Rating: 2 Stars
Starring: Emily Blunt, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke
Director: Rob Marshall
Oh, for the love of made-up words and a sing-song life. There is something about a musical that elevates the movies to its highest potential of a larger-than-life medium for escape from reality, no? And somehow, either the talent pool that could transport us into other realms and lives with their storytelling is dwindling, or Hollywood (among other woods) has become lazy. There is this trend for recycling and repackaging older classics that began a few years ago, and this penchant for adding a dash of technologically-enhanced colour to everything seems to not want to die. And somewhere in that miasma of let’s-make-everything-pretty, we are being subjected to a rehash of evergreen classics that we should just let *be*.
Why am I digressing so much? Because I feel the need for words to express my thoughts clearly even more than I usually do, and that is saying something, let me assure you, because that’s pretty much status quo for me. Having just returned from a two-hour trip of watching a nanny descend from the skies to help a put-upon family in London, out of which at least 90 minutes was the word “musical” taken too literally, I feel like black on white is all I want to know for a few days. Mary Poppins Returns takes off with a similar premise, one generation removed. This time, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) descends onto real London (in the 1964 version, London was created in a Walt Disney studio), hanging on to the tail of a kite that little George Banks lets go of. Mary Poppins in 1964 was the nanny who came to the rescue of Michael Banks (played by Ben Whishaw in this) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), two siblings, who are trying to save their home from being repossessed by the bank. Michael and Jane were the Bankses that Julie Andrews nannies in the original Mary Poppins, and it’s Emily Blunt’s turn to play nanny to Michael’s three children, John, Annabelle, and George, in Mary Poppins Returns.
Along comes the wondrous nanny to rescue the three children from their troubles, while lending a helping hand to the elder two Bankses in staving off potential eviction from 17 Cherry Tree Lane in almost sepulchral London (and the atmosphere is beautifully captured). But either as an inspired re-adaptation of the original, or as an homage to it, or as a delayed one-generation-removed sequel, it doesn’t quite work. The eponymous Mary Poppins becomes a mere prop in this 2018 scheme of things, and while I love Emily Blunt, she is not the Mary Poppins we have come to know and love. The whole thing falls flat for two reasons: one, the directorial baton. It seems to be so very self-aware of the burden it carries in terms of imbuing this script with charm and heart, that it fails to do either. And second, Julie Andrews as a singing nanny was a phenomenon because when she sang about super-cali-favourite things, you could see the wonder in her eyes, and you felt that kinship with her. Emily Blunt is clearly underutilised in this, and what she brings to Mary Poppins here is a tiredness, a weariness, a somewhat burdensome presence that fails to uplift.
If you are the easily swayed by melodrama at the movies, you might shed a tear or two (I am one of those, I admit). Emily Mortimer is lovely as always, as is Julie Walters, and the last twenty minutes kind of come together in their cheery celebration of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and its surroundings, but this is not a patch on the original. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the sole saving grace, is an insouciant sing-songy, feet-tappy delight, as the commandeer of the leeries who dapple dank London with their lamp flames. Anyone who fails to smile at his winsome visage crooning about being underneath the lovely London sky is not someone I would want to know.
But for all intents and purposes, Mary Poppins Returns is a ho-hum version of everyone’s favourite supercalifragilisticexpialidocious nanny.