For all its reverence and impact on cinematic culture, it's surprising that a sequel to Disney’s celebrated ‘Mary Poppins’ has taken a staggering 54 years. Which only amasses further expectation to do justice to a film and a titular character that has become both a hallmark of Disney’s library and one of the most iconic performances in all of film. And how do they do? Acceptably.
Yes, I know it defies what the public narrative is destined to be, but ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, while graced with ambition and respect for what came before, doesn’t translate to utter transcendence like its predecessor - mainly due to its ambitions being somewhat of a smaller scale. Yet, what is produced is a radiant, imaginative adventure with a cast at the top of their game with stellar song-and-dance numbers all the way.
Set years after the events of the seminal film, Michael and Jane (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer respectively) have both entered adulthood, with Michael caring for his three children following the passing of his wife. Sorrow and despair accompanies Cherry Tree Lane, all before the return of the siblings’ magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt, ‘Sicario’). She appears from the sky guided by her umbrella as she promises to help the family rediscover the joy that was once beaming in all their hearts. She does so with the company of street lamplighter Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda, Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’) as they take Michael’s children on a plethora of musically whimsical adventures.
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ does manage to get a lot of facets right, with most attuning to respecting the original and imbuing the same sense of creativity it is still lauded for. For many, the drawcard of Mary’s return will be to see the lavish song-and-dance numbers that return to the forefront with the panache of Disney’s original, and on that front the film never disappoints. With new songs appropriately permeating the original tunes and enveloping them in well-choreographed dance sequences, it creates an energy that never ceases to satisfy. It’s a dazzling spectacle of brilliant lighting, colour, costuming, 2D animation and all respectfully feels distinctively in the vain of the original film. A lot of this stems from the brilliant performance skills of both Blunt and Miranda, who aptly give the musical numbers a vitality and infectious enjoyment.
Which coalesces with the film’s other inherent strength, its cast. From film's announcement, the casting decisions were met with great fanfare, and the assembled talents don’t disappoint. First and foremost, Emily Blunt is delightful in the titular role, embodying the trademark sensibilities and mysticism of the character without straying into an impression of Julie Andrews’ original iteration. Lin Manuel-Miranda, too, proves as ideal casting with his musical pedigree put to marvellous usage. While the supporting cast all acquit themselves admirably, Ben Whishaw is a treat as the grown-up Michael Banks with his endearing earnestness, Colin Firth plays to his traits well as the owner of a London bank, while Meryl Streep crafts her most outlandish performance in some time to create an unmistakably zany turn.
The drawcard of Mary’s return will be to see the lavish song-and-dance numbers that return to the forefront with the panache of Disney’s original, and on that front the film never disappoints.
These elements go a long way in capturing what was most pivotal in bringing Mary Poppins back to the silver screen; an inherent sense of magical escapism. While many sequels done decades after aren’t able to capture the tonality and presence of what came before, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is able to retain its predecessor's sense of magic admirably. A lot of that is from the clever direction from Rob Marshall (‘Into The Woods’, 'Chicago') with great specific-to-detail art direction and use of colour and imagery.
That isn’t to say the movie is without faults, as the story itself, while far from sloppy, can never really get beyond anything too pedestrian. In comparison to what came before, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ can’t quite carve the same emotional resonance as its predecessor, and while there is given conflict, it feels insubstantial when filtered with such ingenious musical numbers. The story isn’t quite there, it never becomes anything too exciting, which at times makes the film feel a bit paint-by-numbers, a little drawn out, and quite predictable. For all of the flourishes of ‘Mary Poppins Returns’, it does so almost to distract from the central narrative not really having the strength to operate as strongly as the visual and musical tendencies.
While this hindrance tends to bring down the overall strength of this piece, it’s hard to stay too frustrated, however, when considering its scope. For all it could have been, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ gets a lot more right than it gets wrong, as it can never truly summate itself as a home run - but in permeating the aura of pure Disney magic and that of its predecessor, it does so admirably. With strong direction, an almighty cast and good songs, it's a fun occasion for the whole family. While that will be more than satisfactory for many, where it exceeds in heart it overcompensates for a substantive drawback.