Mary Poppins is one of Disney’s best live-action musicals. It jump-started the film career of Julie Andrews and provided audiences with some of the best known Disney songs. With that in mind, how does one make a sequel to such a classic, beloved film? According to Rob Marshall (director of Mary Poppins Returns) and David Magee (writer of Mary Poppins Returns), the best way to make a sequel is to essentially remake the original film, using a similar (but less interesting) plot and far less memorable songs.
In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane and Michael Banks, along with Michael’s three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins following a personal loss. Through her unique magical skills, and with the aid of her friend Jack, she helps the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.
On paper, I’m not against a sequel to Mary Poppins. After all, there were something like eight books in the series written by P.L. Travers, so there’s quite a bit of precedent for new Mary Poppins adventures. The problem lies in how this film decided to go about telling those new adventures. Essentially, it didn’t bother to actually tell a new adventure. Mary Poppins Returns is, more or less, a beat-for-beat remake of the original. Yes, this one features Michael (Ben Wishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) grown up, with Michael a new widower left to raise his three kids after the death of his wife. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) arrives shortly after Michael receives notice from the bank that his house is going to be foreclosed. Mary Poppins takes the Banks children on a bunch of adventures, leading them to try to save their family from the bank, inadvertently upsetting their father in the process, with everything ending up happy by the end of the film. In a way, this new film bears more in common with P.L. Travers’ novels than the original film does as in Mary Poppins Returns, the whole bank-foreclosing-on-the-house plotline is just an excuse for all the fantastical vignettes with Mary Poppins to happen. The first Mary Poppins film didn’t have much of a plot, either, but at least it pretended to have one. This one makes a half-hearted attempt at a plot, but since that plot is just the same plot as the first film, it feels hollow.
Hollow is a good way to describe much of this film. Like the plot, the songs, too, feel like pale imitations of those from the original. Now, it’s not as though I was expecting these new songs to be as good as the songs from the original film – I mean, how could they be? The Sherman Brothers were in a class of their own. But I was expecting them to be better than they were. They were, after all, written by the same people who wrote the music for Hairspray and for the “Bombshell” musical in Smash. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these songs are totally forgettable. It’s unclear if the composers themselves imposed this edict on themselves or if the studio did, but it’s as though each of these new songs had to fulfill the same purpose in the story as the original songs did. “Can You Imagine That?” is “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Royal Doulton Music Hall”/”A Cover is Not the Book” is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “Where the Lost Things Go” is “Feed the Birds”, and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is “Step in Time”. All of these new songs are clearly just trying to be the original songs instead of being their own thing, so none of them are able to stand on their own, without comparison to the originals, because they only exist because this new movie can’t just use the songs from the original film, which is clearly what it wants to do. This need for the songs to basically perform the same purpose as the songs in the original makes these new songs feel just as hollow as the recycled plot of the film feels.
That’s not to say that everything in this film is bad or disappointing. While I still don’t love Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, I have to admit that she does do a pretty good job. She’s a lot warmer in the film than she initially appeared in the trailers and she brings that darker edge found in the books. Unfortunately, she spends the whole film performing her dialogue in songs in some strange accent that doesn’t work. It’s like she’s trying to sound posh and stuck-up, only that’s not really what she ends up sounding like and it’s distracting. I wish she’d just performed it in her normal voice. Lin-Manuel Miranda gives a fine performance as Jack the Lamplighter. He’s, essentially, playing the same role as Bert played in the first film, and his personality is basically the same as Bert’s, so Lin isn’t really given much of a chance to do anything more than a Dick Van Dyke impersonation (down to the really poor cockney accent) as that’s all his character is. That being said, he does a good job in the film. I wish his accent was better, but I guess they decided they needed to imitate the original’s bad accent, too. The rest of the adult actors also do good jobs, except for Merryl Streep. She plays a cousin of Mary Poppins’ and she uses this really strange, Russian-ish accent and it’s so bad and so distracting and her song isn’t even a little bit fun because of that.
On the whole, Mary Poppins Returns is just disappointing. It’s always a risk when you create a sequel to a classic movie, and Mary Poppins Returns fails to live up to the original, or even come close to it. It’s hampered by a script and a score that try far too hard to replicate the script and score of the original and fails to establish itself as its own thing. It’s not fair to compare this film to the original except the script and score invite you to compare it to the original as it’s basically the same movie. The acting and choreography are, for the most part, excellent and much of the visuals are genuinely beautiful, especially the extended animated sequence that happens about an hour into the film. It’s not quite as good as the animated sequence in the original, but it’s still cracking fun. I’d be lying if I said that Mary Poppins Returns wasn’t still fun, though. Yes, it’s basically the same film as the original and yes, it’s not nearly as good as that film is, but it’s still a competently made movie that features some nice messaging and will make you feel good and warm inside. The acting and the visuals and the general atmosphere of the film are what makes it an enjoyable experience. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours and the movie is never really unenjoyable. It’s just the same as the original movie. But, to be totally honest, I don’t think it’s worth seeing in theaters as you can get those same exact feelings from just popping in the DVD/Blu-Ray of the original film and watching that instead. It’s a better movie, too.
3 out of 5 wands