The fantastic MARY POPPINS RETURNS warms our socially-scarred hearts.
By Matt Cummings
How often do we utter the words “beloved” and “Disney” at the same time around here? I’ve written before about The Mouse House’s renaissance (now nearly 30 years strong); and while some recent fare haven’t met expectations, it’s clear they’re still on the right course in delivering loving family fare. No more is this evident than the delightful MARY POPPINS RETURNS, a visual and musical spectacle that instantly becomes a leading Oscar contender, filling our hearts with a warmth sorely needed in these trying political and cultural times.
Years have passed since Marry Poppins graced the home of the Banks family, and son Michael (Ben Wishaw) has since inherited his parents’ home, struggling to raise three children after the recent death of his wife. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and housekeeper Ellen (Julie Waters) do their best to help out, but after missing payments on the house Michael is soon given an eviction notice. While cleaning out his attic in a desperate attempt to find stock shares that will pay off the mortgage, Michael accidentally summons Poppins (Emily Blunt), who arrives to take care of youngest son Georgie (Joel Dawson), Annabel Banks (Pixie Davies) and oldest son John (Nathanael Saleh). But the prim and proper Poppins isn’t there to keep the children in line but instead to unleash their imaginations through songs and journeys to extraordinary places. Along the way, the family realizes that the bank president Wilkins (Colin Firth) wants to see them fail and as been plotting to take their home. With the help of a local lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Poppins will infuse the Banks family with a renewed sense of strength as they battle Wilkins for control of their home.
We’ve been gifted in 2018 with two extraordinary family films: January’s PADDINGTON 2 (which honestly deserves some sort of Oscar consideration on its own) and POPPINS, book-ended together almost to remind us that we adults take everything too seriously. From the moment Miranda struts his vocal stuff in the first 30 seconds, we know this is going to be hard on the tunes, and that’s not a problem at all. Many speak of hope in dark times, seeing things from a different perspective, and treating each other with a level of humanity that’s a direct rebuke of our unraveling social structure. Even when the songs aren’t making your toes tap, RETURNS radiates a hope and perseverance missing from the angst of social media and our divided political climate. When we get to that story, there’s clear markers that RETURNS is going to do its level best to remind us of the original. In fact, there’s a scene involving a bath tub and a dolphin that pretty much tells us to put all expectations of a grounded Mary Poppins in our back pocket and sit on it. We’re gifted extraordinary fantasy journeys in both animated and real space, with each feeling tone-perfect even if the songs go on a bit too long. But you’ll never see a better dance sequence involving bikes (yes, the ones you ride) as well the importance of taking a bath. Trust me, you’ll love it.
Director Rob Marshall has quietly been at the forefront of both fantasy and musicals, having helmed CHICAGO and INTO THE WOODS; with POPPINS it’s as if he’s taking everything he’s learned and upping the results. He takes wild chances in terms of the musical numbers, but also channels the original both in terms of spirit and look. The production value is off the charts, both in terms of set design and costumes. Everything is meticulously and lovingly rendered from the original and it’s clear that he and the cast are loving admirers of its larger cultural effect. At the center of this marvel is Blunt, who from the teaser trailer looks the part originally played by Julie Andrews. Blunt does her best Andrews throughout, floating effortlessly throughout the picture (sometimes literally floating) while Miranda and the child actors are understandably enamored of her. She radiates both firm nanny but loving adult at the same time, ready to inspire us with her style and ability to take us to new and exciting places. And boy does she and Marshall do that: we get those dolphins and a new cast of singing animals, all wrapped in some extraordinary CGI.
And yet with all this praise, it’s impossible to measure RETURNS to the original, which is one of the most beloved children’s movies of all time. But RETURNS sure tries to convince us that it deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, boasting a strong story, memorable musical numbers a terrific supporting cast. Miranda is terrific as well, belting out the tunes with a proper scanty London accent while Davies, Saleh, and Dawson shine as loving child actors that won’t grate on you. They’re so charming as a trio that you might want to even take them home. The one oddity is Firth, whose character never rises above mustache-twirler and whom we never learn his real intentions with the Banks’ home. Given the 2-hour-plus runtime, you’ll probably forgive Marshall for keeping his backstory to a minimum, although there is a scene near the end that would have been perfect for a momentary pause. Speaking of the end, there’s also a few cameos that you’ll enjoy, along with the arrival of Meryl Streep as Poppins’ eccentric cousin. But RETURNS is mostly concerned with making us feel happy, forcing us into loving it and beating us over the heads with huge doses of humanity. And it works.
THE BOTTOM LINE
MARY POPPINS RETURNS reminds us that there’s still this thing called hope, even given these trying times. Filled with more warmth and memorable music than a movie should, it is an instant Oscar contender. Blunt (especially) and company shine and the production design is meticulously memorable. While it has the DNA of a four-category blockbuster, it will also just make you feel good, reminding you of the best moments of your childhood. That alone is worth your time, and I promise the results will at least make you smile.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS is rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action and has runtime of 130 minutes.