Disney’s 1964 adaptation of PL Travers’s Mary Poppins novels was nothing like the books, and Travers famously hated it. Everyone else from that generation to this has loved it, and the film has a very special place amongst the pantheon of genuinely great family movies, alongside the likes of The Wizard of Oz, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and more recent additions such as both Paddington films. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t belong in anything like the same hallowed league, but it is – I am pleased to report – a satisfyingly entertaining proposition, albeit a rather pointless one. My advice is to set aside cynicism about Disney milking its back catalogue and save said cynicism for the even more superfluous live action remakes of The Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo et al making our way to screens next year (unless they turn out to be brilliant of course – one must keep an open mind).
Mary Poppins Returns sees the eponymous magical nanny (Emily Blunt) return to Jane and Michael Banks as adults (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw respectively), in between world wars. Michael is in danger of losing the family home at Cherry Tree Lane due to financial problems following the death of his wife, hence why Jane is around a lot, helping out. The three Banks children – Annabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) – are feeling the brunt of this financial pressure, along with grief at the loss of their mother. Will the return of the world’s most famous nanny put things to rights once again?
This follows the structure of the original film pretty much beat for beat. Adventures in animated worlds, dances with street gas lamp lighters (replacing the chimney sweeps of the original), a similar sequence to the Uncle Albert ceiling laughter episode, children causing trouble at the bank, Michael learning much the same lessons his late father learned about what is important in life, and so on, are all present and correct.
I’ll be blunt: Emily Blunt is no Julie Andrews, but then again, she would have been foolish to try and imitate Julie Andrews. Her Poppins is perfectly fine, providing a spoonful less sugar than Andrews and hinting at the edgier Poppins of Travers’s books. Bert is no longer present (off on his travels, apparently). Instead we get Bert’s young apprentice who eventually became a gas lamp lighter, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), fulfilling much the same role. However, Dick Van Dyke does get a memorable cameo. So do Meryl Streep and Angela Lansbury. Oh, and Julie Waters is always good value (playing an older Ellen, but coming across more like her character from Paddington). Colin Firth also turns up to, in a role I won’t expound on here. Performances are pretty decent across the board.
And the songs? Well, the Sherman Brothers scored original featured some of the most astonishing, instant earworm songs I’ve ever heard. Here the effect is not quite so instant, but the songs and score (by Marc Shaiman) are amiable enough, especially in tracks such as Can You Imagine That? and The Place Where Lost Things Go (the strains of which provide the requisite Feed the Birds type melancholy). Direction wise, Rob Marshall marshals all his talents and stages the film decently, aping much of the style of the original. I’m not his biggest fan to be honest (I’ve never cared for Chicago, for instance), but his work here leaves no cause for complaint.
In the end, Mary Poppins Returns is enjoyable overall, but lacks the profound emotional punch that made the first one such a brilliant film for grown-ups as well as children. You can almost feel Marshall et al desperately striving for that go-fly-a-kite, out-of-body-experience joy that the original seems to conjure so effortlessly. Yes, you’ll leave the cinema with a smile on your face. You might even hum the final song, Nowhere to Go But Up. But I seriously doubt the film will be on hard rotation in film collections for generations to come.