Given that we live in the age of remakes, reboots, relaunches and re-hashes, it was I suppose inevitable that Disney would get around to making a sequel to their 1964 classic Mary Poppins one day.
Fifty four years later, they’ve sprung into action with this big, glossy, family-friendly production that adopts a respectful and even reverential approach to the original film, which seems to mean a lot to quite a lot of people.
Whenever I have cynically raised my eyes to heaven at the prospect of going to see it, people of a certain age, mainly but not exclusively female, have given me a right chewing before describing how important the 1964 original was to them.
It’s one of those films people grow up on, and in fairness was pretty special in its way. While the story’s creator P.L. Travers might have been horrified by the whole affair, the Disney film caught the magic of her stern but magical nanny, the sequences combining live action and animation were beautifully rendered, and what about those Sherman and Sherman songs. In a recent review of this film, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw suggested that ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ was not a great song: he might want to consider acquiring a tuning fork. Cheesy, yes, but surely irresistible.
Among this remake’s biggest challenges, though, was how to cast a role so synonymous with Julie Andrews, and at least they got that part right. Emily Blunt is pitch perfect as a slightly older and more worldly but equally formidable Poppins, who descends from the skies just in time to save the Banks family from disaster – again.
Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the little boy from the original film, has grown up to have a family of his own, and still lives at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane. He is, however, in imminent danger of losing it, as a loan he took out on the house has now fallen due, and his meagre salary at the bank won’t be enough to save them from eviction. Meanwhile, his three young children are running wild, and when one of them hoists an old kite into the skies above the nearby park, it comes back down with a nanny attached to it.
Mary is not impressed by the general state of the household, and it doesn’t take her long to put manners on the nippers, though she also treats them to regular doses of magic courtesy of that enchanted Gladstone bag. But she also notices that Michael is doing his best as a parent, but struggling in the aftermath of his wife’s recent death.
Emily Mortimer plays Jane Banks, who’s now a socialist and women’s rights activist like her mother, while Lin-Manuel Miranda is the Dick Van Dyke proxy, an irrepressibly chirpy ‘cockney’ lamplighter and Mary’s loyal ally.
There’s nothing all that wrong with any of this, and indeed quite a lot right early on. An animated sequence in which the children take a bath which turns into a technicolor undersea kingdom is beautifully executed, as is a music hall number Mary performs to an audience of cartoon animals. Emily Blunt is extremely good as Poppins (so good in fact that one wonders who else could have been cast in the role), abandoning her own English accent for a strangulated regal tone that seems to suit the occasion perfectly. The songs are not bad either, though I can’t for the life of me recall a single one of them. And as I said, the film is scrupulously reverential to its predecessor throughout.
But maybe it’s too reverent, because it seems to me the the writers, producers and directors of this production were so fearful of tarnishing the good name of Ms. Poppins that they’ve created something competent, workmanlike, shiny and dead. In and of itself, Mary Poppins Returns never really comes to life, save in the moments when Ms. Blunt is given a stage to herself. It feels like someone was carefully ticking off the boxes – song here, animated bit here, cheery Cockney dance here – so that any incidental creativity was stifled.
Lin-Manuel Miranda may have a stellar reputation on Broadway, but is deadly dull here as Mary’s sidekick: he dances and sings well but blandly, and while the film has upheld the tradition of the dodgy cockney accent, his is merely slightly off and not the magnificently daft conversation piece created by Mr. Van Dyke.
It’s fine, I suppose, but is that enough? Poppins fans will enjoy the nostalgia of it all, but may feel a little deflated afterwards.
(G, 130 mins)
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