Mary Poppins Returns: Everything Right and Wrong About Disney’s Remakes
The phenomenon of Disney remaking, rebooting, or otherwise live-action adapting their classic films has, at this point, evolved from a trend to its own chapter of the company’s playbook in controlling the very concept of intellectual property. Most people seem to be in agreement that they are unnecessary cash-grabs that devalue the beloved originals, but enough people still go to them that Disney doesn’t have any motivation to stop with the already-doomed Dumbo movie or the increasingly poor-looking Aladdin feature. In terms of quality, they range from Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book remake, which turned Rudyard Kipling’s tale about the white man’s burden myth into a fable warning about the dangers of cultural oppression, to 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which, among its other failings, is probably going to be the worst film Emma Watson will ever be in. Most of them, however, find themselves where Mary Poppins Returns lands on the spectrum: smack dab in the middle.
The story is about as by the numbers as a movie called Mary Poppins Returns could be. A generation after the original film, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has grown up and now has three precocious, independent children of his own. After the death of his wife, the bank he and his father worked at calls in his debt and threatens to repossess his house. With his life falling apart around him, Michael’s only hope is the heaven-sent, mysterious governess Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) who, as the title indicates, returns to once again baffle the Banks children with her effortless whimsy and adventurous charm. She chaperones the kids on their quest to help their father from behind the scenes, occasionally aided by rambunctious lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), their aunt Jane (Emily Mortimer), and the Banks’s sassy old maid Ellen (Julia Walters).
The problems that arrive from the narrative are obvious from the first glance. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong about following a formula, especially one that resulted in the 1964 classic, but it does cause you to question a lot of production choices. Is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s half-hearted attempt at a British accent an homage to Dick Van Dyke’s infamous shredding of Cockney or is he just miscast? Is it really important that Jane Banks is now a labor advocate or did the writers just think they needed a politically-minded mother figure somewhere in the background? Is the 12-minute musical sequence about low-wage workers making the most of it warranted or does the film just want to check off that it made a “Step in Time” rip-off? Are the less-than convincing visual effects a send-up to the limited technology available in the sixties or could it have used another round of editing?
Those are general problems though. A more specific problem is the acting, which seems to drift in quality from actor to actor. Miranda’s accent comes and goes, but he’s having a good time being the driving force behind the film’s appropriate musical numbers. Ellen’s role is greatly reduced, but Julia Walters is a master of this particular archetype and makes the most of what she’s given. Emily Mortimer is a good actress but her role doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Colin Firth phones it in as an offensively unnecessary villain and his lawyer lackeys, played by Jeremy Swift and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, don’t hold a lot of weight outside their respective archetypes. Ben Whishaw has some of the most emotional scenes in the film but doesn’t really leave an impact outside of them. The child actors acquit themselves well for the most part, but anytime they’re expected to handle any emotional weight, they collapse under it like balsa wood.
If there’s any solid reason to see the movie, however, it is Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. This is the kind of pitch perfect casting that just sounds right in the pitch meeting and becomes even more perfect in execution. Not only does she embody the stiff upper lip British etiquette established by Julie Andrews so many decades ago with an impressive ease, but she manages to seamlessly transition to the understated child-like elements of the character which has always been her subliminal appeal. She relishes being a firm and mystical authority figure as well as cutting loose to enjoy the wondrous magic she creates, fill in the role of both performer and audience and proving that she practices what she preaches. A lesser actress might have bungled the two elements and caused some significant character clashing, but Blunt’s deft hand and crisp voice affectations ensure that the Mary Poppins found here is just as prim, proper, and practically perfect in every way as the one seen in the original.
Another notable accomplishment of the film is in the costume department. Apart from a wardrobe full of colorful, trim, period-accurate outfits, there are some absolutely breathtaking pastel suits and dresses that both jump off the screen and yet blend in so well to their environment that the characters almost seem to be wearing the set itself. The cinematography also deserves a special mention. It can be hard to properly shoot big musical ensembles but director Rob Marshall, who also made Chicago and Into the Woods, is practiced at shifting between wide, chorus shots and more intimate, close up numbers. One of the best aspects of the film, however, is the brief foray into Disney’s signature 2-D animation. It feels obligatory, but it’s so nice to see that the hand-drawn animation department hasn’t lost its touch that all faults in that 20-minute sequence can be forgiven just for how amazing it looks.
However, none of the outward positives can make up for the film’s biggest problem: the villains. Or, more specifically, the fact that there are villains at all. The original Mary Poppins was an ode to childhood imagination and how it clashes and interacts with adult reality. It didn’t have villains because it didn’t need any, a unique trait among Disney films, or really any children’s film at the time. Even Disney’s own Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the closest contemporary comparison to Mary Poppins, had Nazis as third-act villains. Mary Poppins only needed antagonists in the form of Mr. Banks and his banking superiors, but even then, they were never evil or malevolent, they were just grown ups doing grown up things like working and supporting their families. Their villainy, if you could even call it that, came from wanting the children to mature before their time. The bankers are even shown to have some merit, as the one adult choice they forced Michael to make as a child ends up saving the day in Mary Poppins Returns. Adding generic, bureaucratic villains to the mix only serves to obscure the themes of both films.
If Mary Poppins, both the film and the character, had a message, it was a warning to not lose oneself in the adult world and to save room in life for wonderment to make a home. A generic message to be sure, but told so efficiently that the film is now a childhood standard. It’s a story told so well and a message imparted so impactfully that one of the characters dies offscreen, but the cold, abrupt reminder of mortality is considered a positive and doesn’t disrupt the wonder of the film. In the ill-advised Return, Firth and his underlings are more cartoonish than the actual cartoons and stand out like big, black ink splotches against a classical painting. It’s ironic that the film’s best aspects are the ones that differentiate it from its predecessor, but this new villainous element is such a problem that it and the suspenseful third-act climax both work to destroy the sense of atmosphere that the movie struggled to build.
Overall, the film is enjoyable but is fundamentally crippled by the legacy it tries and fails to live up to. It exists to walk the middle of the road. The songs are all enjoyable but none are as memorable as the Sherman Brothers’ incredible numbers. The visual effects tend to look flat and unconvincing but seeing Disney return to 2-D animation, however briefly, is a delight to behold. The story, while predictable and at times annoying, will no doubt entertain the children the film is made for. The film doesn’t change enough to separate itself from the 1964 version and doesn’t keep true enough to the original to be as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
While I’m giving this film a low ranking, it shouldn’t be considered a reason not to see it. That might be the magic of Mary Poppins or the conditioning of the Disney brand, but the film is enjoyable, just not the instant classic Julie Andrews debuted in. There’s not enough to capture the childish charm of the Paddington movies that it so clearly was trying to emulate, but cameos from Meryl Streep, Chris O’Dowd, and some Disney legends of yore are more than enough to remind you that, while The Greatest Showman fell flat on its face and you’ve probably already forgotten that stupid Mama Mia! sequel, the musical comedy still has some magic left in it. But if you want a movie that you can show your kids that will leave them pleasantly bewildered by the world around them and forever serve as a reminder to appreciate their inner child, there’s a Disney flick from the sixties I’d like to reacquaint you with. 2/5.
But seriously, Dumbo is gonna suck. Don’t see it.