If you live in the United States and you haven’t seen the original Mary Poppins, well, have you ever watched a movie? The 1964 film has become synonymous with Disney itself, and the image of a woman descending gracefully from the sky holding an umbrella, her back straight and her shoes akimbo, is instantly identifiable. It’s an incredibly significant film, and one that's risky to make a sequel for—nevermind doing it more than 50 years later.
Mary Poppins Returns is set in the 1930s, when brother and sister Michael and Jane have grown into adults. Michael has children of his own, who are in desperate need of a nanny. It’s a sequel insomuch as the events of this film take place 20 years after the original. But perhaps a more accurate label would be to call it a reskin. The film is a dead ringer for the original in a very literal sense, and this is no more true than for the film’s music.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—the former a composer, and both lyric co-writers—succeed in creating music that feels quintessentially “Mary Poppins.” Like the original film’s music, every single song on the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack is an immediate earworm. But even more than that, nearly every song in the sequel is an analogue to a song in the original, and pushes the plot forward precisely in the same way. If you’re curious, it’s worth examining the two soundtracks side by side to compare titles and concepts.
This attendance to history and lack of subversiveness is precisely why Mary Poppins Returns is such a cinematic delight. It is nostalgia bait of the highest order, visual dessert for anyone—from younger baby boomers to Gen Xers to millennials—who grew up loving the original film so much. We’re absolved of the stress of critiquing the film in the greater—and substantially more difficult— culture of 2018, and we’re free to process it through the rose colored lenses of the original. It’s Mary Poppins after all, a cinematic universe that’s like a warm blanket on a cold night; Returns offers similar pure escapism flavored to suit modern audiences.
Much of this is pulled off by Emily Blunt, who makes an absolutely dazzling Mary Poppins. She succeeds by playing the role wholly unlike Julie Andrews, stripping much of the original’s adorable and nurturing nature in favor of cheekiness. Andrew’s costuming was charming for its balance of simplicity and prim eccentricity; her homemade-looking scarf and an overcoat shorter than her dress looked almost tawdry in a way that served to highlight her unusual aloofness for a female caretaker. The character is famously endearing for being a ball of contradictions—a woman that fosters a child’s sense of wonder while depriving them of explanation. This is most famously encapsulated in the Mary Poppinsism: “First of all, I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything.”
Like the name implies, the film lives and breathes by the success of Mary Poppins’s performance—and my, does Blunt deliver. Blunt’s Mary Poppins is charming precisely because she is "practically perfect in every way." Her hair is neatly coiffed, her hat bears orderly feathers rather than whimsical flowers. Every overcoat has a sharp print and a smart belt. She’s a facilitator more than a participant, ready to do what it takes to encourage the whimsy in others without getting her hands dirty—if she can help it. And she never ever explains anything. There’s the iconic photo of Andrews with chimney soot on her face, but Blunt’s Mary Poppins would never get dirty, or she’d at least intervene with magic before it could happen. It’s difficult to imagine her spooning medicine into anyone’s mouth, making the film an appropriately modern take on an aloof, magical female caretaker—a woman who is wonderfully good at her job and feels no need to explain herself.
Lin-Manuel Miranda hams it up as Jack, an apprentice of the original film’s Bert. He’s a cockney lamplighter, a “leerie,” if you will, a fitting 1930s analogue for the chimney sweep of 1910. Though Blunt is a scene stealer in most occasions that require a more true-to-reality performance, Miranda shines in every musical theater number. Miranda is not only a natural choice for the role—we already knew he was preternaturally talented and there really is no working Broadway star who parallels Miranda’s cultural capital or impact—he’s also a testament to the ways our whitest cultural artifacts benefit immeasurably from becoming, well, less white.
Mary Poppins Returns also triumphs in its understanding of when to employ technology-driven spectacle and when to leverage world class musical theater showmanship. The blending of animation and performance is part of what made the original so spectacular. It would be so easy to abandon the spirit of the 1964 Mary Poppins in favor of more advanced animation after more than five decades of technological progress, but Mary Poppins Returns never strays from the heart of its origins.
Sure, when Blunt first floats in, like Andrews did years ago, the look is much more seamless. But for the whimsical animated sequences and Disney golden age style dance hall numbers, the real-life cast look intentionally green screened in. And much like Bert’s chimney sweep production, Jack’s leerie performance is sheer, unadulterated musical theater. The set pieces are unapologetically set pieces. The ladders are props. The movie’s magic is in serving us Broadway at a movie theater, and an animated movie while we’re watching Broadway.
It’s this attention to detail that makes Mary Poppins Returns sing. It exists within a very prescriptive formula, faithfully recreating the cinematic techniques of the time—at least in appearance, if not in actual execution. What emerges is a beautifully vintage looking modern production. While Mary Poppins Returns doesn't make any groundbreaking contributions to cinema as a whole, it succeeds in taking us back to a world we loved when we were kids. And for so many who feel browbeaten by the everyday slog of modern adulthood, the nostalgic getaway is a ticket worth paying for.
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