This current trend of Disney revisiting their old classics has been a bit hit or miss for me. For every film as good as Pete’s Dragon or The Jungle Book, we get one as bad as Beauty and the Beast or Maleficent. With Mary Poppins Returns though, I had some higher hopes. Even though Rob Marshall directed the awful fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, he does have a strong musical pedigree as director and choreographer and a clear love of Mary Poppins, and I think that worked in its favour and its detriment. This is an entertaining film, but it doesn’t have the same impact or legacy that the first film does.
Taking place a few decades after the events of the first film, this film focuses on the now adult versions of Michael and Jane Banks, Michael in particular. Following the death of his wife, Michael has been in financial difficulty, with his children forced to grow up earlier as a result of this, with this difficulty ultimately leading to Michael being told that he will lose his house unless he repays his debts. At this time, Mary Poppins comes back into the lives of the Banks’ and starts looking after Michael’s children, teaching them how to be more childlike and providing help for Michael. Now whilst the plot may have some notable differences and is designed as a sequel, structurally, this is essentially a remake of the first film. That in and of itself is not a bad thing, the first Mary Poppins is a classic for a reason, but this film is focused more on the style of Mary Poppins rather than the substance. The first film was focused more on the character development of Mr Banks and him learning to appreciate his children and childhood in general. Here, the main goal is to allow Michael to come to terms with his grief over the death of his wife, but it doesn’t have the same personal power as the development of Mr Banks since the arc doesn’t seem to have a middle and doesn’t form the crux of the films plot and as such, the film doesn’t have a scene as powerful as when Mr Banks walks to the bank alone in the first film. Part of this is also due to the film having to follow modern convention and have an actual plot, rather than be focused on small vignettes for character development like the first film. With having a plot with a clear, identifiable villain and having features such as a chase scene and an action finale, it just doesn’t feel right to me for a Mary Poppins film to follow these tropes. To me, Mary Poppins was always more small and gentle, even in the fantastical elements, whilst here, even the fantastical elements need a plot specific reason to exist and, whilst it is entertaining and works for a modern kids film, it just didn’t feel like Mary Poppins to me.
The cast though is where the feeling of Mary Poppins started to return. Emily Blunt is excellent as Mary Poppins. She wisely doesn’t do her version of Mary Poppins as an impression of Julie Andrews but forms her own version of the character whilst still retaining the strong mix of playfulness and sternness that makes the character so entertaining. Lin Manuel Miranda meanwhile is a lot of fun with Jack, having a perfectly bad cockney accent and throwing himself into the musical numbers with gusto. Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks is a more tragic figure in this film, showing how hard he’s finding life without his wife and how much of a hole it has left in him, letting you understand the difficulties he’s facing. Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks meanwhile is fun and there is some interesting stuff with her as a labour organiser, but she isn’t utilised enough, the same being true for Julie Walters. Colin Firth meanwhile is playing his villain role a bit too over the top for my liking, whilst Meryl Streep is the right level of over the top, I don’t quite know how to describe it but Streep fits the tone of the film whilst Firth doesn’t quite fit it. There are also solid performances from Pixie Davis, Nathaniel Saleh and Joel Dawson as Michael’s Children, David Warner as Admiral Boom and it’s always nice to see Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury (even though it’s obvious her part was written for Julie Andrews).
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. Firstly the songs are a lot of fun. They aren’t as iconic as the songs in the first film but they are still a lot of fun, with Trip A Little Light Fantastic and A Cover is Not The Book being highlights, with influences from the Sherman Brothers and the music halls being seen throughout the film, and the songs playing to the strengths of the singers, aided by strong dance choreography. The animation sequence meanwhile is incredible, with it just being great to see beautiful hand drawn animation on the big screen again, with so much life and fun being seen through the animation, with the effects work used to mix the real actors with the animation being seemless. I also loved the costume design in that sequence, with little details to give the costumes a feel like they were painted rather than sewn together, those kinds of little details are the things I love and are what I wanted from Mary Poppins.
Overall, whilst this is nowhere near as good as the first film, Mary Poppins Returns is still a fun film, buoyed by an excellent cast and capturing the feel and tone of Mary Poppins. Whilst there are weaknesses in terms of the plot and the character development, these aren’t at the expense of the feel of Mary Poppins and I think that nailing the tone was the thing that needed to be done. It could have been a bit better, but this is still a lot of fun.
My Rating: 3.5/5