Disney is in an interesting place at the moment. While their much-beloved animated features are fresher and more inventive than ever, pushing their studio’s narratives and themes forward, their live-action slate is more or less being dictated by its past. The live-action remakes of their animated back-catalogue seem to be popping up left and right, and now Disney has reached 54 years into their past to deliver a sequel to arguably the most beloved Disney movie of all time, Mary Poppins.
That’s certainly means that Mary Poppins Returns has some pretty big shoes to fill. The film itself seems largely aware of this, and follows much of the same path as its classic predecessor to such a degree that it can sometimes feel more like an echo of Mary Poppins as opposed to a sequel. This of course means that Mary Poppins Returns is an incredibly familiar film (and thus not quite “practically perfect in every way” like its forebear), but still provides an undeniable good time. Perhaps most impressively, Mary Poppins Returns displays a sense of whimsy without once feeling the need to give a wink to the camera about it which, in this cynical day and age, can feel like a godsend.
Mary Poppins Returns is set twenty-five years after the original. The Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael is recently widowed, and lives in his childhood home with his three children; Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Sales) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Jane has moved in with Michael in his time of need, and soon learns that Michael took a loan from the bank to pay for his late wife’s medical expenses, a loan that will cost him his home if he can’t pay it back by the end of the week.
Soon thereafter, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) quite literally blows into town, and immediately resumes her duties as the nanny of the Banks family. Though Michael and Jane are in awe of Mary’s apparent lack of aging, they have long since written off the magical adventures they once had with the nanny as their childhood imaginations running wild. But together with a lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) – an apprentice of the first film’s Bert the chimney sweep – the younger generation of Banks children learn there’s more to Mary Poppins than meets the eye.
It’s a simple and charming plot that, as stated, can feel like something of a cover version of the original 1964 film. There are many fun sights to see, whimsical scenarios take place, and a good number of songs throughout. It’s all well and good, but each sight, scenario and song seems to reflect those of the original film a little too closely, right down to when they each take place within the film. Returns’ most captivating scene – in which the live actors are joined by hand-drawn animated characters, feels like a remixed version of the similar sequence from the first movie, and even takes place around the same time within the plot. And when it’s time to recreate the scene where Bert was joined by his fellow chimneysweeps for a good song and dance number, we get Jack and is fellow lamplighters doing more or less the same thing.
Mary Poppins Returns plays things safe then, and can feel like it suffers a bit of what I like to call “Home Alone 2 syndrome” (that is to say, it’s a sequel that plays out just like the original). But unlike most sequels which seem to mimic their predecessor as a means for a quick cash-grab, Mary Poppins Returns instead seems intimidated by its predecessor’s reputation, and doesn’t want to tamper with what isn’t broken. It’s a considerable bit more respectable than most other such sequels due to that reverence for its predecessor, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this may have been a better sequel if it were willing to be more of its own movie.
Still, as overly familiar as it may be at times, Mary Poppins Returns is nonetheless an undeniable charmer. It’s great to see a movie in this day and age where fantastic occurrences can just happen without needlessly being explained or attempted to be rationalized. Today’s audiences seem to have goaded movies to try to make sense of everything, no matter how fantastic the material. So to see Mary Poppins fly down to London on a kite, travel to an undersea world via bathtub, and transport herself and company to the hand-drawn world of a painting on the side of a bowl without explanation is kind of beautiful.
Although the aforementioned songs may play into the film’s familiarity in terms of their placement and tone, in terms of lyrics and melody they stand on their own two feet (the film wisely goes against trying to recreate Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which just couldn’t be done). The songs are fun and catchy, and really help the film’s enjoyment factor.
Another highlight of the film is Mary Poppins herself. Emily Blunt puts a nice spin on the character, playing her as more brash and curt than Julie Andrews did in the original. There’s just something appealing about the Mary Poppins character. She seems to work within her own world of childlike logic (with her ‘things can happen because magic’ mentality), yet has a number of adult character traits (arrogance, somewhat condescending, and a little bit of a smartass), putting her in a unique archetype that you really don’t see much of. And Emily Blunt brings out the best in it.
On one hand, Mary Poppins Returns is a welcome and refreshing type of movie for today’s audiences: one which is only cynical towards cynicism itself. It’s a whole lot of fun, and can even feel magical at times. But on the other hand, it accomplishes these feats by more or less being a mirror image of the iconic 1964 film. In a lot of ways, I’d say Mary Poppins Returns is a great movie. But because of its similarities to the original, it’s greatness may simply be a testament to just how great the original was.
It would have been exceedingly difficult for Mary Poppins Returns to ever become as iconic as the original Mary Poppins. But it does do a great job at echoing just how special Mary Poppins and her world are.