Considering the woeful track record of Disney’s recent trend of revisiting, remaking and reimagining their finest classics, it was a safe assumption that ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, the sequel to the 1964 masterpiece that no one asked for, would inevitably be a forgettable disappointment. For this reason, it’s all the more surprising what an absolute delight the film turned out to be. Rather than proving a pointless exercise in nostalgia, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ managed to honour its past and craft something thrilling in its own right.
Structurally, the film is a facsimile of the original, but as with ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, it’s the variations on familiar themes that makes the film a surprisingly effective and affecting piece of work. The stakes are surprisingly high, with now adult Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, ‘Cloud Atlas’) about to lose the family home barely a year after losing his wife, placing pressure on his ability to be a supportive father to his own children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). An air of delicate melancholy hangs over Cherry Tree Lane now, supported by the Depression-era backdrop, a sense of a world needing some sort of light to lead it through the fog. It becomes necessary for Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, ‘A Quiet Place’) to return to help hold the family together, not because they aren’t listening to one another but because they need stability within their state of grief, a husband and children trying to stay brave while in a fresh state of mourning.
In that sense, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ retains the most important aspect of ‘Mary Poppins’ - an undercurrent of emotional displacement that drives the missteps of its characters, and her role in helping them find their feet again. That screenwriter David Macgee and the delightful songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman all have their equivalences in the original hardly matters when they are so aware of this fact and able to find their own variations suited to the new circumstances of the original. In fact, the handling of the legacy of ‘Mary Poppins’ is one of the most admirable aspects of this new film. The classic hangs in the air, just off in the distance, like a tune carried on the wind, there as context but never distracting. The nostalgia of ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ isn’t a commodity but about memory, of lessons forgotten and experiences faded, and the magic that comes when you rediscover them, whether it be a fantastical trip or a beaten-up kite or what it means to be a good parent.
There’s so much love in this film, so much determination not to waste the opportunity to return to this world and its characters, and as a result its craft is often exemplary. Unlike most Disney live-action endeavours of late, this feels like a film with texture and vision and ambition. The design is gorgeous, the cinematography is beautiful, and the editing is brimming with life, working in harmony with the wit and melancholy of the script and music. The only aspect that never really takes off is Rob Marshall’s direction, which is adequate at worst and lively at best, but unlike with ‘Into The Woods’, his job is to hold the pieces together and keep out of the way, and he certainly does a solid job with that.
Best of all, the cast of ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is heaven. Emily Blunt is just as wonderful as you’d hope as Mary Poppins, but adds a delicious sass and vanity to her, an edge of danger and unknowing that only makes her more intoxicating. This film weaponises everything we love about Emily Blunt, and she hits you between the eyes as soon as she appears on screen. Ben Whishaw is an unexpected triumph as Michael, a detailed and tender portrait of determination and sorrow that forms the emotional heart of the film, and he is complemented by a wonderful performance from Emily Mortimer as adult Jane. The supporting cast almost across the board bring their A-game, whether seasoned greats like Colin Firth, Julie Walters or Meryl Streep, or the terrific trio of newcomers in Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson. Only Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack never quite finds his feet within the film and in front of the camera, but he makes up for it with his spirited work in the musical numbers.
I really wasn’t expecting to like ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, and yet I loved every second of it. It may not present a strong case for its existence, but it has so much genuine heart, such a tremendous sense of fun and so much love in it that it hardly seems to matter. It also comes at a time where it feels most needed, just like its titular character, a breath of optimism and joy during dark and difficult times, a reminder to believe in yourself and in the goodness in all of us. There’s no reason why ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ should ever have worked, but especially after revisiting it for its home entertainment release, I’m so very glad it did.
It has so much genuine heart, such a tremendous sense of fun and so much love in it.
PICTURE & SOUND
Working from a 3.4K source, this 2160p 2.39:1 transfer really is a beauty, offering a filmic texture despite its digital origins. Clarity and detail throughout is excellent, especially apparent in how it captures the finer aspects of the production design, but the greatest enhancement comes from how beautifully the HDR serves the colour palette, the gentle and autumnal tones bursting from the screen. This isn’t a transfer you use to show off the wonders of 4K, but it’s a great example of how the format can preserve a film’s visual integrity. The Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track isn’t as punchy as you would expect, especially with Disney’s tendency to lower the levels of the track slightly, but there’s a real richness to the sound, giving the world of the film a sense of aural depth and density. Dialogue sits nicely amongst the design and music, and the orchestra during the songs in particular sounds terrific.
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ comes with a solid collection of extras, all on the included Blu-ray. ‘Seeing Things from a Different Point of View: The Musical Numbers of Mary Poppins Returns’ collects a series of short featurettes, each focused on the key musical numbers - 'Trip A Little Light Fantastic' (3:56), 'The Royal Douton Music Hall'/'A Cover Is Not the Book' (7:05), 'Turning Turtle' (3:01) and 'Can You Imagine That?' (4:03) - and how they were realised on-set and in post-production. ‘Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns’ (5:22) focuses on Van Dyke’s cameo in the film, while ‘The Practically Perfect Making of Mary Poppins Returns’ (23:38) offers a general making-of through a series of featurettes, all handsomely made but unsatisfying in their detail. All of the making-of material feels like it is a cut-down version of a potentially larger and more substantial documentary, and while the material is interesting, we don’t get any insight into the development of the project or of the music. There’s also a deleted song, 'The Anthropomorphic Zoo' (5:04), a cheeky concept that may have been a tad too weird, even for the Mary Poppins universe, as well as some short deleted scenes and a collection of bloopers.