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Josh Reviews Mary Poppins Returns

Set twenty-five years after the original Mary Poppins, the new film Mary Poppins Returns picks up the story of the Banks children, Jane and Michael, now all grown up.  Michael has three children, but his wife has recently passed away.  Jane has basically moved in with him, but still they are having trouble raising the kids and making enough money to make ends meet.  As the film opens, we learn that the bank is about to repossess their family home.  And so the time is ripe for the return of Mary Poppins, who reappears to help bring life and love back to the Banks family.

It requires a certain amount of chutzpah to make a sequel to a film as beloved and iconic as Mary Poppins.  (With 54 years having passed since the release of the original film, is this the longest gap between sequels in film history?)  When I first heard of plans for this sequel, it seemed like a pure cash grab.  I’m impressed, though, by the skill and love that has gone into the making of this new film.  It has elements that work and elements that don’t, but it seems to have been made by people, on both sides of the camera, who wanted to respect and honor the original film.

The best part of this new film is Emily Blunt’s absolutely perfect (in every way) performance as Mary Poppins.  This film would have crashed and burned if they had not been able to find someone who could successfully step into Julie Andrew’s iconic shoes.  Being able to recreate this memorable character while also allowing her to live and breathe again as a true character allowed to be new and different, rather than just a slavish imitation, is a fiendishly difficult task.  Ms. Blunt makes it look effortless.  (I am sure it was the opposite!)  I have been a fan of Ms. Blunt’s ever since Charlie Wilson’s War, and she has been extraordinary in film after film since then (Edge of Tomorrow, The Five-Year Engagement, Looper, Sicario). This might be her toughest role and her greatest accomplishment.  Her singing voice is gorgeous, and she beautifully carries a number of new songs in the film.  More importantly, she captures Mary Poppins’ dignity and her humor, her sternness and the ever-present twinkle in her eye.

I was excited to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work in the film.  I thought it was ingenious to cast him to step into a similar character-type as that so memorably portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the original film.  Mr. Miranda plays Jack, a London lamplighter and former apprentice of the chimney-sweep Bert played by Mr. Van Dyke in the first Mary Poppins.  Mr. Miranda is a powerful, joyous on-screen presence, though I found his cockney accent to be a bit silly.  (No sillier than Mr. Van Dyke’s similar accent in the original film, but that’s one piece of Hollywood fakery that, to me, felt out of place in this 2018 film.)  Thankfully, the film gives Mr. Miranda several terrific songs.  I particularly enjoyed “A Cover is Not the Book”.

Ben Wishaw (Cloud Atlas, and he played Q in Skyfall and Spectre) is terrific as the grown-up Michael Banks.  He brings a lot of heartfelt emotion to this sad, lost widower.  (There’s some true sadness and pathos in this character, which is somewhat surprising for this all-ages family film.)  Emily Mortimer (Our Idiot Brother, Hugo)’s Jane isn’t given quite as much depth, but I rather enjoyed Ms. Mortimer’s portrayal of Jane’s appealing, cheerful daffiness.  The great Julie Walters is a lot of fun as the Banks’ loyal, somewhat bumbling housekeeper Ellen.  I wish she had more to do in the film!  (Once Mary Poppins arrives, Ellen becomes a bit extraneous.)

Meryl Streep is terrific as Mary Poppins’ cousin, Topsy.  She’s very funny, and her song, “Turning Turtle”, is one of my favorites in the film.  (It’s a nice parallel to the “I love to laugh” song in the original film.)  This is one of the film’s standout sequences.

The other, by the way, is the terrific animated sequence in which Mary Poppins, Jack, and the Banks kids venture inside of the china bowl that was on the mantle in the kids’ room.  The original Mary Poppins also had a fun animated sequence.  I love that they decided to include animation in this sequel, and this extended sequence was the high-point of the film for me.  The animation was gorgeous, the character-design was classic, and the song was great.

Colin Firth was great as the villainous bank-owner.  (I wish they’d given him a song!)  I was thrilled to see the always-terrific David Warner (so great as Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) taking over the role of Admiral Boom.  (I am glad they included this bonkers character in the sequel.)  I was also very happy to see Dick Van Dyke included in this sequel.  They cleverly hold his return until the very end of the film, where he pops up as Mr. Dawes, Jr., the elderly uncle of Colin Firth’s character.  This is a clever bit of casting, as Mr. Van Dyke had played this character’s father in the original film.  (Did anyone other than me think Mr. Van Dyke eerily resembled Darryl Hammond??)  I was also surprised and delighted to see Angela Lansbury (and to get to hear her sing!) at the end of the film, as the balloon lady.  That was wonderful.

Marc Shaiman wrote the score, and co-wrote the song lyrics with Scott Wittman.  (Mr. Shaiman has created many memorable scores, for films including Broadcast News, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, A Few Good Men, The American President, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and Team America: World Police.)  The songs are enjoyable, but this is probably the area in which Mary Poppins Returns most falters, as I don’t think any of these new songs are nearly as memorable as most of the songs in the original.

While the songs are so-so, I was impressed by the dance choreography for all of the musical numbers.  There was a lot of very fun, inventive movement in all of those sequences.

Director Rob Marshall should be commended for pulling this project together.  Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t come too close to the iconic original film, but it’s fun and entertaining and, when judged on it’s own and not in comparison to the beloved original Mary Poppins, a high-quality new musical film.  It doesn’t disrespect or dishonor the original, and actually serves as a lovely companion piece to it.  I’m impressed.

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