Thanks to the 2013 biographical film Saving Mr Banks, the story of Walt Disney's pursuit of Mary Poppins has become common knowledge. He had spent 20-years chasing P.L. Travers' for the filming rights, and as the 2013 film depicts, the theatrical adaptation differs greatly from the source material. Travers reluctantly gave her character over to Disney and he response to his film was less than enthusiastic. She swore to never grant permission for a sequel, which is a pledge she kept with her to the grave. It has been 54-years since that classic film and we finally have the long-awaited follow up. And what a treat it is.
Disney's recent spate of live-action adaptations have mostly been wonderful, however their commitment to remaking classic films gave cause for concern that the new Mary Poppins would be a remake. Thank God it's not, and fans can breathe a sigh of relief as MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a faithful, sincere and joyous continuation of the story, picking up 25-years later. Jane and Michael Banks are now adults dealing with exceptionally difficult times. Michael's wife has recently passed away, leaving him to raise three children as he faces financial ruin. The bank is foreclosing on his family house and he struggles to put on a brave face for his kids. Jane, taking after her mother, is a single woman fighting for workers rights and takes time out to help her desperate brother.
When gale-force winds stir late one afternoon, the clouds in the sky part and Mary Poppins arrives from the sky. She has returned to help the Banks children once again and we (the audience) are swept away on a very familiar adventure that will warm the hearts of long-serving fans while dazzling newcomers to the story. Suffice to say that MARY POPPINS RETURNS is as good, if not better, than such a sequel could possibly be, and it achieves its success without rehashing old songs.
The narrative does, however, adhere to a comparable structure to the original, with the story following the same marker-points and emotional cues. The old songs are replaced with new songs and the film's composition is more or less the same. This might read as a criticism, but my reaction is to the contrary. It's this familiarity with the story that gives it a nostalgic and emotional core, and with entirely new songs and all new adventures the film is a true sequel that is original and comforting.
Emily Blunt steps in to Julie Andrews' very big shoes and brings Mary Poppins back to life with a perfectly measured amount of tenderness and vanity. She assumes the character without impersonation, and her portrayal has a greater sense of cheekiness than previously suggested. While this quality may stray even further from how Travers' wrote her to be, it benefits the new film immensely. As she whisks the children away on spectacular adventures she relishes every moment with a smile that lights up the screen, revealing her inner-child. This is a trait that would not have worked in the original film, but most certainly does now.
Broadway superstar Lin-Maniuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton) makes his feature-film debut as Jack - the former apprentice of his uncle Bert (Dick Van Dyke) – a lamplighter whose memories of Mary Poppins includes the classic Step-in-Time routine. Miranda is an odd choice to take on such a raggedy cockney character and I was worried that he'd been miscast at first. Thankfully his musical affinity becomes blatantly apparent and he helps guide the story affectionally.
The supporting cast includes Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Paddington) as Michael, Emily Mortimer (Hugo, The Bookshop) as Jane and Julie Waters (Educating Rita, Mamma Mia) as Ellen the long-serving housekeeper (previously played by Hermoine Baddeley). They are all wonderfully cast and present their characters as believable older versions of their former selves. Whishaw is particularly excellent as the grieving father whose devotion to family is unwavering. He gives a truly heartfelt performance, which reflects that of David Tomlinson from the original film. Much like Tomlinson's character did, Whishaw serves as the fundamental heart of the story, which sees him fall into the depths of despair before rising up to overcome adversity. It is a tender turn that strikes an emotional chord.
The rest of the cast is comprised of an ensemble including Colin Firth, David Warner, Meryl Streep and Dick Van Dyke. They make up a fitting line-up of cameos which reflect those of the 1964 film. They each have their place and fit in with the overall aesthetic. An added delight is the addition of Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final act. Her character is lifted straight out of the books and is a lovely adage to the company of players. Keen observers might also catch brief glimpses of the original Jane (Karen Dortice) and Chris O'Dowd in fleeting cameos.
And then there is the music. The surprisingly outstanding lineup of songs that dare to recapture the magic of the original Sherman Brother's genius. Of course the new musical numbers don't even come close to surpassing those bonafide classics, BUT they damn well try. Those original Sherman tunes have had 50-years to infect us and so we enter into MARY POPPINS RETURNS with those songs in our DNA. Therefore it's an astonishing fete for legendary composer Marc Shaiman to have captured the essence of those former numbers in his all new original tunes. They possess all of the qualities that we know and they elevate the film immensely. And if today's fast-paced movie-going culture wasn't so ravenous, there would be every chance of his work being as iconic 50-years from now. Standout numbers include The Place Where the Lost Things Go, Nowhere to Go But Up and Trip A Little Light Fantastic... and it would be remiss of me to forget 'A Conversation' a song, which is beautifully performed by Whishaw and tugs at the heart-strings.
So yeah, MARY POPPINS RETURNS is wonderful. And sure, this comes from a tragic fan who can recite the original film verbatim. But surely it means something when my love for Mary Poppins should qualify me as the perfect cynic. This film could have done a lot of damage to Disney and Travers' brand, but thank heavens it doesn't. Rob Marshall (Chicago, In To The Woods) has delivered an exceptional family film full of joy and warmth, and recaptures so much of the magic from all those years ago. What a delight!