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Non-Review Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns largely accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Mary Poppins Returns is a belated sequel to the original film, and very clearly – and very strongly – takes that original film as its major influence. Indeed, many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Mary Poppins Returns are carried over directly from the previous film. Mary Poppins Returns is visually inventive, narratively accessible, highly unfocused, and episodic in structure. These are all aspects that it shares with the beloved family classic that spawned it, for better and for worse.

The nanny’s state.

There is an endearing energy in Mary Poppins Returns, and a comforting nostalgia. Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns to the sort of film that was already endangered when Mary Poppins was released, the cinematic equivalent of vaudeville entertainment; a collection of largely isolated sketches tied together by the thinnest of string, serving as a showcase for the creative talents of everybody involved from the performers to the animators to the set designers. Mary Poppins Returns comes remarkably close to capturing the spirit and the appeal of the original.

However, Mary Poppins Returns struggles slightly to balance its fidelity for (and veneration of) the original with the demands of a modern family blockbuster, the film occasionally caught in the push-and-pull of familiarity and modernity. It doesn’t quite work, but it gets close enough for those craving an old-fashioned feel-good family film.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

Emily Blunt is the heart and soul of Mary Poppins Returns. The film notable eschews a cameo or guest appearance from Julie Andrews, although there is a late appearance from Angela Lansbury that feels like it might have been written with Andrews in mind. Even without Andrews’ presence, Blunt understands that she is inheriting an iconic role, and that she has to walk a delicate line between respecting the cultural memory of Andrews’ defining take on the role and making it her own. It is to Blunt’s credit that she succeeds.

Blunt carries over a lot what made Andrews’ take on the character so influential and so successful, the idea of a very sophisticated nanny who is at one entirely prim-and-proper while also being more emotionally attentive to the needs of others than many Victorian characters. (There is a credibly argument to be made that Mary Poppins codified a lot of how the United States sees the United Kingdom.) At the same time, Blunt gives the character a more mischievous and wry edge. It is perhaps too much to describe the character as cynical, but she seems more overtly knowing.

Just Poppin in.

As with the original Mary Poppins, it largely falls to the title character to guide the characters (and the audience) through a variety of broadly drawn adventures to fill the runtime of the film. These adventures are often disconnected and arbitrary, existing largely to showcase the skill of the film’s production. There is a strange extended cameo from Meryl Streep doing an inexplicable Russian accent as Mary’s cousin “Topsy”, there is an entire adventure set upon the surface of a china bowl, there is a delightful journey home through the London fog.

In both Mary Poppins Returns and the original Mary Poppins, these sequences suggest the wonder with which children see the world. They capture the innocence of a time of life when taking a bubble bath can be the adventure of a lifetime, or when wandering the streets of London after dark can seem like exploring a strange wonderland. Much of Mary Poppins Returns is built around the things that children can see, but adults cannot. After one such sequence, a character laments, “The adults’ll forget come morning. They always do.”

You can take that to the Banks.

The only real issue with this is that Mary Poppins Returns is built around the idea that the adults have not forgotten. In fact, Mary Poppins Returns is anchored in the idea that the adults remember very well indeed. As episodic as Mary Poppins Returns might be, it is very obviously and plainly structured around the rhythms of Mary Poppins. A not inconsiderable amount of the runtime of Mary Poppins Returns is given over to repeating and updating memorable sequences from Mary Poppins.

This is perhaps most obvious with an extended interlude in the middle of the film, in which the characters journey into an animated wonderland that allows life-action performers to interact with conventional two-dimensional animation. That sequence is once of the most memorable and distinctive sequences in Mary Poppins. For many audience members, those too young for Who Framed Roger Rabbit or those who grew up when Song of the South was locked safely away, it was the first time that they saw something like that attempted in film.

An animated adventure.

In contrast, the extended sequence that blends live action and animation in Mary Poppins Returns cannot recapture that magic. It is no longer novel. It is no longer fresh. It is not a work of wonder and whimsy that pushes a young audience’s understanding of the medium. It is instead a wry and knowing celebration of something all ready etched in the memory of a much older audience, a nostalgic homage to the childlike wonder that the parents of the current audience once felt.

Similarly, the character of Jack is very consciously designed to fill the space left in the narrative framework by Bert from Mary Poppins, right down to the continuity hook of revealing that Jack was one of the chimney sweeps who worked with Bert and the decision to have Lin-Manuel Miranda put on a highly questionable cockney accent in homage to Dick Van Dyke’s role in the original film. Of course, there is a slight problem. While very few actors have the charm and charisma of Dick Van Dyke, is it is very clear that Miranda is not primarily an actor.

Lighting up the screen.

