Date night December 2018: rained out of a lot of options we headed out for a kid-less dinner and a movie. The choice: Mary Poppins Returns. You may ask why we chose to see this movie sans kids…at ages 6 & 4 a lot of times it is difficult for one or both of our kids to sit through a movie, especially in the evening and we weren’t sure how a non-cartoon movie would hold their attention. Truth be told, the glass of wine I had at dinner had left me quite sleepy and I may have been snoozing a little during the previews, leaving Andrew to wonder if maybe I should only see movies during the daytime too!
I actually didn’t have any set expectations of this movie, I don’t even know that I had seen any advertising for it other than a preview during Into the Spider-verse. We live in an era of re-boots, remakes and endless sequels, prequels and retakes. For an 80s baby who grew up during the boom of Disney movies in the 1990s, the recent remaking of classics such as Beauty and the Beast tend to leave a little bitter taste in my mouth. Not that the remakes aren’t made well but, geez, doesn’t anyone have any new ideas? Can’t they just leave my beloved originals alone? So now here we have a remake/sequel from a beloved childhood movie which this year is actually 54 years old. Would the magic remain in the world of Mary Poppins or would it be erased by the stink of CGI and over-doneness?
I am proud to say that Disney did a wonderful job of recreating the world of the Banks family and the magic of Mary Poppins. There is enough of a connection to the original with Michael and Jane, the kids in the original, now being the adults that need to remember the magic of imagination just as their parents did before them. Not to mention the return of Mary Poppins iconic parrot umbrella, the dancing penguins and magic carpetbag. Yet, this movie stands strong on its own. If anything I think this story is a lot deeper emotionally than the original. For example, in this rendition Michael has recently lost his wife, leaving him and his 3 children struggling to pick of the pieces. Whereas in the original the kids are just kind of brats, here the children’s “misbehavior” is actually altruistic as they try to help their father keep their family home.
It is incredibly hard to live up to the original Academy Award winning Mary Poppins portrayed by Julie Andrews some 54 years ago but I have to give some mad props to Emily Blunt. She did a wonderful job pulling together the “strictness” of Mary Poppins as a nanny mixed with the sly mischievousness that leads them to new adventures. There was even a reprisal of Mary Poppin’s self-examination in a mirror–“perfect in every way”. Equally charming was Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack the lamplighter who takes on Dick Van Dyke’s role as the Mary Poppins “groupie” who tags along for the ride. Of course one has to mention the appearances of Meryl Streep as the eccentric cousin Topsy and the cameos of Dick Van Dyke as the bank’s Mr. Dawes and Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady at the end of the film. The one missing piece however, in my mind at least, was a cameo by Julie Andrews. I kept waiting and waiting and it never happened. I looked up why and read that she didn’t want to upstage or disrupt Emily Blunt’s performance. I guess that is reasonable–after all, the cameo by Dick Van Dyke was not his main character Bert (who was told to be off exploring the world).
You can never replace the classics such as “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragalisticexpialidocious” and I’m so glad this rendition didn’t try to. I wasn’t sure what music was going to start coming out of the speakers–were they going to sing these traditional Mary Poppins songs? The soundtrack is all original and I am already sooooo in love with some of the songs. The ultimate tearjerker (which I still can’t listen to without crying) “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is absolutely beautiful while “Trip a Little Light Fantastics” brings back the energy to the film. Now, if you want some nostalgia from the original film just listen closely–you’ll find hints of our favorite Mary Poppins tunes hidden throughout the score, just enough to satisfy that hunger but still let this soundtrack/score stand on its own.
Couple of Criticisms:
Anytime you try to take a classic and remake/remaster it you will always have to deal with comparisons and the criticisms will be harsher if you fail to live up to the standards of the beloved original. While I really really really enjoyed this film I do feel there are a couple of talking points on the downside:
The plot is an exact replica of the original. Family in discordance, nanny arrives. Nanny reveals she has magical powers of imagination during a mundane task (original–cleaning the nursery, now–taking a bath). Then they are off to jump into an animated world–in this case it was creatively the painting on a family heirloom bowl. Upon their return they are lulled to sleep by a swoony ballad sung by none other than Mary Poppins herself. The next stop on their journey is to an eccentric relative where things literally turn upside down and then they go to the bank to try to solve the family problems. When dismissed by their father, the children and Mary Poppins take the long way home, only to be guided by Jack and his Lamplighters in a reprisal of the chimney sweep dance of the original.
Feeling defeated by the system, they have all but given up but to be saved by the generous old timer at the bank where then they return feeling all giddy as a family and off to “fly a kite” or in this instance, on a balloon. Although I could sense it at the time, it’s only in looking back after Andrew mentioned it that I see this as a drawback. While predictable, I think for us Mary Poppins nostalgic folks it reminded us of everything we loved of the original but was done well enough that it didn’t feel mundane.
I also felt Michael’s sister Jane was somewhat misplaced in this movie. She of course comes to her brother’s aide to help him keep the family house but along the way is somewhat pushed into a relationship with the lamplighter Jack, which really adds nothing to the story at all. It’s notable that she has taken up her mother’s flag as a progressive labor organizer and demonstrates her independence quite clearly, including in her dress. While I hate to seem superficial and comment on her costume–I felt like she was very out of place. I can see a woman of the 1930s wearing pants instead of dresses but the outfits she wore, to me at least, seemed out of the 1960s or 70s. The rest of the cast was maintained in period attire and in my opinion she stood out like a sore thumb.
And finally, I wasn’t a fan of one song–well, the song wasn’t really the issue but I wasn’t a fan of how it was portrayed. While at the Royal Doulton Music Hall (on the animated bowl of course!) Mary and Jack sing “A Cover is Not the Book”. The somewhat rowdy tune has a good lesson to teach but done in a vaudeville-type act that I didn’t really find tasteful, particularly for a Mary Poppins song. There was something sexualized about it, I can’t pinpoint if it was sly references in the lyrics or the dancing that I swear had some major hip thrusts. I guess they were just tying it to the era but I wasn’t a fan.
A well done remake that stands its ground on its own but let’s those who want to bask in the nostalgia of the original.
Final Grade: A-/B+