Twenty-five years after their new nanny taught his banker father to enjoy his children, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is facing repossession of their home at Cherry Tree Lane by his dad's bank. Recently widowed, Michael, an artist, also works there as a teller to provide for his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), but his situation seems hopeless until "Mary Poppins Returns."
Before I begin, I must come clean with my personal history with the original 1964 film. As a six year-old, my favorite television show was (and still is) 'The Addams Family,' yet for some reason, my mother chose the night it was on to drag me to a movie she wanted to see. That's right, it was "Mary Poppins." I did not want to go. To make matters worse, the film got caught in the projector gate and burned on the screen during the carousel screen, drawing out the ordeal (the film was restarted). I have loathed that movie to this day.
While I doubt I will ever find "Mary Poppins" anything other than a saccharine relic of the early 60's, cowriter (with "Finding Neverland's" David Magee)/director Rob Marshall ("Chicago," "Into the Woods") has done something miraculous with its sequel and a lot of it has to do with his star. The Mary Poppins that has returned has the same knack for imaginative adventures, manipulative behavioral modification and commingling with the working class, but she is also tarter, vain and a little bit bawdy. Emily Blunt is so perfect in this role, the film's only failings occur when focus shifts away from her.
The musical begins with an ode to London, 'Underneath the Lovely London Sky,' sung by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) as he cycles about the city at dawn. The we're plunged into the chaos of the Banks household where housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) is dealing with a flooded kitchen. It is Anabel who takes charge, calling a plumber while dispatching her brother for a mop. Learning that dad has forgotten to buy groceries, the three set off for breakfast supplies, John noting the coins dad's given him are not enough, Anabel replying they'll make do with day-old bread, just like mother used to. Anabel and John, at least, have grown up a bit too quickly. But before they've gotten through the park, the littlest, Georgie, wanders off to chase the kite we've seen his dad toss out. He's rescued from lift off in a quick brewing storm by Jack who is thrilled to see the kite return to earth in the hand of Mary Poppins, having known her as an apprentice to Bert the chimney sweep.
Returning to the Banks manse, Mary easily steamrolls over Michael's objections of being able to afford to hire her. He and his labor organizer sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) do recognize her, marveling over the fact that she hasn't aged at all, a remark that elicits a rebuke for being impolite. As the elder Banks children plow through the attic looking for the bank shares the duplicitous William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth) admits would save their home, the new generation immediately enjoy an undersea adventure under the pretense of taking a bath.
Magee and Marshall's script parallels the original closely. There is a live action/animated sequence involving a horse race, a trip across a ceiling, an episode at the bank involving the children and an elderly female vendor. Jane picks up the romantic possibilities from Poppins this time around, Mary nudging her towards the admiring Jack. The animated sequences have even been matched to the style of the original film's. Yet for all its familiarity, the film still feels fresh, largely due to Marshall and Blunt's interpretation of the character.
The film's best sequence involves entry into a Royal Doulton bowl prized by the children's deceased mother. Anabel suggests selling it to help save the home but it gets broken in the ensuing argument. Mary whooshes herself, Jack and the children right into the bowl's painted scene, its horse drawn carriage now hobbled by a broken wheel. Animated, anthropomorphized animals inhabit this land, some whose gestures are recognized by Anabel from their human counterparts. There is also a music hall where Mary and Jack perform the film's most rousing number, 'A Cover is Not the Book.'
Unfortunately not all of Marc Shaiman's original songs (lyrics by Scott Wittman) are memorable, unlike the first film's, nor does every adventure work, a trip to Mary's cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) to get that bowl fixed stopping the film in its tracks for its big star number. The scene is beautifully crafted with its upside down shop spinning 'round, but it serves no purpose, that bowl's fate left hanging. Much more impactful is this film's equivalent of the 'Step in Time!' chimney sweep dance, 'Trip a Little Light Fantastic' a more intricately choreographed lamplighter number featuring ladders and bicycles. Shaiman's score wisely calls back to 'Feed the Birds' and 'Let's Go Fly a Kite.'
Costume designer Sandy Powell, who already whipped up creative designs for "How to talk to Girls at Parties" earlier this year, excels again here. Poppins is attired in double caped coats, pinstripes and polka dots, her hat sporting an eye catching flower. Costumes inside the porcelain bowl are painted to mimic the bowl's surface, a visually arresting idea that also complements the sequence's animation. The film also benefits from location shooting, London more alive that in its Hollywood studio set forerunner. It will be no surprise that Dick Van Dyke cameos here, but that the 91 year-old jumps on a desk to dance on it might be. (Angela Lansbury appears in the role originally intended for Julie Andrews, who stepped aside for Blunt to make her own mark.)
"Mary Poppins Returns" is that rare sequel that surpasses the original film. It's also its Oscar nominated director's best musical.
Robin gives "Mary Poppins Returns" a B.
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