Practically perfect in every way. If there was a telling quote to sum up the nostalgic glow that radiates from Mary Poppins Returns, that would be it.
Who would even have imagined we would be here? Mary Poppins is without doubt the most popular and beloved live action Disney production of the 20th century, and its significance as a piece of family friendly culture that transcends America to the UK and beyond is unparalleled. It helped make a star of Dame Julie Andrews and netted her an Academy Award in 1965. It saw Dick van Dyke sport an English accent he has been both mocked and adored for over half a century. It featured songs, such as ‘Step In Time’ and ‘Supercalifragolisticexpialidotious’ which have been immortalised by several generations of school children and adults. Mary Poppins, for millions, represents the magic of childhood, and a childhood exposure to cinema.
The fact Robert Stevenson’s original film even exists is a curiosity of fate itself, given the author of the Mary Poppins source material, P. L. Travers, struggled with the ‘Disneyfication’ of her subject matter. If you want the story of how Walt Disney came to convince Travers of the magic in the film he wanted to produce, watch John Lee Hancock’s delightful Saving Mr. Banks, but it was a significant challenge. Disney is a problematic figure to history now in many ways, despite the pillar of joy he built his empire on, but he was right about the film Stevenson ended up making. Mary Poppins may not have been immortalised as Travers imagined her, but she became, and remained, one of the strangest and beloved female characters in the history of motion pictures.
Mary Poppins Returns, then, is a challenge on multiple fronts. How do you replicate a film so resolutely of its time while equally outside of it? How do you replace Andrews or Van Dyke? How do you beat the quirkiness of a picture which blended live action with animation, musical show stoppers, and a thematic reach balancing childhood, social mobility and capitalism (not to mention the looming spectre of war)? Mary Poppins Returns has the answer, and it’s really quite simple.
Mary Poppins Returns is the same movie, in so many ways. It plays every single one of the same character and thematic beats, but simply adjusts the context. Rob Marshall doesn’t shot by shot copy Stevenson’s direction but he clearly studied the man’s work. The narrative structure is by and large identical. Emily Blunt, as the new Poppins, takes everything Andrews did and matches it. Lin-Manuel Miranda might as well be playing the same character Van Dyke did, they are largely identical. Dame Julie Walters, magnificent as always, actually plays the maid Ellen, doing a marvellous take on Hermoine Baddeley in the process. Ben Whishaw, while softer as Michael Banks than his father George, balances a humanity and authoritarianism as the family patriarch, while Emily Mortimer’s Jane has grown up to be as much of a social equality butterfly as her mother, if less militantly. There is not one inch of Mary Poppins Returns that is not indebted to its predecessor.
But here’s the amazing thing… it does not, for one split second, matter.
The prevailing wisdom among sequels is that they have to be different. They have to be bigger, broader. They need to throw in new characters or advance the mythology or backstory behind the original. Just look at Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald most recently as a key example of that. Mary Poppins Returns, in that context, is a real anomaly. Marshall’s film feels like a sequel that was written in 1968, fell through a fifty year time portal, and ended up in our advanced age of visual effects which allow Disney to enhance the stylistic magic behind the story. It could just as easily be defined as more of a remake than sequel, except that it canonically does continue the story of the Banks family, this time in the 1930’s rather than the 1910’s.
One of the key aspects to the entire magic behind Mary Poppins and her world is that “nothing is impossible”. There are few rules to the world she inhabits and brings with her down from whatever realm she hails from, except those we imagine. Mary Poppins Returns, in that sense, plays by that absence of rules as a sequel and revels in them. The entire *point* of the film is that Mary Poppins is the same woman we saw when Julie Andrews flew away on her umbrella through the London skies as she is when Emily Blunt descends after rescuing the Banks’ immortal kite. She hasn’t aged, nor has she changed. She still expects everything “spit-spot”. She still takes the children on magical adventures. And she remains known to those in London who see through the veil of the world without imagination.
It is this which gives Mary Poppins Returns its charm. It is utterly, unashamedly designed for the children who have now become parents and grandparents, who were swept away by the heartwarming joy of the original. It is a film completely without cynicism and gloriously revels in capturing a sense of ‘classic’ Disney. When Mary takes the children inside their late mother’s prized pot to visit the Royal Doulton music hall, the animation is the same we saw in the 1964 original. Many of the songs are cover versions of the originals; ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ sees Mary put the children to sleep as ‘Stay Awake’ did, ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’ might as well be a sequel to ‘Step in Time, ‘Turning Turtle’ evokes the comic madness of ‘I Love to Laugh’ and the joyous final piece ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’ matches ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’. Moments in Marc Shaiman’s score touch on refrains from ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ or ‘A Man Has Dreams’ with real elegance.
Nostalgia, therefore, is the order of the day, and this is a powerful emotion to evoke in the audience, particularly with a film as beloved as Mary Poppins. Some may suggest this in itself is quite cynical, given how Marshall works hard to replicate the tone and feel of the Disney original, and they may well be right. Disney could have gone back to Travers’ source material and developed a Poppins film which edged nearer to her portrayal of the character, and that may yet be a project a filmmaker develops, but as a family friendly musical, designed as a sequel to the original, this feels perfectly in step with what came before. It feels like more of a successful attempt to evoke the nostalgic joy of an original film than Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns did with Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. That lacked the requisite magic. This has it in spades, to spare.
Emily Blunt, in no small measure, is why.
