(2018—Director: Rob Marshall)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
2018 was a banner year for Disney, who made over $7.33 billion in worldwide box office revenues. With its animation studios and ownership of multiple popular properties like Star Wars, much of Marvel Entertainment, and now much of 20th Century Fox, Disney has largely conquered the entertainment landscape, and they wisely chose to save the best for last. Mary Poppins Returns, the belated sequel to the beloved Oscar-winning 1964 musical fantasy (adapted from the novels of P.L. Travers), caps off 2018 for Disney. While lackluster plot developments take over the movie’s second half, Mary Poppins Returns boasts a wonderful soundtrack, is anchored with impressive resilience by Emily Blunt’s star performance, and miraculously reminds audiences of the rapturous beauty of classic Disney hand-drawn animation.
Mary Poppins Returns is set twenty-five years after the events of the 1964 film, deep in the midst of the Great Depression (or “Great Slump”, as an early on-screen title refers to it). Recent widower Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, succeeding Matthew Garber from the first film), once an aspiring artist and now a bank teller at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (FFB), lives in his childhood home on Cherry Tree Lane in London. With him are his children Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). In addition, longtime housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, succeeding Hermione Baddeley) and older sister Jane (Emily Mortimer, succeeding Karen Dotrice), now a labor organizer living on the other side of town, help Michael with the kids. The Banks family must scour the house for a certificate proving that Michael and Jane’s late father owned FFB bank shares that could pay back a priority loan. Without the certificate, associates (Jeremy Swift and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) of FFB bank president William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth) will repossess the house in five days.
What a perfect time for Michael and Jane’s titular childhood nanny (Emily Blunt, succeeding Julie Andrews) to make her entrance from the skies above and, with the jolly aid of lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, honoring Dick Van Dyke with his own, um, promising Cockney accent), provide the Banks family all the help, not to mention the magical and fun-filled adventures, they need.
For such a joyful movie as Mary Poppins Returns, it is best to start with its negatives. It disappoints that the musical fantasy trends downhill in its latter half, roughly bookended by a filler song-and-dance number involving Meryl Streep as Mary’s eccentric cousin and fix-it shop owner and a rather silly climax that comes off as deceptive on the heroes’ part. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is quite the Miranda-centered spectacle, but it runs a tad too long. Moreover, it is difficult to resist perceiving that the song attempts to honor in spirit both the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and become as catchy a phrase as the immortal “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. (In all likelihood, it will not.) These reasons explain why the presence of Emily Blunt’s Mary seems to shrink as the film progresses. Lastly, without the room afforded a few months ago to Ewan McGregor in Christopher Robin, Whishaw (tasked to emulate Michael and Jane’s initially dismissive father) and Mrs. Mortimer (encouraged into a passing mutual attraction with Jack) merely give serviceable turns as the grown-up Banks children.
From what, though, does the movie trend downhill? First off, it was nice to start on the ground with Miranda singing “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” rather than the first film’s London skyline matte painting with easygoing opening titles. “Can You Imagine That?” is a perfect first number for Mrs. Blunt as Mary with the kids and the aquatic scene, imperfect CGI effects and all, already carries a quaint charm to it. Throughout these, Mrs. Blunt owns the Mary Poppins role, while the well-rounded trio of kids works well off each other and the adults.
All these, however noteworthy, pale in comparison to what is arguably Disney’s crowning achievement in 2018—the entire Royal Doulton China Bowl sequence (supervised by Jim Capobianco).
And what a sequence it is! Even if Mary Poppins Returns was always meant to have a sequel to the first movie’s screever segment, just the sight of classic Disney hand-drawn animation makes me smile from ear to ear. The integration of Mary, Jack, and the kids in the animated world, the China bowl-accurate sound effects, the character designs, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” song, realizing who the wolf, badger, and weasel are—perfect elements in a perfect sequence. “A Cover Is Not the Book” is such a grand, glorious, and playful number (with a Miranda rap verse!) that it is an utter shame Disney did not submit it for the Best Original Song Oscar. Such imagination abounds here that one might take a moment to grasp the parallels with real-life pre-sleep routines, further demonstrating the sequence’s genius. Finally, once back in the real world, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” not only bids good night to the kids and the magic that just occurred (or was it only in their heads?), but makes universal both the sorrow of the kids who lost their mother not so long ago and the comforting hope that she is with them now and looks forward to seeing them again in the end.
If for nothing else, that wondrous portion towards the end of the first half of Mary Poppins Returns is what I will cherish for some time. Back in my Christopher Robin review, I lamented how timing the release of 2011’s Winnie the Pooh with the last (proper) Harry Potter film all but crushed hopes for a hand-drawn animation resurgence at Disney. Mary Poppins Returns resurrected those hopes and the world owes much to producer-director-choreographer Rob Marshall insisting to Disney executives that hand-drawn animation was necessary for this belated sequel (see here and here). Like Cinderella praying for her one day of happiness and gaining more than that, I can hold the entire Royal Doulton China Bowl sequence close to my heart as we continue to accompany the Mouse House in their domination of the entertainment world.
A mouse in charge of billions of hearts and minds—can you imagine that?
(Parental Note: Mary Poppins Returns has been rated PG by the MPAA “for some mild thematic elements and brief action”. It has also been rated U by the BBFC for “very mild threat” and rated A-I (General patronage) by the Catholic News Service for “characters in peril and brief, extremely mild risque humor.”)
(P.S. Keep an eye out for a cameo by Karen Dotrice, who played Jane in the first film, asking for directions from Emily Mortimer and Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
(Also, if clicking on those hyperlinks led you on a Disney song YouTube marathon, well…you’re welcome.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.