Movie review: Mary Poppins returns

January 15, 2019

JULIE Andrews started appearing in stage musicals at London’s West End in 1948. She made her debut in Broadway in “The Boyfriend” in 1954 and popularized the role of Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” in 1956. When Warner Bros. made “My Fair Lady” into a movie, they bypassed her and got the more established film star Audrey Hepburn to play the lead role, using a ghost singer, Marni Nixon (who also sang for Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” and Nathalie Wood in “West Side Story”).

Most people sympathized with Julie, who was then tapped by Disney to play the title role of “Mary Poppins” after Walt Disney saw her performing on Broadway as Guinevere in “Camelot”. Both “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins” were released in 1964. Julie won as Oscar best actress playing Mary Poppins, her very first movie. Audrey was not even nominated by the Oscar, but “My Fair Lady” won as best picture and the leading man, Rex Harrison, who popularized the role of Prof. Higgins on stage, won as best actor.

The next year, Julie shone even more in “The Sound of Music” as Maria (where she’s actually more deserving to win), but she didn’t win the Oscar, upstaged by another Julie (Christie, for “Darling”), but she did win the Golden Globe best actress award. “Mary Poppins” was turned by Cameron Mackintosh into a stage musical in 2004 and now, after 54 years, Disney has come up with a sequel in “Mary Poppins Returns”.

So why did it take that long before a sequel was made when the first movie ended with Dick Van Dyke, playing Bert, saying: “Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don’t stay away too long”? The very first “Mary Poppins” book was written by PL (Pamela Lyndon) Travers in 1934 and had seven sequels. Walt Disney courted her in 1961 to sell him the movie rights, but she resisted the idea. This was effectively dramatized in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” in 2013 with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers.

When the movie was finally completed, Travers felt Disney did a disservice to her character by including songs and animation. Disney passed two years later and his successors tried to convince Travers for them to do a sequel but she resisted it. She passed in 1996 at the age of 96. “Mary Poppins Returns” can never be made during her lifetime. We’ve now just seen it and it’s very faithful to the first movie, so it can be easily deduced that she’d also treat the sequel with disdain as she did the original.

The new movie is directed by Rob Marshall, director of other musicals like “Chicago” (which won several Oscars), “Nine” and “Into the Woods”. He chooses to make his movie a homage and retains the flavor and tone of the original’s style of songs, costumes and set design and, the effect, for those who’ve seen the first movie, can be very nostalgic. But it just never succeeds to surpass the original as the songs then are more catchy and memorable, from “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, “Feed the Birds” and “Chim Chiminey” to “Just a Spoonful of Sugar” and even “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.  The songs in the sequel are not as contagiously hummable. The best are the music hall sequence, “A Cover is not a Book”, and the well-choreographed “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

The story now is set in 1935 or 25 years after the first movie. The Banks children, Michael and Jane are now grownups, played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer. They are informed by the bank that they’re in danger of losing their home because of unpaid debts. Michael is now a widowed and addled father of three children: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson).

With him beset by many problems, it’s time for the magical trouble-shooting nanny with her talking umbrella and bottomless bag of treats to return, this time played by Emily Blunt who just battled aliens in “Quiet Place”. This time, her best friend is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author of such hit musicals “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” in his first big movie), a lamp lighter in London who later becomes the love interest of Jane.

Michael can settle all his problems if he could only prove that his father owned shares in the bank, but a scheming bank executive, William Wilkins (Colin Firth), is doing his own sly moves to make sure he would lose his house. This is the conflict on which the narrative revolves and before it’s solved, Mary attends to the three children and takes them on fantastic trips along with Jack, including an underwater adventure inside a bathtub and a delightful sequence where live action and animation merge, just like in the original “Mary Poppins”. The ending shows the cast floating in the air with multi-colored balloons for a memorable finale song, “Nowhere to Go But Up”.  

In one of these journeys, Mary also takes the kids to an amazing visit to her upside-down sister, Topsy, played by Meryl Streep who spectacularly demonstrates once again in this show-stopper that there is nothing she could not do.

We don’t think Emily would win the Oscar as Mary, like Julie did. Julie is Julie, but Emily succeeds in making her own interpretation; only, she’s more stern, like a haughty headmistress. We read somewhere that Julie was offered to do a significant guest role here, but she politely turned it down so Emily can shine totally on her own.

We guess the cameo role is that of the Balloon Lady in the ending, which went to Angela Lansbury of “Murder She Wrote”, who’s now 93 years old and is still singing! Angela made her mark then in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, also by Disney so we’re not surprised that she was the one tapped when Julie bowed out of the project.

But Dick Van Dyke agreed to make a cameo as Mr. Dawes Jr., who saved Michael from the wily clutches of Colin Firth. In the original, Dick played two roles as Bert, the chimney cleaner, and also as Mr. Dawes Sr. Just like Angela Lansbury, he’s now also 93 years old and is still singing… and even dancing on top of a table.

Lin-Manuel Miranda does a fairly impressive screen debut as the singing and dancing Jack with a Cockney accent. He does a good job of singing the very first song at the opening of the movie, “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”, as he bikes around the city at daybreak. Giving more than adequate support are Whishaw and Mortimer as Michael and Jane, Julie Walters as their zany housekeeper, and the three child actors who manage to hold their own singing and dancing with their irrepressible nanny.

The movie is perfect for an older generation of viewers who are seeking to recapture their lost youth. We saw this with two Baby Boomer friends and we all enjoyed it. We’ve asked our 10-year granddaughter Jane to watch “Mary Poppins Returns” with us and she says: “But I don’t know her.” She preferred watching “Bumblebee”.