Personally, it’s a little hard to emphasize just how big MARY POPPINS was when first released in 1964, considering that it was nearly 25 years before yours truly was even born. Not only was it a striking box office success, the film went on to receive many accolades, including Best Picture nominations as well as Best Actress wins at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards for star Julie Andrews. Today, it is considered Walt Disney (the man)’s crowning achievement, and by far his most successful live-action film during his lifetime. His journey in getting MARY POPPINS made has its own film – 2013’s SAVING MR. BANKS, and both that film, along with author P.L. Travers’ own accounts, painted a very forbidding picture as to whether we would see the character of Mary Poppins on the big screen ever again. After disapproving highly of the original film, and feeling betrayed by Disney, Travers even went as far as to include in her will that she would not allow any further American adaptations of her work. Disney would approach Travers in the years since with ideas for a possible sequel, only for all of them to be rejected. It wasn’t until 2015 that a sequel – with approval from Travers’ estate – was finally greenlit; and now, 54 years after the original film’s debut, Mary Poppins is back!
In 1935 London, in the midst of the Depression Era, Michael Banks (played by Ben Whishaw) currently occupies the familiar Banks residence at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with his three children – Annabel (played by Pixie Davies), John (played by Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (played by Joel Dawson) – and his housekeeper, Ellen (played by Julie Walters). However, Michael has fallen behind on repayments for a loan he took out against the house to care for his ailing wife, who has since passed away. Now, he has five days to pay back the entire loan or face foreclosure and eviction. Michael, at the end of his wits, remembers that his father, George Banks, left him and his sister Jane (played by Emily Mortimer) shares in Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, and enlists her help in locating the certificate of ownership; these shares would produce enough money to pay back the loan and save the Banks home. Unable to find the certificate, and with hope seemingly lost – a familiar face descends from the clouds and into 17 Cherry Tree Lane – it’s Mary Poppins!
The filmmakers – director Rob Marshall (of INTO THE WOODS fame) in particular – had quite the task on their hands; how does one go about creating a new MARY POPPINS story while still remaining faithful in both style and tone to its classic predecessor? Drawing obvious inspiration from the final set of Travers’ novels, Marshall, along with story developers David Magee (who also wrote the screenplay) and John DeLuca (who served as producer with Marshall and Marc Platt), cultivated a film that both amusingly and realistically progresses the story forward while staying true to the tropes and nostalgia of the original MARY POPPINS – the colorful characters, the outlandish set pieces, the memorable music and songs, the vibrantly-animated sequences and especially, Mary Poppins herself.
Emily Blunt is absolutely amazing as the titular character. Having grown quite accustomed to Julie Andrews’ iconic performance for so many years, I wondered if Blunt would be able to not only do the character justice, but bring some of her own flair and create something fresh. She accomplished just that; as a result, we have a very award-worthy performance that managed to keep me convinced, from her first syllable to her last, yeah, that’s Mary Poppins. It’s no wonder that Blunt was director Marshall’s first and only choice for the role.
Not to be outshined, Lin-Manuel Miranda brings in a phenomenal performance as Jack the Lamplighter – the “Bert” of this film, although with a clearly more believable Cockney accent that than of his predecessor, Dick Van Dyke (who is also in this film, by the way). Miranda is already renowned for his work on HAMILTON, and has already branched out into other forms of entertainment, with MARY POPPINS RETURNS being his feature film debut in a leading role. His versatility as a performer is on full display here, on one hand showcasing his charm and remarkable screen presence opposite both Blunt’s Mary Poppins and Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, and on the other hand, showcasing his goofy side while singing and dancing with the best of them. Special recognition should also go to Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks, a man on the verge of ruin who remembers through Mary Poppins’ reemergence that he has the strength to weather any storm as long as he has family by his side. Whishaw delivers a strong performance that gives the audience its character to get invested in and root for, with satisfying emotional results. The aforementioned Mortimer and Van Dyke, along with Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, and Meryl Streep, round out the supporting cast.
The hallmarks of a MARY POPPINS film – the songs and the animation – are present here, and these aspects are another triumph for Marshall and his team. The director noted at a recent Q&A that the entire 15-minute animated sequence featured in the film took over a year to complete, as all of the animation was hand-drawn – an old school novelty that remains faithful to the original film’s aesthetic, evoking just the right amount of nostalgia. The music, composed by Marc Shaiman with songs written by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is another source of nostalgia, giving the audience auditory cues that recall some of the classic MARY POPPINS songs while also creating new soon-to-be classics that capture the essence of the character and the world around her (my personal favorites of the new songs are “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” sung by Emily Blunt, and “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky,” sung by Lin-Manuel Miranda). During the aforementioned Q&A, Marshall revealed that he and his team decided on saving most of the audio cues for the end, where he believed said cues would’ve felt earned by the film at that point. The exception to this is one specific cue – when Mary Poppins first arrives back at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, a snippet of “A Spoonful of Sugar” ushers in her arrival; this was done purposely by Marshall, since that was the song – and by extension, the character of Mary Poppins – that Michael and Jane remember her as. It’s clear that a lot of effort was put into the film’s music, and strategically placing the right amount of nostalgia for the right amount of emotional payoff; quite the achievement, I must say.
The original MARY POPPINS film has stood the test of time for over 50 years as one of the standard bearers for a musical. MARY POPPINS RETURNS successfully takes the old formula and adds its own take, balancing nostalgia with freshness, for an unbeatable combination. Both Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda knock their performances out of the park, and I expect to hear their names a lot more often in the next couple of months as awards season gets underway. The music and songs in this film are absolutely stellar, and the soundtrack is a must-own. But most of all, like Rob Marshall and John DeLuca have alluded to in interviews, Mary Poppins came back at just the right time. With the current state of the world, a film like this is the spoonful of sugar that much of the movie-going public needs at the moment, providing the perfect escape – even if it’s only for a short time. But most of all, like Mary Poppins tries to remind Michael, the film has one lasting lesson for all of us: while it’s inevitable that we all must grow up, we must never allow that flame of child-like wonder that lives within to be extinguished. MARY POPPINS RETURNS provides the perfect kindling to make sure that flame lives on in all of us. Highly Recommended.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
2018 • 130 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Walt Disney Studios
Cast: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke