I wish the Disney company would stop remaking and rehashing the gems in its vast library. Do we really need a live-action version of The Lion King? Did anyone ask for a sequel to Mary Poppins, one of the best-loved movies of all time? The answer, in both cases, is no.
That said, I must admit that Mary Poppins Returns is pretty good. A sequel, not a remake, it does no disservice to the 1964 classic; in fact, it does everything imaginable to copy it. Movie newcomer Lin-Manuel Miranda is utterly charming as a lamp-lighter who invites us into the film’s stylized environment by singing a charming song, “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky.” A great opening, bookended by an even better finale, “Nowhere to go but Up.” If the very titles of these songs sound reminiscent, that’s completely intentional. The nine new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are clever, tuneful substitutes for the immortal songs Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman wrote for the original film. They work quite well in the context of the new story, set in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Whether any of them will live on outside of the movie, I cannot say.
Emily Blunt is a good choice as Mary Poppins, with a serious demeanor and a twinkle in her eye. It’s unfair, yet unavoidable, to compare her with Julie Andrews, who smiles more easily and has a warmer personality. Lin-Manuel Miranda has charisma to spare and musical talent to burn; his lamp-lighter is an ingenious paraphrase of Bert the chimney sweep.
If there are any culturally impoverished children or parents who haven’t seen Walt Disney’s masterpiece, they would have no reason to dislike Mary Poppins Returns. But after a while I had a sense that everyone was working too hard. The goal is to make a film like this look effortless.
All the contributors to this film, beginning with Disneyphile director Rob Marshall, clearly cared about this precious property and treated it with the utmost reverence. Everyone from Ben Whishaw to Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Meryl Streep bring life to the film–but I must say that it’s Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke who truly light up the screen.
The story culminates with another paraphrase: instead of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” we have “Nowhere to Go but Up,” substituting balloons for kites. This elaborate grand finale brought a big smile to my face and finally caught me up as I wish the whole movie did.
It may be a back-handed compliment to say Mary Poppins Returns is better than I thought it would be, but that’s the truth. I wish Disney hadn’t made this film at all, but since they did I’m glad they put it in the hands of talented people who knew what was at stake and gave it their all.