Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Mary Poppins Returns
I’m going to approach this review from an odd angle: I barely have any memory of the original Mary Poppins, and I generally hate musicals. This should be fun, right? Well fear not, dear reader, because like a petulant child refusing a bath or an adult in need of a little refresher on the joys of imaginative wonder, Mary Poppins has won me over with her timely reappearance worth the 50-year wait.
My general aversion to musicals stems mostly from my personal bewilderment why anyone would suddenly burst out into song—or worse, dance—in the middle of a conversation. My brain typically scoffs at such a break from reality. But when done right, I have found myself on several occasions truly enjoying the breakaway. And in the case of Mary Poppins Returns, it fits practically perfectly because it acknowledges that it’s completely, and quote happy to be, outside normal reality—and thus, is limited only by the imagination. Returns makes its case quite clear from Mary’s first appearance, and once the audience has been immersed into a new perspective, we’re free to simply enjoy the ride.
I’m not so out of touch that I don’t recognize the enduring legacy and cross-generational love the original generates. So if one is daring—or crazy—enough to attempt a sequel after half a century, you better do it right. Starting at the top, you get Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Memoires of a Geisha), one of the most successful and lauded directors of movie musicals of late. His work on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides notwithstanding, Marshall has a keen eye for entertaining storytelling, as well as having something of a throwback sensibility. Pairing with his direct collaborators in writer David Magee (Life of Pi), composer Marc Shaiman (every musical you can think of), and the red-hot Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, you’ve seemingly got half the job done before you start.
The result is a decidedly classic feel with a modern twist. The numbers are catchy and flawlessly choreographed, seamlessly blending an old-school sense of innocent joy with the occasional adult reference slyly slipped in. While characters tap their way around lampposts, others flip and spin on BMX bikes. Every word, note, and movement is carefully yet playfully designed to replicate the feel of a genre long since relegated to nostalgia, yet feels perfectly at home in a modern context for a movie-savvy audience.
No small part of that is due to the special effects, clearly updated for our age and yet happy to harken back to the days of yore. For example, while Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) leads the children along a slickly crafted CGI porcelain bowl, they also meet with traditional 2-D animated creatures. And yet, the animation feels neither misplaced nor antiquated. The physical interaction is a stepped up, but the tried and true techniques are ever-present. The mix of the practical, the digital, and the traditional feel just as in concert as any duet between the characters, and we delight in the call back to our childhoods.
But as I would be the first to attest, the flashy visuals and catchy numbers are nothing without a compelling story to ground them, and it’s here that Mary Poppins Returns really won me over. Though I needed some cliff notes about the first, it is clear even without that this is a true and honest sequel, bringing the original characters of Michael and Jane Banks into adulthood, and all the realities that tend to come with such advancement. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is left to raise his three young but remarkably mature children after the death of his wife, and though he has abandoned his artistic dreams in favor of corporate responsibility, he is on the verge of losing their family home. As the household frays at the seams, in comes the greatest nanny of all time to sew things right back up.
Only she doesn’t—not directly. One of the strengths of Mary Poppins’ character is her incredible ability to effortlessly nudge each person where they need to be without usually having to directly interfere: “teach a person to fish” and all that. The journey, then, is truly the destination, as the macguffin of the film serves its purpose as simply a means to an end. The excitement is in watching the characters grow before our eyes, as Mary Poppins deftly puts everything in its place.
With so much of the story riding on Mary Poppins herself, and following in the footsteps of one of the greatest musical performers of all time in Julie Andrews, if the actress cast wasn’t up to the challenge, the entire house of cards would easily collapse. Fortunately, Emily Blunt exceeded all expectations, proving a worthy successor while putting her own unique stamp on the character. Blunt has always wowed us as a powerhouse elite actress of our age, but who knew she also had such an incredible voice! Exuding the class, confidence, spirit, and exuberance of Mary Poppins, she is able to turn on an emotional dime, often going from serious to sweet in the blink of an eye without ever feeling jarred. She charms the audience as much or more so as she does the Banks children, and gives a truly impressive performance under a multitude of circumstances, be it drama, silliness, singing, or dancing.
Her partner along the way carries much the same burden of expectation, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s chimney-sweep-turned-leerie fills the tap shoes of the incomparable Dick Van Dyke (who cameos with a remarkable vigor at 93!). We know Miranda can sing, but we haven’t had as much exposure to his straight acting, or dancing for that matter. Turns out, he’s exceptional at both as well. Miranda plays Jack as a man of effervescent joie de vivre, more than happy to join in to help Mary Poppins as needed. Miranda is given several songs that utilize his strengths, including a touch of rap, but his sweetly romantic voyage toward love adds a nice layer of depth.
Each other cast member seems completely on board with making this the best work possible, and seem cognizant of the demands and expectations therein. Whishaw (James Bond’s new Q) is truly the emotional linchpin of the film, and the heartbreaking stresses he bears while trying to manage it all is a tour de force performance. The children are each impeccably cast, and while they don’t do a lot of singing, they certainly bring in the confident performances of far older actors. Throwing in the likes of Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, and Emily Mortimer, and you really could not ask for a more impressive pool of talent.
While there are musicals that I tap along to, or can appreciate for their edginess or the simple talents of their performers, it’s rare that one truly sucks me in. Mary Poppins Returns pulled me in completely, and the by the end I truly had tears in my eyes from such a whirlwind expedition. The way the emotional story so perfectly meshed with the musical numbers, and how the musical numbers really came out of the characters and situations, left me with a profound feeling of having witnessed lightning in a bottle. A lot can go wrong with a film like this, enough that it could easily not be worth the risk bothering to make. But it was obvious how much of a team effort was involved, and how much care and respect was paid to the iconic original.
I’m proof that you don’t have to be predisposed to such a film to be moved by it. Mary Poppins Returns wields enough magic of its own accord to make you laugh, cry, sing, and dance all on its own. While it may have taken 50 years to pull off, the wait is definitely worth it. It’s practically . . . well, you know.
Back in 1999, I was teaching English in South Korea, in a small town outside Seoul called Ilsan. There wasn’t much to do there, and one evening on a walk I looked up on the side of a building a saw a poster for a new Bruce Willis movie I’d never heard of: The Sixth Sense. Hey, I loved Bruno, so I figured I’d check it out. Like the rest of the world, I was blown away, particularly since I had literally NO exposure or expectations going in. I’d never seen anything quite like it; this new director with the unpronounceable name, M. Night Shyamalan, was obviously a genius, right? But his eagerly anticipated follow up, Unbreakable, which deconstructed the superhero origin story, divided movie-goers—and as most of you know today, the trend continued downward until “Night” had devolved into a cinematic punchline.
Then in 2016, Night made something of a comeback. Split was a taut, marvelously acted turn on the serial killer genre, presenting heroes and villains now within the same body. It was well-written, skillfully directed, and showed off James McAvoy’s incredible acting prowess as he deftly, and often instantaneously, danced between Kevin Wendell Crumb’s 24 distinct personalities, known as the Horde. But even more exciting, the ending teased that Split actually existed in the same universe as Unbreakable; and not long after, it was announced that a third film would bring the characters from both films together into a super-battle royale! For the first time in years, excitement and expectations for an M. Night Shyamalan film were high. But which Night would show up: the genius . . . or the punchline?
The reality is . . . both. Glass offers a wonderful stage for some fascinating and intriguing ideas, but the presentation is haphazard and, like its namesake, cracks under pressure.