Taking on the role of reviving one of the biggest Disney movies of all time is no easy feat. When I first heard about this, it sounded like a cheap cash grab to give the House of Mouse some holiday moolah while there is no Star Wars to cash in on. Casting Emily Blunt as the title character and Rob Marshall in the director’s chair did start to make it more appealing. As production went on and we found out the Dick Van Dyke was not only returning, but gave the movie his blessing, the hype train had reached fever point. So did all of this pay off? In a sense yes, Mary Poppins Returns successfully recaptures the magic of the original film, while offering a new generation a bunch of new songs and memories to grow up with. Blunt is flawless in her version of the character and while the child actors do leave much to be desired, their abilities do grow on you as the movie goes on.
Set in the Great Depression in Britain in the 1930’s Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up now with children of their own. They still live in the same house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane and after a series of mishaps must find a way to repay a loan taken against the house or risk losing it. This goes in hand in hand with Michael grieving the recent loss of his wife and being widowed with three children. Jane is single and every bit the advocate that her mother was. When things hit fever pitch, Mary Poppins comes back to help put the family back together again and show Georgie, Annabel and John the meaning of family.
Going into this I was so sceptical if this movie would utterly destroy the source material, and I am happy to say that as a fan of the book series as well, this version of Mary Poppins is much more faithful to the books than the original film. There are storylines and characters from the books littered all through this film and the stern but adventurous, vain and cheeky version of Poppins was a welcome course correction for the character. Blunt has put her all into this film, even her vocals are incredible and soar through each number. In particular the ballad “Lost Things Go” is a beautiful ballad and deserves higher praise for its strong message and is one of the highlights of the film. Blunt’s accent is reminiscent of the time and carries into song seamlessly. Blunt’s version is a lot more sterner than Andrews and while this is the case, she often gives the audience a wink and a smile so you know she is just having her fun. What did surprise me was the lack of recognition and relationship between Mary Poppins and Jane and Michael. For someone that had such a lasting impression on their childhood, they didn’t get many scenes together to reminisce or catch up which seemed a little out of place. It may have been in the original cut, although this film already clocks in at 2 hours which is quite long for a children’s film.
The film tells us that Bert, originally played by Dick Van Dyke is off travelling the world, instead we are lumped with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who plays pretty much the exact same character except he is a lamp lighter instead of a chimney sweep. He ever does a song and dance number aka chim chimney but it does come off as kind of second rate. Miranda may be the “IT” boy of Broadway right now, writing hits like “Hamilton” regrettably he just didn’t do it for me in this role. He seemed a bit out of his depth and the forced relationship between him and Jane came off as tawdry. Other new additions see Julie Walter as the housekeeper Ellen, it is hard to see Walters take a step wrong and she does shine in this role. Meryl Streep shows up as Topsy, she has an interesting song and dance number and her story arc feels a little out of place. It felt like the only reason she was there because she is Meryl Streep. The song also didn’t do her any favours, it wasn’t anything exciting and could easily cut the movie by 10 minutes. Dick Van Dyke makes an appearance as the owner of the bank and is truly the highlight of the film. There are some great nods to the original film through his dialogue and it was a great way for the film to finish.
One of the high points of the film is its music, this is a true movie musical and the songs composed by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) Every song (minus Streeps!) is carefully worded and crafted to compliment each part of the story. These songs will haunt you for days and weeks after you have seen the film and really does boost its rewatchability. From the undersea adventure of Can You Imagine That to the beautiful throwback animation scene of A Cover Is Not The Book and the wonderfully camp Trip A Little Light Fantastic, all play together to deliver a solidly beautiful soundtrack. There is a scene in which Georgie sings Where The Lost Things Go and I challenge you not to cry hysterically, this is the point where the children’s performances really picked up and continued for the duration of the film.
All the magic that we loved about the original Mary Poppins is here, the fun, the whimsy, the music and the British quirks are all on display in this version. It is helped by outstanding performances from Blunt leading the rest of the cast into a successful next chapter in the Mary Poppins story. Having Dick Van Dyke as a guest appearance was genius and he is every bit just as good as he was in the original. Seeing that sparkle in his classic blue eyes as he jumps onto the table for his song and dance number brought so much joy and happiness. Mary Poppins Returns successfully reawakens the child within and brings those memories of the first film flying back. While Blunt is a different version compared to Julie Andrews, there is no comparison, they are different interpretations and we are all the better for witnessing both. Mary Poppins Returns is a triumphant next chapter in the film series and is definitely worth your cinema dollars. It has made such an impression that it is number 10 on our top 10 films of 2018 list and will start in Australian cinemas January 1st.
Review by Alaisdair “Leithal” Leith