I’m having a hard time reconciling my thoughts on Mary Poppins Returns. This review has been two weeks in the making, with numerous starts and “delete everything!”s, and I’m at an impasse. Did I like the film? Well… I’m still working on that. This review is helping me suss out my feelings on this, so be prepared for a journey. Mostly, I find myself wondering: is Mary Poppins Returns a sequel, or a remake cut from almost entirely the same dress pattern?
Forget my feelings. Let’s look at the facts for a little bit. For the most part, Mary Poppins Returns hits all the same notes and beats as its predecessor, almost stealing wholesale visually with slight adjustments. Sound-alike songs which also replicate the vibe of their original counterparts are slotted in at approximately the same times, and none of them are as easily singable or memorable as those written by the Sherman Brothers. (Sorry, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.) Even director Rob Marshall demanded traditional, hand-drawn animation for the “park outing” sequence, thereby emulating the original’s “Jolly Holiday/Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” sequence to its fullest extent. There’s even a moment which straight-up gaffles the original “I Love To Laugh” scene, taking out every ounce of metaphor and hitting us over the head with a big dose of literalism.
Our characters? There’s trouble at 17 Cherry Tree Lane again, with The Bank coming for the Banks family. An adult Banks duo is still present, but not how you’d think; only bank teller Michael (Ben Whishaw) is parent to the story’s children, himself a widower, while his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) leads protests for equality. A cheerful male interloper runs around the city, aiding the Banks family wherever and whenever possible, with a song and a step always in his heart, sharing both with the Banks children at a moment when they get lost.
In the city.
Running away from their father.
At the bank.
In the dark.
Do you see where I’m going with this? With all these similarities, Mary Poppins Returns might have been titled Mary Poppins Ripped Off. Did writer David Magee honestly think we’d forget there was a movie released 54 years ago with better songs? So what possible reason – besides money, of course – justifies this film’s existence?
To help us remember kindness in a world where kindness is in crying shortage.
(Which is a little ironic, considering the tone of the paragraphs above.)
Look around while you’re in your car, you’ll probably see someone road raging at a light or on the highway because someone’s not going fast enough or because they have the wrong political sticker on their bumper. Go to a store, you’ll hear a customer ripping into an employee, trying to get whatever they can – a free product, a discount, the employee fired – just because they’re in a position to do so. Even in Disneyland, CA, you’ll find people whose view of others is so dehumanized, they’ll push others down and out of the way just so they can see a couple more seconds of Frozen’s Anna and Elsa in the daily parade.
For the 2 hours and 10 minutes of Mary Poppins Returns, we’re brought back to a place where the little things about humanity take center stage. The things we do to and for each other matter; regardless of what we say about how something’s “no problem” or that “it doesn’t affect me,” these things are sometimes big problems and are affecting. But finding the courage to express and deal with the problem – something the original also touched upon – takes some doing, and once again, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) is here to help.
Coping with loss has pushed this family askew; it’s parents who need to take care of their children, not the other way around. In trying to protect his three children from the pain of losing his wife, Michael seems to have detached from them, forgoing his work as an artist and resigning himself to a teller’s position at the same bank where his father was once an executive. However, because of the loss of his wife’s income as well, he’s in danger of losing 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the house in which he grew up and now lives with his kids. So, as she must, Mary Poppins wafts down on the East wind to take care of the Banks children – all five of them, Jane included.
Emily Blunt is a delight as Mary Poppins, trading Julie Andrews’ proper and cheery (yet sternly)-dispositioned froth for a more dry, sarcastic drawl. Her eyes are never unconfident and always-knowing, like she’s seen everything before and will handle it with the greatest of ease. We immediately place our trust in her, much as we do lamplighter Jack, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda sporting a lively Cockney accent. As Dick Van Dyke’s Bert-parallel in this go-round, Miranda lands squarely into his first co-starring role with characteristic aplomb, selling – and sometimes, overselling – Jack with copious amounts of charisma and charm.
Although the dress pattern may be the same, the theme of familial loss and grief gently permeates these proceedings, giving this film a more serious survival feel than a lighthearted musical. This time, everyone’s feeling the loss of their wife, mother, or sister-in-law, and it’s simultaneously splitting them apart and making them try to hold onto each other. Mary Poppins doesn’t have her work cut out for her like she did the last time around, but her job is not to take care of their issues with a snap of her fingers, like so many toys in the nursery. Her task is to help them cope, and no spoonful of sugar is going to help them get over their loss.
In taking the Banks family and putting them in a more relatable sphere than “rich banker, frivolous wife, and spoiled children” by giving them real-world fears and troubles, Mary Poppins Returns actually one-ups its iconic predecessor. Even Jack is shouldered with a single responsibility, not flitting about doing various odd jobs. It’s a more grounded, tangible experience elevated by the whimsy of Mary Poppins, kept down to earth by Michael and his children’s realistic worries, and buoyed by fantastic performances across the board. Dubious quality of the songs aside, there’s no denying Mary Poppins Returns is a treasure to be shared and enjoyed, hopefully to inspire kindness to reign in our hearts once again.