Film Review: Mary Poppins Returns

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Words || Jennifer Khouw

Mary Poppins Returns is, in a word, charming. The sequel to the 1964 classic film oozes charm to the point of indulgence, but the result is a feel-good update to the franchise that remains loyal enough to the original to appease nostalgic fans, yet sufficiently refreshed to appeal to modern audiences.

The story follows the Banks children, Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), all grown-up and facing all the usual difficulties that growing-up entails. Michael now has a family of his own, with children John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Unsurprisingly, the plot, while entertaining, does not suffer from an overabundance of originality. The main conflict revolves around the desperate search for proof of bank shares that would save the Banks’ family home from repossession by the bank. Enter Mary Poppins, to reintroduce some magic into their lives.

Emily Blunt shines as the franchise’s eponymous heroine, a strict governess-type who dabbles in the supernatural. Blunt skilfully navigates Poppins’ eccentricities, throwing around quirky oxymorons (“everything is possible, even the impossible”) while balancing the character’s sternness with brief glimpses of a softer side to the no-nonsense nanny. However, Blunt is not the only highlight in the film’s lovable and surprisingly star-studded cast. Lin Manuel-Miranda brings an effortless enthusiasm to Jack the lamplighter, despite the character effectively reprising the role of a certain Cockney chimney sweep. The film’s numerous celebrity appearances, from Colin Firth as Michael’s boss, to Angela Lansbury as the Balloon Lady, to deux ex Dick van Dyke, can feel at times self-indulgent. Nonetheless, audiences are likely to enjoy seeing Meryl Streep as Poppins’ eccentric, ambiguously Eastern-European cousin Topsy, and Star Trek’s David Warner as a time-keeping admiral with a love of cannons.

However, no Disney musical would be complete without animation and talking animals. Poppins and the Banks children find themselves superimposed onto a hand-drawn cartoon world more than once, where they find anthropomorphised versions of familiar characters in hyper-saturated landscapes. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, but the effect is, as always, highly appealing to younger viewers.

No doubt the biggest challenge faced by the composers was how to reprise the film’s iconic music without sacrificing creativity. Mark Shaiman presents a score that, although virtually indistinguishable between songs, manages to extend the musical stylings of the original film, composed by Richard and Robert Sherman. The big-band, theatrical approach to the Oscar-nominated score felt not only reminiscent of its 1964 counterpart, but like a natural progression. Particular highlights include large chorus number ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’, featuring the film’s obligatory lengthy dance break, and the more heartfelt ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’, a touching ode to the younger Banks’ dearly departed mother. With lyrics co-written by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, ‘The Royal Doulton Music Hall’ features the kind of silly rhymes and made-up words most associated with the franchise that produced ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’, like “dilly dynamical, simply ceramical.” Nonsense, but nostalgic nonsense.

The harshest of critics may accuse Mary Poppins Returns of lacking substance, and to some extent this is true. The film shies away from any sort of social commentary, preferring instead safer, more universal messages like familial love, and the beauty of childlike wonder. Even the visuals of the film are highly romanticised, depicting a hyper-idealised version of Edwardian London, with the kind of gilded aesthetic impossible to find in the real world. However, such realism is antithetical to and, frankly, unnecessary for a feel-good Disney movie such as this. The entire franchise is an exercise in suspension of disbelief, but it is exactly in this way that the film achieves what it sets out to do: inspire a sense of magic and wonder in its audience, adults and children alike.