Mary Poppins Returns (rating 4/5)
It has taken half a century to make the sequel to the classic children’s movie Mary Poppins, largely because author PL Travers refused Disney’s wishes while she was alive. For the most part, the wait has been worth it.
From the opening credits, accompanied by a lavish, joyous score, Mary Poppins Returns works on a number of levels, as director Rob Marshall (Chicago) recreates the traditional show-stopping cinematic experience.
Much of its success was always dependent on Emily Blunt who took on a big risk by stepping into Julie Andrews’ horizontally-skewed shoes. Her performance adopts the prim and caring, yet strongly disciplinarian characteristics of her predecessor – as was necessary if we were to believe this really is Mary Poppins returning to save the Banks family in depression-hit London, 20 years after she first descended from the clouds.
Blunt adds further reassurance with some familiar touches – the self-admiring glances into the mirror, and the spick-spot asides to the children of Michael (Ben Whishaw), now grown up and widowed.
There are many other references to the 1964 original, not least a rousing song and dance routine by a gang of lamp lighters, updated from the chimney sweeps, and the blend of live acting with animation that cleverly emulates the classic hand-drawn Disney style of the early movies.
Blunt’s own singing and dancing reveals a versatility hitherto hidden in her acting CV. She is partnered in several songs by Broadway’s new star Lin-Manuel Miranda who plays Jack, a former apprentice chimney sweep to Bert, played in the first film by Dick Van Dyke who, at 92, appears here as the ageing banker Mr Dawes.
Disney favourite Angela Lansbury makes an appearance as a balloon seller, while Meryl Streep plays a dizzy cousin of Mary in a scene that recalls the floating “I love to laugh” original, though in this follow up it’s a bit short on laughs. Poppins fans may spot a small speaking part for Karen Dotrice, the original Jane (now played by Emily Mortimer), sister of Michael.
The film had a budget of $130m and is not practically perfect in every way, but nor was the original. The jury will be out for some time on whether the new songs will have the resonance of the classic originals. That’s a big ask. They’re catchy enough, but there is nothing to match A Spoonful of Sugar, Step in Time, or Feed the Birds. Nor do we get any new additions to the language to follow Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
While Blunt supplies the magic and slightly mischievous charm, Miranda and Whishaw play their parts a little too seriously, lacking the buffoonery of Van Dyke and the misguided indignation of David Tomlinson (Michael’s father in the original) who both made the adults funny and ridiculous. The script is generally short on humour and needed at least one comedic character to create some giggles. Lee Evans would have been the perfect lamp lighter.
Aside from that, this is a film that feels like it could have been made 50 years ago. It is expected to feature highly in the Oscars and should provide filmgoers, young and old with a bit of clean, honest escapism at a time when we all need some light relief.
On general release. Certificate U, running time 2 hours 10 minutes