Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters
First I need to confess that I went into Mary Poppins Returns cold. Unlike most people, the super nanny was not a significant part of my childhood. In fact, I haven’t seen the original 1964 Disney classic, which was nominated for 13 Oscars and won 5. Though I really enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks, which was the story of Walt Disney wooing author P. L. Travers, on whose books the film is based. So I had zero nostalgia or expectations.
But even without that baggage, Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t quite achieve lift-off. The sequel, which comes 54 years after the original film, is set in 1930s London. The backdrop is the Great Depression but here it is labelled the Great Slump – maybe the word depression is too depressing for Disney. It’s 25 years after the events of the original so the Banks children, Michael and Jane, who were the focus of the first film, have grown up. Michael has three children but he has lost his wife and is an emotional wreck. He forgets to pay the instalment of the bank loan taken against the family home and now he must come up with the entire amount or lose their beloved 17 Cherry Tree Lane. It’s a desperate and sad situation. Enter the umbrella-toting nanny who arrives from the skies to bring happiness and wonder back into their lives. She’s sort of like Aman in Kal Ho Naa Ho or Raghu in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Bawarchi. Except those fine, problem-solving, family-uniting gentlemen did it without magic.
Director Rob Marshall creates a fantastical, visually popping world. The production design by John Myhre is sumptuous. The costumes by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell are staggeringly beautiful – there is a stunning part-animated sequence in which the human characters are wearing hand-painted clothes so they blend into the 2D animation. Some of the dance numbers – like ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ – that features Lin-Manuel Miranda who plays a lamplighter, are staged beautifully.
And yet, the film feels more manufactured than magical. Everything is designed to teach and uplift – so the lyrics include lines like: when life is getting scary, be your own illuminary. Or when troubles are incessant, simply be more incandescent. Which is well-intentioned but also a bit of a snooze-fest. Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins is nicely prim with just the right touch of vanity. But Mary Poppins is essentially a one-note character who doesn’t learn or change in the course of the movie. Even an actor as fine as Blunt can’t invest Mary Poppins with any layers. Ben Whishaw as Michael has some emotionally moving moments and Miranda is charming as the cheerful lamplighter. Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury and 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke who was in the original film, also make an appearance. But these characters, like the animation, are two-dimensional.
I’m a huge lover of songs in Hindi cinema but somehow Western musicals rarely strike a chord with me. La La Land was an exception. Mostly I find a sameness to the songs and the staging feels forced. The irony is that even though in Western musicals the actors are actually singing while in Hindi cinema they are merely lip-synching, Hindi film songs have always felt more real to me. I buy into their emotions much more easily.
If you have young children, you might consider giving Mary Poppins Returns a chance. I think they will enjoy it. There is less fodder here for adults but perhaps like me, you can distract yourself by admiring the sharp cut and fit of Mary’s coats.