“MARY POPPINS RETURNS” in a Distant Sequel that Goes beyond Serviceable to Potentially Equally Memorable

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In the 1930s, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, an Australian-English writer and Shakespearean actress created a character that would become one of the most famous modern British literary icons: a magical nanny that travels from one job to another by flying umbrella. Thus Helen Lyndon Goff, under the assumed name of Pamela Lyndon (“PL”) Travers, create Mary Poppins, whose book adventures with children under her care were adapted into film by Walt Disney in 1964. Disney intended for the “Mary Poppins” movie, starring Julie Andrews, have a sequel. Plans fell through however, at least until in 2018.

Following perhaps one of the longest gaps between sequels ever in motion picture history, the film studio that Walt Disney built finally made that “Mary Poppins” sequel that the man himself had hoped to produce. After 54 years, the further adventures of arguably the most famous magic nanny get told. Though as one who may have looked into the story of PL Travers’ books and that one film by Disney, they will know there are discrepancies in depictions, due to the so-called “Disneyfication” phenomenon. These contested elements include the personality of Mary Poppins and the time the stories are set.

When Mrs. Travers wrote the first “Mary Poppins” books, they were set in the decade she wrote them, in the thirties. The Disney version shifted this into the 1910s, and for the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” they skip time to the 1930s, making the setting sort of recursive and confusing. Anyway, that means the children Mary looked after in the first film are now grownups and, in the case of Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), has his own family. But in a moment of crisis – the family coping with tragedy, a financial crisis looming, Michael becoming distant from his children – Mary does as the movie title says she would: she returns.

Granted, with over five decades having passed from the original, it is up to a new cast to carry on with what the originals have established, especially for Mary who is said to remain as is even when the rest of the world has grown. But one may notice that actress Emily Blunt’s portrayal of Mary stands in contrast with the consistently warm and friendly Julie Andrews version. Rather, she hews more in the direction of Mary as Travers wrote her: alternately friendly and stern, vain about her looks and pretends that nothing she does is magical, not at all.

In a way, this works in both storyline and production-wise. The personality traits of the book Poppins seem closer to Blunt’s usual character roles, and the more standoffish attitude helps rein in somewhat the more independent natures of the younger generation of Banks children, Michael’s sons John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) and daughter Annabel (Pixie Davies). Forced to grow up faster after losing their mother, the three needed to be slightly railroaded into Mary’s secret magical hijinks, with a rather more emotional payoff.

Just as Mary did in the first film, she needed a counterpart adult figure to play off in front of her charges, in the form of Jack the Leary lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Hearing a Puerto Rican actor doing his best to effect a Cockney accent is endearingly entertaining, though most viewers of “Mary Poppins Returns” would likely ignore everything else about the character and see only Hamilton. This imagery only gets enforced when he actually raps in a certain number. As a tandem, Emily Blunt and Miranda prove to be a hit with the magical musical sets where they perform together, which is thankfully great.

Rounding out the cast are Emily Mortimer as Michael’s sister Jane Banks, who acts as the cool aunt helping out with her brother’s bereaved family; Julie Walters as the loyal Banks housekeeper (and Mary’s secret-keeper) Ellen; and Colin Firth as Michael’s boss in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, who may be hiding something behind his helpful façade. Spectacular one-off appearances abound from Meryl Streep as Mary’s repairwoman cousin Topsy, Angela Lansbury as book character the Balloon Lady, and Dick Van Dyke (who played Mary’s original partner Bert the chimney-sweep) returns in prime physical form despite his 92 years of age for a very special character cameo.

A predisposed to be critical look at “Mary Poppins Returns” might think the plot of Mary returning to the family of her former, now-adult, charges to care for the younger generation to be too derivative of the original with Disney, Andrews and Van Dyke. However, director Rob Marshall of “Chicago” fame puts his theatre and film musical experience to superb use in making the movie distinct enough on its own yet still feel as homage to the original. The musical work by Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman also blends together with the visuals that honor the original work by the legendary Sherman Brothers; their compositions in turn were given nice instrumental cameos all throughout.

In conclusion, while it is definitely a tall order to ever top the film it spun off from, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a solid enough product to at the very least stand almost as an equal if subordinate position to its cinematic source. The visuals and music are familiar but not totally copy-pasted, and the cast certainly sell the characters’ very beings. Dipping more into the original PL Travers books was also welcome, and in a way makes to patch up for the known difficulties between author and filmmakers that cast a shadow over the first. Like the movie’s eventual climax song says, there is nowhere to go but up.

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Images: Paste Magazine and tumblr

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