Several months before the awards happen, Blunt has been rumoured for an Oscar nomination for her performance here, as Andrews was, and you would be hard pushed to suggest this is unfair. Blunt is remarkably good in a role that has been defined by Andrews for over half a century, and in many ways defined her entire career. If anything, she might even be *better* in the role. That’s hard to even fathom but Blunt can do things with her expression, with her eyes, and with the extreme cut glass accent she lends Poppins that Andrews just couldn’t. Her voice isn’t, of course, as strong, and she doesn’t quite deliver anything musically as affecting or iconic as Andrews, but her Poppins has more nuance. Perhaps it’s in the script. Either way, she is a remarkable centre of gravity and she’s why the film works so well.
Poppins again serves the same dramatic and thematic function as she did in the first film. Somewhere between Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls and the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Mary Poppins is an avatar for emotional and physical change for the Banks family. She brings a sense of joy, magic and wonder into the lives of three children who have been grieving the premature death of their mother, and a stressed father in Michael who may have the family home repossessed by the bank he works for. Again, however, this is a mechanism for helping not specifically the children, but getting the children to a point they can help bring about change in their father. Poppins sums it up when she claims, on arrival, to be here to help the Banks children and the children say “Us?” “Oh yes, you as well!” is her reply. This is as much about Michael as Mary Poppins was ultimately about George.
Mary Poppins Returns, however, and again this is in part thanks to Blunt’s nuance, lends a shade more characterisation to Mary herself. This is not her character story, as nor was the first film, but where Andrews provided hints that Poppins loved the family and would have wanted to stay with them, the sequel makes this melancholy more acute. There is a delivery in her final “practically perfect in every way” line which suggests Mary wishes for something she can never have. The film still preserves the mystery around her that the first movie had, which has led to all kinds of theories about her origin (including her as a Jesus analogy, which you can hear more about in The Movie Palace podcast about the film I was recently a guest on), but you nonetheless feel Poppins presence as a character indirectly guiding the destiny of this family a touch more.
As Jack says, “something you should know about Mary Poppins – she never explains anything”, and this, like plenty of other moments in David Magee’s script, has a double meaning. Mary’s only advice ever comes via the musical numbers she brings the children into, and often then denies they ever happened; standout music hall number ‘The Cover is Not the Book’ (which could be the film’s showstopper) or ‘Turning Turtle’, in which Meryl Streep pops up for a wonderful cameo as a ‘cousin’ of Mary’s and is all about the children changing their point of view on the potential loss of their home and their father’s predicament. She never directly gives any advice to the children, Jane or Michael – she guides them to their own realisation that their home represents their absent mother, and losing it is nothing to fear.
These are not difficult thematic beats to pick up on. They are all present and correct, but equally they work in context with Shaiman’s songs and the script, and they work incredibly well. There are naturally holes that could be picked; Michael comes from privilege and his financial woes could probably have been fairly easily solved if his Edwardian aspirations were not quite so acute. Indeed the bank, and Colin Firth’s almost mustache-twirling villain, feels like a contrivance the film never truly needs, designed more to give Michael’s plight some level of urgency and threat – the original film didn’t need the bankers to be so acutely villainous for the subtext to work, or the journey of George and the children. It is largely forgivable, nevertheless, for how Dick Van Dyke is worked into the film, which is a highlight among highlights.
There is also one moment you can’t help wonder was a gigantic missed opportunity. Toward the end, the legendary Dame Angela Lansbury appears as a sage Balloon Lady who gives Michael key advice, and her appearance is framed as a surprise moment where, for a split second, you think “is this… is this Julie Andrews?!”. Given the film has Van Dyke, and also manages to throw in a cameo for the original child Jane, Karen Dotrice, it almost feels odd that Andrews isn’t playing the Balloon Lady. Reputedly, Andrews was offered a role in the film but refused as she didn’t want to draw attention away from Emily Blunt, and this surely must have been the Balloon Lady. Oddly enough, the two ways to look at this remind me of a curious fact from James Bond film, Skyfall.
At the climax of that 50th anniversary film, Bond returns to his ancestral family home and meets a gamekeeper called Kincaid, an acerbic old Scottish guy played by Albert Finney. While Finney does a fantastic job in a small role, this was originally earmarked for original Bond, Sean Connery, as a way of giving him an iconic final role in what had already been a sizeable retirement which connected back to the role that made his career. Director Sam Mendes soon feared Connery’s appearance could overshadow the entire project and it never got past the idea stage, and while this is understandable from a narrative perspective, in terms of nostalgia this could have been one of cinema’s most iconic moments. That’s how it feels with Julie Andrews not playing the Balloon Lady.
This is a minor quibble, as Lansbury is a delight in a small but fairly key role on Michael’s journey of rediscovery, and her character highlights once again just how crucial the class, or under class factor of Mary Poppins Returns is. In both this and the original, the Balloon or Bird Ladies, or the chimney sweeps, are the ones who remember and understand the magic of Mary Poppins and her world of allegory, symbolism and emotional realisation. The Banks family, as they grow older, always forget the meaning behind what is more important, be it thanks to finances or the power of loss, and it takes Mary and her army of the ‘free’ underclass to wake them up. Even the old Admiral (played by another legend, David Warner), gets his moment of catharsis thanks to the same meddling.
Mary Poppins Returns is a film built on nostalgia, from top to bottom. Nobody would have imagined that Rob Marshall’s film could have captured the same level of thematic and emotional magic as the original, classic Disney picture, but that is precisely what happens. It may be the same film, almost to its very bones, but it doesn’t matter. There is such joy here, such a positivity, and a positive message given to children about the power of positive thought, you would have to be hard of heart not to be roused by the sheer loveliness of the songs, music and performances. It left me soaring.
We won’t forget you, Mary Poppins. You remain immortal.