Jack is a lamp-lighter (a “leary”) rather than a chimney sweep, but it serves the same purpose. Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns reveals that there is an entire army of lamp-lighters at work in London, with an impressive sense of rhythm and an infectious joy in their work, recalling the manner of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. A lot of Mary Poppins is structured in this way, elements very consciously slotted in to be “similar-but-just-different-enough” from the original film.

At the same time, these overtly nostalgic elements clash with the film’s small gestures towards modernity, and contemporary family blockbuster storytelling standards. This is reflected in a number of small choices, such as the weird emphasis on bike stunt-work by the “learies”, which seems like a stilted nod towards the YouTube generation’s fascination with young men doing fancy stuntwork with everyday items.

Firth things Firth.

However, the largest and most jarring example of this comes at the climax, when the heroes find themselves racing against a deadline. The army of “learies” comes into play once again, but this time in an impressive and death-defying set piece. The sequence includes some (admittedly mild) physical peril that feels strangely out of place in a Mary Poppins film, where exotic and unconventional spaces are traditionally portrayed as magical rather than dangerous.

Indeed, the ending of that sequence underscores just how out of place it feels in a Mary Poppins film. After a primary character has put themselves in tremendous physical peril to accomplish a seemingly impossible task, Mary herself very handily accomplishes the actual objective with a little magic and a lot of poise. It is a jarring moment, one that illustrates how ill-suited a Mary Poppins movie is to a standard blockbuster climax. (The rest of the climax is then handily resolved by another cameo that comes out of nowhere and largely relies on audience familiarity to pay it off.)

Soft-petal it.

Nevertheless, there is something interesting in the way that Mary Poppins Returns plays out. The belated sequel may be most interesting as an example of modern blockbuster cinema’s efforts to recreate spectacle and theatricality within film. While Mary Poppins Returns frames these elements in terms of nostalgia for the original Mary Poppins, the film is still built around big vaudeville-style set pieces. Its best moments have nothing to do with scale or plot, but instead spectacle in a very old-fashioned and traditional way.

The most impressive moments in Mary Poppins Returns are the sorts of song-and-dance numbers in which modern films rarely indulge. La La Land might be a musical, but it often favoured the intimate over the spectacular, barring the sequences that bookended the film. In contrast, large stretches of Mary Poppins Returns look like the kind of indulgent musical numbers that a feature of fifties films like A Star is Born or Singin’ in the Rain, sequences that showcase the spectacular talents of everybody working on the film.

Trying to stay on Topsy of it all.

It is interesting to wonder whether this type of filmmaking might be coming back into fashion. There are certainly echoes of it to be found in the full recreation of Queen’s LiveAid set at the climax of Bohemian Rhapsody, which undoubtedly contributed to the film’s popularity and success. Just like the LiveAid sequence in Bohemian Rhapsody, song-and-dance numbers like A Cover is Not a Book and Trip A Little Light Fantastic add very little to the plot of Mary Poppins Returns, but are a joy to take in.

It is a very old-fashioned notion of spectacle, anchored more in broad crowd-pleasing appeal than the urban devastation of most contemporary blockbusters. In these moments, Mary Poppins Returns and Bohemian Rhapsody evoke the highly successful “concert” films and “event” cinema that are performing so well in modern multiplexes. These broadcasts of live concerts or theatrical performances represent the changing face of modern cinema, and perhaps films like Mary Poppins Returns and Bohemian Rhapsody represent an attempt to engage with that.

Mary Poppins Returns often feels like a cinematic album, a collection of elaborately choreographed dance routines that are incredibly impressive. The production design is fantastic. The dancers are great. Rob Marshall knows how to direct a musical, particularly in a style that evokes the theatrical experience; both Into the Woods and Chicago began as stage shows before navigating to the screen. The result is a highly polished piece of work.

Mary Poppins Returns might gaze too longingly at cinema’s past, but perhaps it also looks to the future in some unexpected ways.

2 Responses

  1. I very much enjoyed the movie, though ‘Trip a little light fantastic’ is the only number that really stuck in my head, compared with all the memorable songs in the original.

    It was one of the rare movies where I thought all of the supporting work out-shined the acting. Great costumes, set design, and choreography, and the hand-drawn animation was an absolute delight, especially during the chase scene. Apparently Disney had lost so much of its in-house talent in hand-drawn animation that it had to hire a contracting studio to do the bulk of it, and then brought several animators out of retirement to help with the work. But it was worth every penny in my book.

    As far as the acting goes, I thought Emily Blunt did a fine turn as Mary Poppins. I was also quite unexpectedly touched by the cameo appearance at the end.

    • Yep. I really liked Trip a Little Light Fantastic and A Book is Not It’s Cover. it felt like one of those old-school vaudeville-type movies, the kind they don’t really make any more.

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