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.
If I wanted to continue to abuse the metaphor, I would say Glass is an appropriate title under the circumstances; but leaving that low-hanging fruit where it is, I’ll say that while a case could be made that Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price (aka Mister Glass) certainly is a driving force within the film, it’s not really about him.
Mister Glass has been doped up in a psychiatric ward for the past twenty years, essentially catatonic, which is how he spends most of the film. Meanwhile, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has wholly accepted his abilities and calling, but when he encounters Crumb, they are both unceremoniously captured and taken to the same psychiatric facility as Elijah, and overseen by the enigmatic Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson).
And this is where things take a turn. With Elijah effectively sidelined and Dunn his previously established, detached self, the majority of time is spent on Crumb, which makes a sort of sense given he’s arguably the more interesting and diverse character. As such, Crumb really steals the focus and the story, and injects some excitement into an otherwise tepid second act.
The first act feels much like Split—more kinetic, vibrant, seeing the characters doing what they do and what the audience hoped to see. Once the characters are sent away though, the tone shifts. Not quite as bleakly measured as Unbreakable, but certainly stretched. You wouldn’t be far off to claim it drags, though there are some fascinating ideas presented. Unbreakable spent its entire run trying to convince Dunn (and the audience) that comic-books have sociological validity, and that heroes do indeed exist and must take up the call to action, even if by force. Glass, on the other hand, tries to convince all three characters the exact opposite is true, as Dr. Staple emphatically sows the seeds of doubt. This is an excellent device—if only it were better executed. The arguments, while often logical, are presented dryly and clumsily. And given that certain things are being played close to the vest in order to hide the surprise, motivations and actions often feel confusing or unconvincing.
It’s hard to go much further without spoiling too much, but I’ll do my best. Essentially, the film in replete with the requisite twists—yes, plural—with some working better than others. Ones that should be hidden are fairly obvious, others satisfyingly obscured. But in order to accomplish these, we’re given several red herrings that end up serving no other function, and thus muddy up what might have been more enjoyable and effective with some clarity.
In addition, the arguments and references to comic books are beaten to a pulp (pun intended). We’re constantly hit over the head with call backs, explanations, and/or derisions to the medium, some of it clear and some of it confusing. It’s all tied into a number of themes expressed in the film, including about the impact—for better or worse—between generations. Again, this is a wonderful and rich area, and while Night gives it a certain amount of attention, it’s also somewhat scattershot, with some of the more important elements buried, or at least arrived at through confusing, circuitous routes.
This leads us to the secondary trio of characters, each serving one of the mains. Dunn’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard), and Crumb’s previous “victim” Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) all reprise their roles, and until the end don’t seem to serve much purpose. Even then, they really exist as merely means to an end, tools for the message. For all intents and purposes, they are sidekicks at best, minions at worst. With the exception of Casey, none really and truly grows as an independent character. If the idea was to establish the extension of the miraculous to another generation, it falls pretty flat.
With all that being said, I don’t want to ignore what’s actually good in the film. When it hits, it hits just right. The first act and the climax are exciting and engaging, and each of the three main protagonists do indeed take a journey of change. For the most part, Night manages the tone fairly well, and uses an effective color palette along with some beautiful shot compositions to engage the eye.
Nearly every actor also does their best, buying into the world and struggling to execute Night’s vision as best as possible. McAvoy stands out of course, and his ability to shift between the personalities he’s created never ceases to astound. Aside from that, his bodily transformation is equally impressive, as he layers himself in enough muscle mass to be intimidating, but stays slim enough to pull off some of the slighter characters within. Samuel L. Jackson—once he stops drooling—tows that line between cold-blooded maniac and calculating genius as only he can. Willis mostly sleep-walks through his performance (as usual), but now and again steps out with a bit of humanity, mostly in his scenes with Spencer Treat Clark, who himself continues his overacting from Unbreakable, but as not much is really required of him, makes it work. Anya Taylor-Joy uses those captivating doe eyes to emote a series of complicated and even conflicting emotions; and Charlayne Woodard effectively captures the steadfast resolve of a mother, even through some of the worst aging makeup I’ve seen in years. Sarah Paulson, however, seems to have gotten lost in the mire. Usually a fine thesp, she delivers lines with such a conflicting range that I don’t think she really ever understood the character (I certainly don’t).
We’ve waited two decades for this follow-up, but it feels like we should have waited a bit longer. The story feels like it’s two to three drafts away from being where it needs to be. All of the elements are present, they just don’t click where they need to. I don’t know if it’s a case of Night eschewing feedback or what, but he really needed a fresh pair of eyes to tell him how to tweak what is so close to being a truly amazing story. It might also help to have set it up more clearly for audiences who have either not seen the previous films or have forgotten them. While there are clues laid throughout, if you haven’t seen those first two, or it’s been a while, you’re definitely missing some critical information beyond simple Easter eggs.
Unless you’re a hardcore fan, my suggestion would be to catch this one on video. It’s worth the watch, just not the money. If Split was something of a comeback for Night, Glass is a step backward, and I can only hope he takes that to heart. It’s almost worse when a film isn’t just plain bad, but simply almost good. Alas, it is what it is, and time will tell where Night and his shared universe go from here.