In Mary Poppins Returns, there’s a song titled “A Cover is not the Book.” It’s about various whimsical figures who are not what they seem on the surface, but it might as well be about the movie itself:
What looks to be an expensive, nostalgia-reliant cash grab is…well, still an expensive, nostalgia-reliant cash grab, but it’s also a delightful, deserving follow-up to a timeless classic.
In this sequel to 1964’s Mary Poppins, the Banks children are all grown up and facing grown-up problems—namely, the death of Michael’s wife, which has brought his sister Jane back into the fold of 17 Cherry Tree Lane to help take care of his three children, Annabel, John, and Georgie. A year without their mother has forced these children to grow up fast, but even the help they offer can’t stave off the most recent threat to their family—the potential loss of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and all the memories contained therein. Financially strapped, the only way the family can save their beloved home is to find the shares in Fidelity Fiduciary Bank that their father left to them, but in the disorganization of his grief, Michael has misplaced them. These are problems large enough to require the services of a magical nanny, and with all the foresight of such a nanny, Mary Poppins floats right in.
Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel that almost requires two viewings—one so you can roll your eyes at how often it leans on viewer memories of the original, a second so you can stop being a cynical modern moviegoer and fully enjoy how it not only pays homage to the original, but develops a complex theme all its own and does a practically perfect job of it. (Sorry not sorry.)
That said, the film definitely relies on the structure of the original, to the point where halfway through, I wondered if the film would have a single original plot point. The film opens with its own Bert, in this case a lamplighter named Jack, whose purpose is to carry on Bert Prime’s tradition of awful Cockney accents, introduce the audience to London, and remind everyone of how enigmatic and perfect Mary Poppins is. There’s the Making-a-Mundane-Task-Fun song (“Can You Imagine That?”), the Travel-to-a-Whimsical-Animated-World song (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”), the jaunty “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” romp (“A Cover is Not the Book”), the Visit-to-the-Eccentric-Directionally-Challenged-Cousin song (“Turning Turtle”), the Song-and-Dance-with-Laborers (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”), and the concluding Everything-is-Happy-and-Stuff-is-Flying song (“Nowhere to go But Up”). By the end, I was astonished that there wasn’t a Lullaby-About-Pigeon-Ladies (though there was a lullaby).
This said, it’s easy to write Mary Poppins Returns off as an unnecessary rip off of a classic. What keeps it from being so is how skillfully it handles its multitude of homages and how it builds upon elements introduced in the original to develop its own meaning.
This is a movie clearly made by fans of the original Mary Poppins. It’s obvious from the very opening song (“(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky”), to the painted-backdrop-and-overture credits to the unmistakably Sherman Brothers-inspired wordplay of the lyrics. (The soundtrack has been on repeat in my office and car since I first saw this movie.) Moreover, it fully understands the stern-yet-whimsical spirit of Mary Poppins as both a story and a character: the philosophy that sometimes even the dark, adult parts of life are best tempered with a little “stuff and nonsense.”
And that is even more key to this film than the last.
For though the movie is, on the surface, a nonsense storybook tale, it’s ultimately a story about grief—Michael coming to terms with the death of his wife (or not, as evidenced by the fact that he can’t run a functioning household without her, try as he might), and the children trying to do the same (but unable to because they have to take care of the household that their father can’t). Contrary to stereotype, when a nanny like Mary Poppins shows up, its because the adults need fixing, not the kids, and in this case, it’s two types of grown-up who need her help—one actual grown-up, three who have been forced to take on grown-up responsibilities tragically early in life.
Granted, the movie’s wildly lavish musical numbers often distract from that. Disney pulled out more stops than usual here, often to spectacular effect (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a show-stopper), sometimes to CGI excess (“Can You Imagine That?” is a great song, but so conspicuously computer-generated that it barely feels like it belongs in the world of the movie). Still, ultimately the lyrics and themes of each individual song come together in a way that leads the Bankses to process their grief from a different perspective and, in effect, to reclaim the joys of innocence and happiness lost.
That this is accomplished through meaningful callbacks to the original Mary Poppins makes it that much better. Though several are admittedly pure window dressing for fans, many serve a relevant, indispensable purpose to the plot—namely the iconic kite from the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” scene, which may as well have been a character in this film. Even references that don’t influence the plot are used in a charming, characterful way (Admiral Boom, Mr. Binnacle, and their punctual cannon make recurring appearances with a cute twist).
The cast performances are charming as well. With a character as distinct and iconic as Mary Poppins, the strength of the movie naturally rides on the depiction of said character, and Emily Blunt, from her precise language to her calculated slips of mischief, is spot-on in her role. Lin-Manuel Miranda, despite the accent, is as ebullient as the lamps his character lights. Ben Whislaw as Michael maintains a fine, likable balance between loving father and grieving husband, who comes across as emotionally incapacitated rather than completely incompetent, which is key for the appeal of his character (…even if the eventual reveal about the bank shares made the responsible adult in me want to scream at him). Despite not having a lot of screen time compared to the other characters, Emily Mortimer plays a sweet and assertive Jane, whose labor activism is a nice callback to the character’s suffragette mother. Finally, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, and Joel Dawson as Annabel, John, and Georgie respectively also fill their roles well, balancing responsibility with playfulness and only coming across as precocious or whinging when children normally would.
The movie does have its flaws, but for me, most of them were nitpicks. There are moments when the film’s visuals become too overwhelming—as in the aforementioned “Can You Imagine That?” scene or in the animated “Royal Doulton Music Hall” sequence, where the backgrounds and costume design hearken back to the scratchy, sketchy Xerox era that produced Mary Poppins…but the animated animals all have clean, modern, digital lines. There’s also an actual antagonist in the form of William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth), the new president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, who is determined to reclaim 17 Cherry Tree Lane for the very Hollywood reason of Profiting The Bank At All Costs. There’s a minor payoff for this conflict in the form of a fun character reveal at the end (Dick Van Dyke, revisiting a version of a role he played in the original), but in a story where the conflict is about characters overcoming personal problems, a concrete antagonist felt extraneous, and the entire climax could have worked even without the threat of Wilkins’ character. Fortunately, though, we don’t see enough of that character to really complain about, and the end itself is delightful enough to overshadow it.
The same can be said of the movie as a whole. The jaded adult in me might point out its flaws and repetitions, but the child in me delights in the way that it solves hard problems with childlike whimsy. While that seems like an unrealistic way to solve problems, hardships in my own life have taught me that often the best way to survive those periods (or at least ease oneself into a state where one is able to handle them) is to look at the darkness from a different, lighter perspective.
The wackiest song in the film, “Turning Turtle,” is actually the one that conveys the movie’s central message, and when Mary Poppins sings, “When you change the view from where you stood / The things you view will change for good,” it carries a deeper meaning far beyond her topsy-turvy situation. And, indeed, beyond the movie itself.
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