'Mary Poppins Returns': Film Review

Practically perfect.
12/19/2018

Emily Blunt steps into the sensible shoes of the magical nanny immortalized by Julie Andrews, with Lin-Manuel Miranda inheriting the mantle of Dick Van Dyke in Rob Marshall's sequel to the 1964 Disney classic.

Belated Hollywood sequels have sunk more often than soared in recent years, but Disney shrugs off those odds with Mary Poppins Returns, an enchanting movie musical that picks up the threads of the studio's cherished original more than half a century after its 1964 release. Sticking close to the enduring classic's template while injecting plenty of freshness to give the follow-up its own distinct repro vitality, this lovingly crafted production delivers both nostalgia and novelty. Ideally cast from top to toe, and graced by tuneful songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that genuflect to the invaluable contributions of the Sherman Brothers on Mary Poppins, this is a charmer only cynics could resist.

Director Rob Marshall has been sharpening his screen musical bona fides for the better part of two decades, scoring popular hits with Chicago and Into the Woods, and one miss with Nine, a hollow star parade Weinsteined to within an inch of its life. That range of experience, plus Marshall's background as a stage performer, choreographer and director, pays off on his first original musical conceived for the screen, yielding arguably his most accomplished film to date.

Whether it's exploding into large-scale production numbers or closing in on intimate scenes of a family in crisis, the sequel captivates by adopting a time-honored Disney formula that combines the joy and imagination of childhood with an underlay of melancholy. Its old-fashioned, honest sentimentality plasters a smile across your face and plants a tear in your eye, often simultaneously. All that should make this a winning family entry for the holidays and a repeat-viewing favorite for years to come. At 130 minutes, it might be a tad too long to stop the littlest kids from fidgeting, but then Mary Poppins was even longer, and that never hurt its popularity.

In a classy touch that provides early evidence of how seriously the creative team takes the heritage of their source material, the opening titles unspool over oil paintings of London inspired by the work of celebrated Disney artist Peter Ellenshaw. But there's as much here to engage young audiences unfamiliar with the property's history as old-timers for whom it holds a special place among childhood memories.

Marshall reteams with cinematographer Dion Beebe, a frequent collaborator, to give Mary Poppins Returns a sumptuous widescreen sheen, but the most indispensable craft contributions come from production designer John Myhre and costumer Sandy Powell. The elegant integration of physical London locations with studio sets and CG elements allows for bustling markets and cobblestone streets cloaked in fog — the setting is the pre-war 1930s, during the period the Brits referred to as "The Great Slump." And naturally, there are vibrant fantasy detours like a deep-sea bathtime frolic or an excursion into the park — one of many sequences that directly echo the earlier film — in which the flesh-and-blood characters are immersed in the gorgeous pastels of a hand-drawn, 2D animated world with talking animals.

The bold use of a full crayon box of colors continues in Powell's character-enhancing costumes. Her closest reference to the original Mary Poppins is the bright blue overcoat and traveling hat in which the enigmatic, ageless nanny descends from the sky, hitching her umbrella onto a familiar runaway kite and alighting on Cherry Tree Lane as if she's simply stepping off a bus.

That entrance establishes Emily Blunt right off the bat as a worthy successor to Julie Andrews. With her crisp diction, ramrod-straight posture and no-nonsense air, she swiftly dismisses the gawping stares and bewildered questions of her former charges, the now-grown-up Banks siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). There's preening vanity beneath Blunt's bossiness, but also unmistakable warmth as she marshals recently widowed Michael's three children — precocious twins John and Annabel (Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies) and their more impressionable younger brother Georgie (Joel Dawson) — with brisk commands like "Pish-posh," "Spit-spot" or "Jiggety-jog."

As in the earlier film and the P.L. Travers stories that inspired them both, Mary Poppins blows in to tend to the Banks children in a time of need. In 1964, it was the shortage of love from their workaholic father; here, it's the more painful absence of their late mother. Screenwriter David Magee, working from a story he developed with Marshall and John DeLuca, deftly lays out the emotional foundations by showing not only the children's yearning, but even more acutely, the inconsolable loss felt by Michael. This is expressed in a lovely soliloquy called "A Conversation," talk-sung by Whishaw with heartfelt feeling and glistening eyes.

Michael's grief has left him so incapable of contemplating parenting or household concerns that he's fallen behind on loan repayments. The home so filled with memories is now under threat of repossession by the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where he took a job after being unable to make a living as an artist. That venerable financial institution, designed by Myhre as a stuffy temple of capitalist industry, is run by William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), a duplicitous fiend who cares more about stacking up foreclosures than he does about his customers. Michael's only hope is the Fidelity shares his father left to him and Jane, if only they could find the missing certificate.

