What were they thinking? How could Disney even think of creating a sequel to one of its most iconic movies of all time 54 years after the first came out in theaters? But Disney is Disney. Nobody was asking for a sequel to Mary Poppins, but who is going to tell them no? Lucky for us, Disney went against logic and went with their motto of faith, trust and pixie dust and created a worthy successor.
The film doesn’t surpass the original (I think everyone can agree that there isn’t a better Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews) but instead, it plays as a love letter to the original. Director Rob Marshall went to great lengths to keep the tone, story, music and sets looking and feeling similar to the first film while at the same time allowing Emily Blunt to give her own version of Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins Returns takes place 20-something years after the first movie. Jane and Michael are now all grown up. Jane (a delightful Emily Mortimer) has followed her mother’s footsteps becoming a progressive female (she wears pants!) and works to help those less fortunate. She hasn’t married and assumes “that ship has sailed.” Grown up Michael has also followed his father’s footsteps somewhat working part time at the same bank his dad did as a teller but longing to be an artist. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a fairly new widower and father of three kids of his own: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). He and the kids live in his childhood home – at least they do at the beginning of the movie. Lawyers tell him that he is about to lose the home if he doesn’t pay the remainder of the loan by the end of the week. And just like that, Mary Poppins arrives! Strangely, Mary doesn’t look any older but she’s the same old Mary and still practically perfect.
Like the first film, Returns interrupts the main story with a series of short adventures for the kids with Mary’s friend, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who is NOT Bert. (Bert is mentioned early on in the film, but is never shown). And Jack is a lamplighter, not a chimney sweep. However, like Bert, he does have a lot of buddies who like to dance about while lighting up the street lamps.
Many elements from the first film are revisited here in a different form. Instead of singing about “A Spoonful of Sugar” while cleaning the nursery, the group sings “Can You Imagine That?” during bath time. Instead of Bert singing verses from “Chim Chim Cheer-ee,” Jack sings about “Underneath the Lovely London Sky.” Instead of jumping into a chalk drawing into a hand-drawn animation sequence, the group goes there via a spinning ceramic pot. Instead of visiting Uncle Albert who had a terrible case of floating around in his home, the kids visit Mary’s cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) whose workshop has turned upside down. The chimney sweep number “Step in Time” is replaced with lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and on it goes.
Portions of the original film’s songs are sprinkled here and there as well as famous lines. Mary Poppins is still carrying around that umbrella with the talking parrot head and carpet bag that contains literally everything. The film also features a few family characters and faces including the cartoon penguins, the eccentric neighbor Admiral Boom (this time played by David Warner) who lives in the ship-shaped house and Mr. Dawes Jr. (who looks a lot like Mr. Dawes Sr. from the previous film) played by Dick Van Dyke. (The audience gave an applause when he showed up during the screening I attended. A similar reaction came when Angela Lansbury shows up at the end). Even Karen Dotrice who played Jane in the first film appears briefly as “Elegant Woman,” but if you blink, you’ll miss her.
The best way to enjoy this movie is to remove (as much as one can) any expectations you might have before seeing it and judge it based on its own merit. Some have complained that none of the new songs are as memorable at the “Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” but I say, give them some time. Most of the critics only remember the first film as a child and I suspect this new music will resonate with young movie-goers just as the old music did with us. Marc Shaiman’s music feels familiar but new which is probably due to the fact that Richard M. Sherman (who wrote the music for the original movie with his brother Robert) served as a musical consultant for the film. To really appreciate the music, listen to the film’s soundtrack. The lyrics are very clever, the orchestrations match the tone of classic Disney movies, and each actor gives an earnest approach to each song. Streep is especially good with her “Turning Turtle” song. How she is able to sing every line without a slip and in character is amazing, but then again, she’s Meryl Streep and should we really be surprised? And don’t be surprised if you get chocked up a bit during Whishaw’s solo, “A Conversation” as Michael laments how he misses his wife.
Mary Poppins Returns is not only a good sequel, but a good film period. Producing a new movie that is an original musical is not an easy task in this day and age (although The Greatest Showman helped to pave the way). The entire cast is perfect for their roles and the movie gives a lot of great life lessons along the way while also instilling the importance of family. Also, animation fans will be happy to see real hand-drawn animation on the screen once again, something the director insisted on while Disney wanted to go with computerized animation instead.
However, if I WAS going to compare this movie to the former, I must say that the two jarring moments that seemed out of place was Mary’s performance singing “A Cover is Not the Book” at the Royal Doulton Music Hall. It didn’t seem to go with Mary’s prim-and-proper ways. The other was how some of the lamplighters performed tricks with their BMX bikes which looked out of place for the time era. Both of those things are nit-picky though.
Although just about as long as the 1964 movie, Mary Poppins Returns has a snappier pace and actually feels shorter. Even squirmy kids might be able to make it all the way through. It’s the practically perfect family film for the season.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.