Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Mary Poppins Returns

Rating

Director

Rob Marshall

Screenplay

David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca

Length

2h 10m

Starring

Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Jim Norton

MPAA Rating

PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action.

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Soundtrack

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Review

For anyone who grew up with Julie Andrews as the ultimate nanny, Mary Poppins Returns is a bittersweet affair. Andrews chose not to return to the sequel in a guest role, but we’ve been given a bountiful array of actors to take the place of the original cast.

Picking up the umbrella in Andrews’ place is Emily Blunt who gives the titular character charm, heart, and musical excitement. Taking over for Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep is Lin-Manuel Miranda as the lamplighter Jack. Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw star as the elder Banks children from the original film, Michael and Jane, now grown 25 years after the first feature.

Ever since Blunt broke through opposite Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, she has proven that she’s adept in all cinematic forms. While we knew that she had the vocal talent thanks to her lead role in Into the Woods, she proves more than Miranda’s equal. Miranda, who rose to fame with his celebrated musicals In the Heights and, more notably, Hamilton, can’t even hold a candle to her.

Whishaw himself is a capable singer delivering the film’s most emotional performance with the tune “A Conversation.” Mortimer does fine as his sister, but is never given her own musical act, which is somewhat disappointing. The kids are all suitably charming as well. Meryl Streep’s mid-film appearance as a tinkerer who leads the cast in a performance of “Turning Turtle” is painful to watch. While she’s a solid musical performer, this is so utterly underwhelming that it could have been cut from the film and no one would have noticed or cared.

With Miranda’s involvement, one would have thought he’d have a hand in writing the film’s songs. After all, he did strong work with Disney’s Moana. Yet, the entire score is written by Marc Shaiman with Scott Wittman joining to write the original songs. One of the title cards references Richard M. Sherman as a music consultant. As the co-writer of the 1964 original (with brother Robert B. Sherman), it’s evident that Shaiman and Wittman wished to create a derivation of the original rather than a completely new score. The music and the songs sound quite similar to the original and that helps with building familiarity in the audience, but also means that the film suffers from a seeming lack of inventiveness. The songs are also not indelibly memorable as the original films’ were.

Apart from “A Conversation,” there are only three songs that manage to stand apart from the production. “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” is a fun pastiche while “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is a touching, not terribly emotional, track. These two fall a middling third and fourth among the list with “A Conversation” at the top and the bubbly final production number “Nowhere to Go But Up” coming in just below it.

That final production number is the pleasure of the film for another reason thanks to the cameo appearance of a film and stage legend. Although it’s pretty easy to guess who it is, the moment of the reveal is something of rapturous delight. There’s a separate cameo during the film’s climax that more than pays for the price of admission as well, but again, knowing who it is might ruin some of the joy that results.

The film’s director, Rob Marshall, has now delivered four musicals to cinemas out of his six feature films (Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides being the exceptions). While Chicago put him on the map and remains his best work, Mary Poppins Returns edges Into the Woods out as his second best musical adaptation. The less said about the execrable, even if compelling, Nine the better.

Marshall has carved out a niche in the genre, one that will be tested with the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid, and has proven he is capable of terrific staging, appreciating how the actors’ movements and dancing is key to the film’s enjoyment and success. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here and while Memoirs of a Geisha is better than all but Chicago, it’s evident that he belongs in this genre.

As entertaining and enjoyable as this film is, everything about Mary Poppins Returns feels like it was cribbed from the original while still managing to carve out its own minorly inventive niche. Keeping tone and style is important for a sequel 54 years after the first film released to theaters. While all of the songs weren’t the highest of caliber, enough worked, which made for a pleasant viewing experience. And the two cameos at the end of the film more than erased many of the frustrations.

Review Written

February 27, 2019

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