MARY POPPINS RETURNS (Movie Review)

MaryPoppinsReturns_CartoonCarriage*** out of ****
Rated PG

(for some mild thematic elements and brief action)
Released: December 19, 2018
Runtime: 130 minutes
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, David Warner, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke

The return of Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way. Almost too much so.

Feeling, no doubt, the self-imposed pressure of resurrecting one of the biggest icons from its vault, Disney brings us a Mary Poppins sequel following a 54-year gap. It’s abundantly clear that the studio has every intention of doing right by their mystical nanny and all those who’ve adored her – and they do, thank God, down to every last detail. But instead of taking some risks to recapture the magic, they play it safe by strategically recreating it.

Mary Poppins Returns is nearly a beat-for-beat replica of the beloved classic. The details have changed but each scene and sequence mirrors ones from the original, serving the same entertainment function and/or lesson-teaching purpose, and mostly in the same order. (Designs on a china bowl rather than those of sidewalk art, for example, become the entryway for an animated centerpiece.)

Even the traits of the original Banks parents are replicated in their now-adult children; Michael (Ben Whishaw) has become burdened by stresses from the bank, and Jane (Emily Mortimer) has taken up her mother’s activist mantle, now for labor rather than suffrage. Throw in the Disney cliché of a single parent home (Michael still grieves the loss of his wife) and this is a Mouse House movie that’s, er, maid to order.

Yet what this return lacks in freshness, it makes up for in spirit and in spectacle. Then, down the final stretch, it crescendos to its most emotionally rewarding moments, especially as the family’s hopes hinge on an ingenious, crucial callback to the first movie, making both films (and their themes) even more substantial and rewarding.

The 1964 Mary Poppins is, by modern sensibilities, quite an anomaly when it comes to family entertainment (and most other entertainments, for that matter). It’s roughly a 20-minute plot spread out over 140 minutes, packed with two hours of catchy music numbers and elaborate set pieces of moviemaking wonder.

Its loose narrative of fantastical adventures is too random for our current age of short-attention distraction; it plays best, perhaps, as a limited series of five half-hour episodes (which it does surprisingly well), especially for the uninitiated. Mary Poppins Returns, however, divvies up that plot-to-showstopper ratio on a more even 50 / 50 split.

From the opening credits that stand alone in an old-fashioned pre-show overture, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) signals from the jump that the tone and style of his remake will stay hermetically-sealed within the same era of the first movie, free of any edge or irony. That’s a plus.

And like the first, it establishes its Cherry Tree Lane location, family, and their misfortune at length (but with more melancholy here) until that familiar wind gusts and Poppins herself finally returns about twenty minutes in.

Beckoned now by an unspoken cry from the heart of the Banks family rather than a ripped-up kid-scribed hiring notice, Mary sets to save them from their crisis, one that, ultimately, is more existential than material (though the material stakes are certainly high, and personal). She doesn’t do this directly, of course, but through her own brand of enchanted guidance, nudging people in the right direction toward what matters most.

As she does the set pieces begin, and they are dazzling.

Mixing modern visual effects with nostalgically-anachronistic 2D renderings, these song-and-dance sequences explode with imagination, and with tunes that – while not as memorable or earwormy as the original’s – stay true to that mid-century Broadway form, refusing to pander to modern ears with pop ballads. Even so, a rap interlude is predictably squeezed in for Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Jack fills Dick Van Dyke’s “Bert the chimney sweep” role as a local street-lamp lighter.

The cast is uniformly strong if not wholly endearing. Emily Blunt, perhaps wisely, doesn’t copy Julie Andrews’ warm spit-spot propriety, instead making Poppins disposition a bit dryer, more stern, at times eccentric (and even rude), using P.L Travers books as her primary inspiration for the magical au pair.

Blunt’s Poppins is more mischievous, even subversive, but still to uplifting, healing ends, even if not equally heartwarming. (Also, her underwater journey into a bathtub is a perfect counterpoint to Blunt’s horrifying scene set in the same porcelain setting from A Quiet Place earlier this year.)

Whishaw and Mortimer are wonderful, with Wishaw in particular creating the film’s most emotionally effecting moments, and the kids are homogeneously good as well. Miranda doesn’t translate as smoothly from the stage to the screen; his theatricality is too forced at times (as is his weak British accent), seemingly self-aware that he’s in a “kid’s show” rather than getting truly lost in the world.

Colin Firth services the villain role perfectly, while Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, and Van Dyke round out the all-star cameo highlights.

The biggest mistake a geeked-up Poppins-head could make is to go in needing this to be a certain “something” for them, for it to fulfill an impossible standard of some perfectly realized nostalgia glow that delivers all the feels. But don’t resent it for not completely transporting you back to your youth; be grateful that it honors your childhood rather than ruining it.

The irony: to the extent that Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t quite get there, it’s because it’s trying so hard to. Disney knows what the expectations are, and honestly it’s difficult to imagine what more they could’ve done.

Just appreciate the fact that they tried their hardest to fulfill those wishes – and have done so as earnestly and admirably as anyone could – instead of reimaging the material with an edgier take for modern audiences. This is a celebration of purity, one that affirms innocence as a noble virtue – at any age.

The second coming of Mary Poppins may not be rapturous, but it’s still a spoonful of heaven.

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