I should start by saying Julie Andrews’ films were the foundation of my childhood. Mary Poppins, The Princess Diaries and The Sound of Music provided the soundtrack to the Abu Dhabi flat I shared with my family. It wasn’t until last year that I learned that the latter is almost three hours long — so entranced I was with Andrews’ balancing act of proper lady and free spirit, time seemed to melt away. So I entered the sequel to one of my formative films with measured expectations. Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns is certainly charming in the moment —its bright colours and jaunty musical numbers can make the feet of biggest skeptics tap— but after awhile the spell dissipates. On the drive home, I listened to the soundtrack — not to Mary Poppins Returns, but to the original film. Julie Andrews’ spoonful of sugar goes down much smoother.
Mary Poppins Returns continues a trend of legacy sequels that are not aimed for kids. Instead, the target demographic is the parents of the kids who used to watch Disney classics on VHS. In true 2018 fashion, these films exist to remind you that not only is your life super shitty, but your favourite characters’ lives are too. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are all grown up and still living in the Banks’ home on Cherry Tree Lane. Jane is a labour activist and doting aunt to Michael’s three children, while Michael is still grieving the death of his wife who passed away a year earlier. In the wake of financial troubles, he’s had to take a position as a teller at the bank where his father was a partner and take out a mortgage on his house. An unwelcome visitor comes in the form of two lawyers who tell him he’s behind on his payments and will lose his home.
It seems wrong to compare the two films, but Mary Poppins Returns makes it unavoidable. The film plays like a cover version. Save the grown-up narrative, it follows the original beat for beat. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) flies down from the sky on her umbrella, takes the children on a 2D-animated adventure (a highlight), visits a relative with a gravity-defying affliction (Meryl Streep, in perhaps her most unnecessary attempt for a supporting actress nomination yet) and teaches the father how to feel joy again. So derivative is this sequel, they couldn’t even be bothered to make Jane and Michael any different from their parents. The film proves that the magic of the original is a formula that can’t be replicated.
Emily Blunt is terrific, if underused. Mary Poppins is a difficult character to nail: a wise teenager called Lady Bird once said “you can’t be scary AND warm,” but Mary Poppins is just that, and Blunt does a fine job of capturing her endearing contradictions. You’d be forgiven for thinking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter Jack is the real main character. As the Bert of this film, he features more prominently on the soundtrack and contributes more to the story, while Blunt is relegated to the sidelines to give a knowing smile every so often. One thing: the women do nothing. Perhaps Emily Mortimer is the actress who is most grossly misused, despite the joy and warmth she brings to Jane. Apart from a single scene which sees Jane make her way to a protest with picket signs in tow, her only role in the story is to be Jack’s love interest.
The one Mary Poppins Returns is a fine film. That’s it, just fine. You can’t really call it escapist (it never wastes a moment to remind you the Banks are in excruciating debt), but it’s an enjoyable time. Like its homogeneous music, the memory of it leaves as soon as it entered.