DIR: Rob Marshall • WRI: David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca • PRO: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt • DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Wyatt Smith • DES: John Myhre • MUSIC: Marc Shaiman • CAST: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw |
‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’, and of course. the merciless tongue twister that is ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, these are not songs, but anthems, their notes drop like anchors into the rock-bed of our cinematic memory. As if preprogrammed before birth, we could hum, whistle ‘n’ toot each melody before mastering our ABCs. But Mary Poppins (1964) wasn’t just a hit with kids, it was hugely critically adored, setting the record for Disney’s most Academy Award wins for a single film. Practically no other Disney live action film before or since has even come close to the critical and lucrative triumph that Mary Poppins was.
So it’s somewhat surprising that The Mouse House waited this long to cash in on the original’s success with a sequel. It seemed as though Poppins neatly sidestepped fate while ill-conceived revisions such as Freaky Friday (2003) and Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005) crammed the bargain pits of video stores around the world. But now with Disney’s Stalin-esque 5 year plan to renovate our childhoods, we’re told to quietly stand aside while our memories are systematically peeled back like worn floorboards. With the success of Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast’(2017), it was only a matter of time before Mickey & Co knocked on the door of 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Cue, Mary Poppins Returns (2018), taking place 20 years after the original with both Jane and Michael all grown up, it’s his kids who are now in need of the enchanted brand of babysitting only Miss Poppins can provide. And for all the nail-biting preconceptions one might have, the pitch seemed promising: A stellar cast, all new songs, and even a rumored Dick Van Dyke cameo were on the cards, it’s as if Hollywood were about to adapt my letter to Santa Claus before my very eyes.
It’s a pity then, that the final product seems a half-hearted attempt to re-conjure what magic its predecessor inspired. A sequel wavering between a reboot and rehash, it’s as though Disney reheated the leftovers of the original and left us to wade through the flavourless slab of familiarity. What the film does offer is a series of superficial tweaks that do little to spur our imagination. And although it’s unfair to compare the titles, it’s inevitable, especially when we’re constantly being reminded with winks, nudges and nods so frequent you’d swear someone’s head would fall off.
Thankfully Emily Blunt (with head still attached) makes matters bearable. A refreshing take on Poppins, her tough love approach is in stark contrast to Julie Andrews’ portrayal, and sits more closely to PL Travers’ source books. It’s Lin – Manuel Miranda’s Jack who – acting as a stand in for Van Dyke’s Bert – seems let down by a poor script and stranded on screen as a result. In giving a more earnest sensibility to his character, his doe-eyed expressions lack the anarchic glint that made the role so beloved. We soon find ourselves yearning for the giddy limbs of Van Dyke, a vibration of sublime silliness the film desperately needs.
There’s no doubt though that Miranda is a song and dance man, his ‘Trip A Little Light Fantastic’ might be the most memorable tune in a film of instantly forgettable hooks. There’s pretty wordplay and intricate phrasing throughout the film’s numbers but it all serves to make monotonous melodies that strive to echo the Sherman Brothers’ original arrangements. It’s a good thing then that there’s plenty of sights to distract us from the film’s many sounds. London town is blaring with colour, it’s clear to see that a great amount of work has gone into its design.
It’s the film’s garbled politics, however, that are hard to ignore. In what seems like a series of checked boxes Mary Poppins Returns pretends to reject notions of inequality without ever leaving its orbit. In an ending where our characters get, not only what they need but – on top of that – exactly what they want (if not more) we’re left scratching our heads at a world view that would make Boots Riley shake his fist.
Mary Poppins Returns marks Disney’s latest attempt to coax out our inner child only then to rob them of their lunch money. But for all its missteps and downfalls the film is watchable, listenable, just not recommendable.