FILM REVIEW – MARY POPPINS RETURNS. With Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep, Emily Mortimer. Written by David Magee. Directed by Rob Marshall. Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action. 130 minutes.
Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone. “Mary Poppins” (1964) is a classic family film with an iconic performance by Julie Andrews, a memorable (if sugary) score, and a landmark sequence mixing live action and animation. Yet as the Disney studios have been mining their legacy features and turning them into live action films – with “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Lady and the Tramp” all scheduled for release next year – they’re stuck on “Mary Poppins.”
First came “Saving Mr. Banks,” a somewhat fictionalized version of how Walt Disney persuaded author P.L. Travers to let him have the film rights to her books, and now we have MARY POPPINS RETURNS which is less than a sequel than a muddled attempt to clone the elements of the original film. Children (and adults who haven’t seen the original in years) may find it entertaining, but anyone who knows the original can’t help but notice how desperately it tries to capture the magic.
It’s a number of years later and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is all grown up and employed at the bank where his father once worked. A widower, he has his hands full with financial problems and being a loving-but-not-very-attentive father to his two children. That’s when Mary Poppins arrives, and the casting of Emily Blunt may be the best thing about the movie. As did Andrews, Blunt conveys that Poppins may be fantastical, but is otherwise a no-nonsense nanny who expects who charges to toe the line even when having their adventures.
However, Lin-Manuel Miranda is no Dick Van Dyke, and his Jack, a lamplighter, grates with an overbearing performance that the filmmakers apparently intended to be endearing. As Banks tries to find papers that will allow him to keep him home against the evil plotting of his boss (Colin Firth), the children join Mary and Jack in variations of the key scenes from the 1964 film, including an utterly joyless animated sequence and Meryl Streep popping in this film’s variation of the Ed Wynn scene where his laughter caused him to float. In the case of Streep’s character Topsy, she periodically has to live life upside down.
It’s doubtful any of the songs will stick in your head the way “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialdocious,” “Chim Chim Cheree,” or “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” have. Indeed, the film’s attempt to recapture the kite flying finale with a scene where the characters float in the sky with balloons shows just how thin the efforts were to harness the original’s charms. One of the few moments that works – more as nostalgia than on the merits – is the appearance of Van Dyke, who turned 93 this month, as the senior executive of the bank, the son of the character he played with considerably more old age make-up back in 1964.
“Mary Poppins Returns” may provide some diversion for families during the holiday season, but it’s little more than a footnote to a classic movie.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.