Remaking a children’s classic is hard. Building upon one as a sequel 50+ years later with an entirely new cast is harder. You want the film to stand on its own without distancing itself too far from the original. Mary Poppins: Returns handles this balance fairly well. Directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall and produced to the nines by Disney, the film does the impossible; it almost lives up to the original.
The premise is simple. The Banks children, Jane and Michael, (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw), are now grown. Michael’s wife has just passed leaving him to raise three children in his childhood home. However, his boss at the bank (Colin Firth), is about to take their home. In steps, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and her friend Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda), there to bring joy to the children and hope to the Banks children.
Hitting the same beats as the original, each song, character, and moment in the modern sequel, could be paired up with one in the original. This isn’t a bad thing, if anything, its smart. There’s a reason why the original is beloved. The differences in the new one, provide enough change to differentiate itself from the classic, but still touch upon the reasons why we love the first.
The original Mary Poppins is the gateway drug into bittersweet endings. I truly believe that it one of a child’s earliest exposures to a movie ending that doesn’t get wrapped with a bow. She brings the family together, but that means she has to fly away to help more children. This is an important narrative lesson that kids need to learn, that the best stories don’t always end the way we expect them to and that they can hurt a little.
The new one touches upon this idea a little bit. However, it lacks the subtle simplicity of the original. Heart is overshadowed by the film’s visual spectacle in the new one. It doesn’t mean it’s not moving. It is, but it does not have the balance of heart, spectacle, and childhood magic that the original had, and seems slightly uneven and lacking in substance.
The film’s pacing is fast in a way that the original isn’t. Jokes, lyrics, and subtly important plot details fly over a younger audience’s head. This could be due to the evolution of filmmaking and the nature of our ever dwindling attention spans, but because of its pacing combined with the above mention narrative issue, the film feels like something missing something. Something small, but the hole is there.
Visually, Disney has outdone its self. Where the narrative struggles a bit to keep the heart of the original, the production value has surpassed expectations even by modern standards. Providing a mix between practical effects, CGI, and standard flat animation, the film’s visual realism is astounding. The color palette in this film is even more vibrant than the first. The costumes often combine standard animation with traditional cloth in a way that makes everything pop. This film will win Oscars for its production value.
The acting in this film is great. Firth, Mortimer, Whishaw, and Julie Walters, all veteran actors, give solid performances. Meryl Streep is charming in her brief, albeit maybe unneeded, part. Lin Manuel Miranda brings a childlike glee, and in the spirit of the original’s Bert, not that great of a British accent. I don’t know if this is intentional, but it rings true to the original. Dick Van Dyke returns in this film and I’m happy to report that his accent, one that was over exaggerated in the original and often named the worst British accent ever, has, like Van Dyke, only gotten better and more charming with age. The only original cast member, Van Dyke provides a brief but sweet performance that pulls the adult viewer back into their childhood.
But what about Mary? Julie Andrews left Emily Blunt with enormous shoes to fill and for the most part she fills them beautifully. There’s a craftiness to her Poppins that rings more true to the book rather than the original. She seems quieter in this one, though her words, motivations, and actions are pointed, purposeful and clear. She hits every eye roll, every comedic beat with gusto, but sometimes lacks the spoonful of sugar that we’ve come to know Mary Poppins’s to have.
For Poppins’s purists, the film measures up to the original fairly well. What I am excited to see is how the younger generation embraces this film. Watching Mary Poppins at a young age is a rite of passage for many children. Mary Poppins Returns could easily glide into that tradition, umbrella open and carpet bag in hand.
Final Grade: B