The risk of a family being turfed out of its beloved home has the potential to turn a story gloomy, but there's a lightness of touch as the adventures of Mary Poppins and the children gradually converge with the efforts of Michael and Jane to locate proof of the shares in time. The enterprising nature of the children, who spot Wilkins' villainy way ahead of their father, gives the film shades of the Harry Potter franchise, as does a plot element about stopping time. But the key ingredient that makes it so disarming is the discreet way Mary Poppins wears her angel's wings. By subtly steering them in the right direction, she helps the Bankses to rescue themselves. Blunt gets the character's very English mix of arch knowingness and stern reserve exactly right, along with the balance of sweetness and tart-tongued superiority. Her performance is a delight.

Mary Poppins is aided at every step by her old friend Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a sunny chap who lights and extinguishes the streetlamps at the beginning and end of each day, and was once apprenticed to chimney sweep Bert. Jack's role as the spiritual heir to that Dick Van Dyke character (with a slightly more convincing Cockney accent) is clear from his opening number, "Underneath the Lovely London Sky," which sets the scene with a vivid sense of place and a dash of everyday magic. Miranda was the casting wild card here, but the Hamilton creator is a snug fit, bringing a pleasingly gentle manner and a twinkle in his eye that make him just as beguiled by Mary Poppins' mad skills as the children.

Miranda leads the movie's splashy centerpiece number, a direct counterpart to Bert's rooftop "Step in Time" called "Trip a Little Light Fantastic," performed with a large chorus of Jack's fellow lamplighters on bicycles, wielding the ladders they use on the job. Marshall, who also choreographed the film with DeLuca, nods back not just to vintage Disney here, but also to the MGM movie musical in the number's exuberant build of layer upon intricate layer of dance moves.

The other showstopper occurs during the animated park jaunt, when Mary and Jack take to the stage of an English music hall. Blunt's voice transforms from terribly proper to East End London as they perform "A Cover Is Not the Book," a lively ditty laced with mildly saucy innuendo. Jack's burst of proto-rap is a witty touch, making winking acknowledgement of Miranda's fame without bumping the song out of period. And the ingenious Powell's stage costumes for the pair, bowler-hatted ensembles in iridescent pinks and purples, are dazzling.

Meryl Streep makes the most of her big, buoyant musical moment as Cousin Topsy, a flame-haired fix-it woman of indeterminate Eastern European origin, who is a neat match for the first film's Uncle Albert. Where uncontrollable laughter made him float to the ceiling, Topsy's gravity issues are determined by a quirk of her repair shop. That gives rise to "Turning Turtle," a giddy Russian-flavored polka that provides the hilarious spectacle of Streep shimmying around an inverted chandelier.

Shaiman's lush underscoring enriches the movie throughout, and his songs with co-lyricist Wittman are their best since Hairspray, full of personality and humor, and reverential without being slavish in their adherence to the musical patterns of the first film. Even the raucous "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" has an equivalent here: "The Royal Doulton Bowl," full of "marvelous, mystical, rather sophistical" wordplay. There's no song as memorably poignant as "Feed the Birds," but "The Place Where Lost Things Go," sung by Mary and later reprised by the children, is a tender lullaby that conveys the film's underlying sorrow with a comforting message of hope.

Alongside Blunt and Miranda, who carry the movie with effortless charisma, Whishaw merits special mention for a tremendously moving performance as a broken man slowly learning to live again. Mortimer has less to do, but she brings an appealing softness to the very grounded Jane, providing connective tissue with her late suffragette mother through her involvement with labor unions and soup kitchens. (A little more of that social context might not have been amiss.) There's also a touchingly understated incipient romance between Jane and Jack. Rounding out the principal characters, the performances of the three children are exemplary.

Julie Walters is amusing as the Banks' long-serving, dotty housekeeper. Likewise David Warner and Jim Norton as a retired naval officer and his first mate, eccentric Cherry Tree Lane neighbors carried over from the first film. Firth is suitably dastardly, flanked by good cop/bad cop legal henchmen played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Jeremy Swift.

Finally, fans of the original movie will warm to a sprightly extended cameo from Van Dyke late in the action, with a little two-step, no less, while the irreplaceable Angela Lansbury brings her singular grace, wisdom and compassion to the small but significant role of the Balloon Lady. She leads a full ensemble number called "Nowhere to Go but Up," a paean to the wonders of childhood at any age, and an apt closing note for this thoroughly entertaining treat of a movie.

Production companies: Lucamar, Marc Platt
Distributor: Disney

Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Jim Norton, Noma Dumezweni
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: David Magee
Screen story: David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, based on the Mary Poppins stories by P. L. Travers
Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt
Executive producer: Callum McDougall
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: John Myhre
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Songs: Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Music: Marc Shaiman
Editor: Wyatt Smith
Visual effects supervisor: Matt Johnson
Animation sequence supervisor: Jim Capobianco
Executive music producer: Mike Higham
Music supervisors: Mike Higham, Paul Gemignani
Choreographers: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield

Rated PG, 130 minutes