falls somewhere between Andrew's vain but sweet portrayal and the sterner Mary of the P.L. Travers books. She's very good, although unfortunately her character is sometimes put in situations which make no sense. Case in point: During their animated adventure, she dances onstage in a music hall? Mary loved to take the children on crazy adventures -- the broken china bowl calls to mind a story from the books about a broken plate -- but I can't see the dignified Mary "letting loose" in such a fashion. Dance with chimney sweeps, sure, but the music hall routine, complete with flapper wig, was just odd.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is acceptable as Jack the lamplighter, but most of the characters are uninteresting. An attempt to recapture the magic of the original film's visit to Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) comes when Mary takes the children to visit her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), who spends time living upside down. Frankly I thought Streep was terribly annoying and the entire sequence should have been cut to shorten the 130-minute running time.

As for Whishaw's character, what a wimp. Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) was troubled in the original film, but it came mostly from his attempts to work hard and provide for his children. Michael is the exact opposite, he's refusing to be an adult. Surely, he's grieving and can be forgiven for being stressed and distracted, but no parent should treat his children as Michael does, not only putting their home at risk but excessively burdening them with his problems and emotions, so that they must step into the adult role and turn him around. Rather different from Mary and Bert helping the children to better understand their father in the 1964 version; the nuances are just different enough to be troubling.

I also had difficulty believing in Jane's hinted-at cross-class romance with Jack; perhaps the filmmakers thought if Lady Sybil could marry the chauffeur on DOWNTON ABBEY, political activist Jane could romance a lamplighter, but I wasn't buying it.

Also, the director's deliberate use of colorblind casting pulled me out of the story as more than once I mulled whether the characters were realistic for 1930s London. Inclusion is wonderful -- I thought colorblind casting worked really well in the fairy tale world of Disney's live-action CINDERELLA (2015) -- but authenticity matters as well.

Angela Lansbury turns up as a "Balloon Lady" in the final sequence; it was nice to see her but it was more a "Here's beloved Disney star Angela Lansbury" moment than anything organic. Van Dyke's appearance, on the other hand, was "practically perfect in every way."

And as long as I'm quoting dialogue from the first film, I think it was a missed opportunity not to work in Bert's line from early in MARY POPPINS, "...I feel what's to happen all happened before." It would have been a nice nod to the first film and also made great thematic sense.

On the other hand, this sequel is too "by the numbers" in following the original film: An animated adventure sequence, a nursery lullabye, a visit to a crazy relative, a big concluding group number with balloons rather than kites...

Regular readers know I tend to be a "glass is half full" reviewer, focused more on the positives I take away from a film than what I don't like, but this film unfortunately largely didn't work for me. A number of reviewers and folks on social media like it more than I do, so potential viewers may want to try it. I was glad, at least, to have seen Emily Blunt's performance and to assess the film for myself.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS was directed and cowritten by Rob Marshall. It was filmed by Dion Beebe.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG. I really don't know why. Characters in distress?

A trailer is here.

Related Post: Disneyland: The Art of Mary Poppins Returns.

More Mary Poppins Posts: Becoming Mary Poppins (December 14, 2005); Today at Disneyland: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! (Julie Andrews visit on April 8, 2008); Sherman Brothers Honored at Disneyland (Main Street tribute window dedicated on March 11, 2010); Today at Destination D: Disneyland '55 (Richard Sherman concert on September 24, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins (August 4, 2011); Disneyland: The Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe (January 29, 2012); Disney Composer Robert Sherman Dies at 86 (March 6, 2012); Destination D: 75 Years of Disney Animation (Dick Van Dyke concert on August 11, 2012); 2013 D23 Expo: A Tribute to Mary Poppins (1964), Part One; 2013 D23 Expo: A Tribute to Mary Poppins (1964), Part Two; Tonight's Movie: Saving Mr. Banks (2013) at the Aero Theatre (Emma Thompson and Leonard Maltin in person).


Blogger Seth said...

Your review concurs with another one I read earlier in the week ( and confirms my feelings when I first heard about the movie, so I'm happy to skip it (as I do with most new Disney offerings) and stick with the original.

Speaking of CINDERELLA, I don't care for the animated version, but I watched the live-action remake on your recommendation and enjoyed it quite a bit, so thank you.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much for letting me know about CINDERELLA, Seth, as well as for sharing the link to the other MARY POPPINS RETURNS review, which I enjoyed.

The review mentions films on "childhood whimsy lost and regained" -- I believe Disney had much more success with this idea in CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) earlier this year. I was also amused by the comment that "Michael Banks is utterly incompetent to run a household or to be responsible for children." Pretty much, LOL.

Reactions to MARY POPPINS seem to vary quite a bit. Our oldest daughter saw it yesterday and really enjoyed it.

Best wishes,

1:12 PM  
Blogger KC said...

I was afraid of this. Really bummed by all these overlong, uninspired new takes on beloved characters. Of course my girls want to see this, Mary Poppins is the school musical this year and they are in that zone. We'll see it; I can deal. Just wish that all the wonderful creativity and lively content I saw in independent films this year translated to big budget family movies.

1:42 PM  

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