When Mary Poppins was released 55 years ago, it was both a cultural and a box office phenomenon. Blessed with a score filled with memorable songs – “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Supercalifragiliousexpialidotious,” “Once in Love with Mary,” and more – and a delightfully whimsical story, it won five Oscars, including a satisfying Best Actress win for Julie Andrews over Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, the role Andrews originated on Broadway. At the box office, it made over a hundred million dollars at a time when tickets were less than a dollar each. Given the number of tickets sold – over 110 million – it would have made nearly a billion dollars with the average cost of a ticket today. (My Fair Lady lagged $30 million behind Poppins in its box office that year.) Poppins was by far the most successful movie of Walt Disney’s career.
Mary’s creator, P.L. Travers, wrote several books in the series, so the idea of a sequel on the screen isn’t outlandish, but given the beloved status of the original, it’s an assignment fraught with pitfalls from the outset. It’s as likely to succeed as adding an extension onto the Taj Mahal or a 5th movement to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. That said, Mary Poppins Returns comes decently close.
It helps that Rob Marshall is the rare director active these days who has successfully pulled off a Hollywood musical, with his production of Chicago. His other venture into the genre, Into The Woods, was less successful, but then the source material was essentially a poison apple aimed at deconstructing the genre. The downside with Mary Poppins Returns is that he appears constrained by the structure of the original, though he manages to push its walls out a bit.
Part of the push comes from his lead actress. Emily Blunt was a brilliant choice to play Mary, and it likely helped that she and Marshall had already worked together on Woods. Rather than go to the original movie for the character, Blunt went back to the books. The Mary in the books is a sharper, edgier character, and Blunt carries off the role with an imperiousness that infuses energy into the movie.
She’s ably assisted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the biggest Broadway star at this moment thanks to his mega-hit “Hamilton.” Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter in Depression-era London who’d been a boy when Mary Poppins first appeared at the Banks house decades earlier. He’s retained his child-like sense of wonder and optimism, which makes him a perfect accomplice tor Mary.
The children from the original movie, Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Michael lives in the original Banks house with his three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) and the housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Waters). They’ve had a hard time since Michael’s wife passed away the previous year, and he’d taken out a loan from the bank where his father worked (and where he works part-time) to manage. Now the loan’s due for repayment in full, and unless they can find a way to pay it off, they’ll lose the house. Into the chaos of their lives comes Mary Poppins once again, this time riding on the tail of a kite out of the clouds.
For the animated sequences, Marshall kept the 2D style of the first movie, and even has the penguins make a cameo appearance. Technology has progressed so much in the past five decades that the animation is far beyond the original with the incorporation of live-action characters, and these sequences are where Mary Poppins Returns truly outshines the original. Also, the dance choreography is far more involved that the original, especially a lamp lighter sequence – the spirit child of the chimney sweep dance – that utilizes bicycles and ladders.
Overall the cast is stellar. Colin Firth plays the bank manager Wilkins, a wolf in sheepish clothing, and David Warner takes over the role of the admiral next door. Chris O’Dowd lends his voice to a character while Angela Lansbury shows up near the end. Meryl Streep’s appearance as Mary’s Cousin Topsy feels strained and awkward, like they got her for the movie but then had to figure out some way to use her. Better is Dick Van Dyke’s return in a role he (sort of) did in the original, the elderly head of the bank. Less makeup was needed this time, but he can still cut the rug even in his 90s. There’s also a cameo (as an Elegant Woman) by Karen Dotrice, who originated the role of Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. Sadly, Matthew Garber, who played Michael, died from pancreatitis at age 22 in 1977.
The biggest hamstring to the production, though, is the music, and for a musical that’s a critical problem. Veteran composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman have created a score and songs that could be outtakes from the original film, and in the context of the scenes they’re okay. But you won’t be singing any of them when you leave the theater. They’re not memorable, or even catchy.
Another challenge with revisiting Mary Poppins is Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 Emma Thompson/Tom Hanks flick that looked both at the creation of the original movie as well as the family tragedy that led P.L. Travers to create Mary Poppins in the first place. If I may be permitted to mix in another childhood classic, once you’ve looked behind the curtain, it’s hare to believe in wizardry anymore.
Overall Mary Poppins Returns is an enjoyable movie, but the possibility of recapturing the wonder of the original is in the end impossible.