Kites and umbrellas and lamplighter fellas dancing round gas-lights for joy; with a house in arrears, a widower fears for his family; but when he was a boy…Two decades ago, a nanny arrived with magic and many a song. And now she’s returned to continue her work to put right what is all going wrong.
Tough gig writing lyrics. Tougher still to follow the Sherman Brothers whose ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ songs went down like a spoonful of sugar with Disney audiences back in 1964. Mary Poppins’ initial run made an eye-popping $44 million worldwide – more than enough to feed the birds - and bagged five Oscars for visual effects, music and its star Julie Andrews. Beloved of many, old-hat to some, returning to a magical property is a brave move.
It’s the 1930s and Mr Banks, the grown-up Michael Banks from the first movie, is still living in Cherry Tree Lane with his three children and grieving the loss of his wife. Distracted in mourning and scatty of brain, he’s behind on payments with the house. And unless he makes good by the end of the week, it’ll be snaffled by the bank for which he, and the first film’s Mr Banks, worked. His sister Jane and the three savvy kids try to keep it together. But it’s a kite-borne Mary Poppins who returns to save our new Mr Banks.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) brings his verve and visual palette to Disney’s hallowed treasure. Recent revisits have taken a contemporary turn from the Jungle Book re-spin to the upcoming Dumbo, Lion King and Aladdin, blending live action with CGI. But Marshall’s film is an astonishingly accomplished return, as the title suggests, to the musical and visual style of the '50s and early '60s. There’s no sop to modern day audiences. Close your eyes and you’re hearing the lush strings and rhythms of the Disney classics of old. Open them - the animation looks as hand-drawn as ever, interiors sound-stagey and shot in twee ‘keep off the grass’ parks.
Emily Blunt wisely eschews any attempt to mimic Julie Andrews. She’s her own mysterious, mischievous self. Only in the songs does her voice align with Andrews’. Yet Marshall constantly draws comparisons with the original. Poppins’ reflection stays in the mirror after Mary passes by. Cherry Tree Lane is stupendously recreated. There’s a cheery lamplighter – a leery – rather than a chimney sweep. Instead of a roof-top smoke-stack dance, there’s a many-leery lamppost routine. But in creating these comparisons, Marshall only reveals the two-dimensional quality of Mary Poppins Returns.
The original was a series of timeless tunes and off-the-wall animated sequences, hence the cluster of Oscars. Mary Poppins Returns lacks consistent power in both departments. Only the mid-movie ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ strikes the heart and makes it skip, likely to live on as a memorial to loved ones. ‘Can You Imagine That?’ is a jaunty intro to the film’s animation, a descent through a bathtub to an undersea world.
The film does have its surprises – one good, one bad. A cameo from Meryl Streep as Poppins’ Cousin Topsy is a blast, her upturned house-interior a marvel of set design, and the song ‘Turning Turtle’ is deliciously delivered in an Eastern European accent. Of course, it’s akin to the original’s ‘I Love to Laugh’ in which Uncle Albert floats around his wacky apartment. This time at least, Marshall’s parallel approach pays off.
But Marshall’s tribute to himself is a bomb. Amidst an otherwise wonderfully surreal animated sequence where Poppins, the children and the lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) are transported into the pattern of a Royal Doulton bowl, Marshall inserts a song-and-dance straight out of Chicago. Cutting across the entire tone and period palette, Emily Blunt’s Poppins - now a dead-ringer for Catherine Zeta-Jones, complete with a black-hair bob - riffs it with Miranda in the innuendo-infused ‘The Cover is Not a Book’. Disney isn’t noted for nudge-nudge humour. And while Julie Andrews did do nude in another movie, her Mary Poppins didn’t do quips about a quickie.
Mary Poppins Returns boasts a great cast. Ben Wishaw corners the market in re-done children’s classics, moving from Paddington’s voice to the grown-up Mr Banks. Walt Disney’s one-time choice to play Poppins – Angela Lansbury – can still carry a tune at 93. Julie Walters is wasted as a dotty maid but Colin Firth has a ball as the Bad Wolf and a Banker – the same thing in Hollywood these days. And Dick Van Dyke still has the legs, in his 90s, to caper about in a fitting cameo. Karen Dotrice – the first film’s Jane Banks – also appears, credited as an “Elegant Woman”.
Hard to see how it’ll find a lasting audience though. Lin-Manuel Miranda is likeable but doesn’t have the larger-than-life appeal of Van Dyke. So with the songs: serviceable but so-so. As a recreation of the world and sounds of a foregone era, it’s an incredible achievement. In ethos – ‘be childlike but, oh, money matters too’, it’s akin to the original and such dare-to-believe fantasies as Miracle on 34th Street.
But will anyone remember this in five years, let alone fifty? As the song says, the cover is not the book.