Like the tempestuous winds which bring Mary Poppins back to Cherry Tree Lane after 54 years, I’m deeply changeable. And so it is that Disney’s latest exercise in squeezing our collective nostalgia glands, which nobody was dreading more than myself, I found to be a charming, moving and expertly made film – albeit one which never quite proves itself to be necessary.
Rob Marshall, director of Into the Woods and Chicago, brings his eye for spectacle to a very familiar set of characters, with songs by the reliable team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Marshall’s an effective director, effectively balancing the disparate elements which are required to conjure the memory of the 1964 original: group choreography, live action and 2D animation composite scenes, but most importantly a gleeful tone that’s never without a quiet pathos. The musical numbers are thrilling, and rarely fail to raise a smile.
As we all know, Mary Poppins has returned to assist the Banks family, whose mounting debt has put them at risk of losing their home. Emily Blunt’s rendition of the title role is more vain, raw and capricious than Julie Andrew’s Poppins, and quicker to anger – the film is all the better for it. It’s hard to imagine another actress working today who could have filled the role so comfortably. Likewise, Ben Whishaw as the fraying Michael Banks brings an angry rawness to his portrayal of a widowed father of three which is refreshing (and inevitably patched up by the time the credits roll).
For the most part, it’s an exceedingly polite and tasteful sequel in the Disney house style, and the way that specific moments, songs and sequences from its predecessor are recalled is almost scientifically precise. But spots of individuality and eccentricity shine through. One scene, in which Mary Poppins herself is summoned by kite from the middle of a storm cloud, is shot, edited and scored as if for a horror film: a baffling but thrilling choice, in which you almost expect something else to come down holding that string. Elsewhere, BMX choreography interrupts a thoroughly old-fashioned musical number and Lin-Manuel Miranda (his irrepressible energy is the film’s secret weapon) shows off the lyrical dexterity that helped make Hamilton such a hit just two years ago. But for the most part Mary Poppins Returns is slavishly loyal to the original. This year’s Christopher Robin (also from Disney), a far lesser film than this but a very similar exercise in nostalgia, at least had the bravery to interrogate its own mythology.
Finally, there’s a perversity to the way that the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, poised to repossess the family’s home for the majority of the film, is also the Banks family’s unlikely saviour when the final ten minutes arrive. A smarter film might have something to say about that. It’s a minor point, but it adds a sour note to the otherwise transcendentally beautiful denouement.
Overall Returns brings enough new and exciting things to the table to justify its runtime. Fittingly, it’s more of a rhyme, rather than a copy, of the original story. To decry it for unoriginality is somewhat fair, but ignores the real, organic joy unique to the story which Marshall and writer David Magee are telling. There’s bliss to be found here.