Emily Blunt's Show
There is something very honorable in modesty and not needing to always take credit for the joy one gives to those we love. The gallantry of self-sacrifice and doing for others quite often speaks for itself and doesn’t need the “hey, look at me” arrogance so prevalent in today’s society.
Perhaps that is what we love so much about the enigmatic governess at the heart of the Mary Poppins stories. The no-nonsense nanny’s admirable spirit of giving, coupled with the way in which her whimsical sense of adventure tickles our senses and fills our souls with the wonders of childhood comes from something that only Mary Poppins can give. And then, “poof!” she and her umbrella are off on a gust of wind.
Or maybe what we love so much about the character comes from the two actresses who’ve donned the black brimmed boater hat and the schoolmarm oxfords. Of course, Julie Andrews danced and sang the 1964 original into Disney and cinematic history, and this time around actress Emily Blunt provides the lift for the inferior sequel called Mary Poppins Returns. Neither is a particularly great film, yet both are unquestionably elevated by the performances of the leads portraying a selfless yet lovable character.
In Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt sinks into the role that feels as if it was made just for her. It kind of was actually, as director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee had no one else in mind for the titular role. And what a great bit of foresight, as Blunt brings the singing talent we saw on display in 2014’s Into the Woods and adds a warm-hearted and child-like quality to her Poppins character and the film as a whole. To sum it up quite, ahem, bluntly, none of this works without the supreme talents of Emily Blunt.
Well, that’s not totally true as there is another talent that shines through London’s fog in the person of Lin-Manuel Miranda whose Jack the lamplighter character is one of Mary’s old cohorts and was once an apprentice to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the original. He is endlessly optimistic and wears a perpetual smile as he metaphorically, and quite literally, lights up London in a very dark time. The film is always better when Miranda is on the screen, and when he and Blunt share the spotlight together, things are truly magical.
Mary Poppins Returns picks up some 25 years after the events of the first film when Mary and Jack are called on to look after the Banks family which consists of now grown up widower Michael (Ben Whishaw) his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) – the two children from the original, housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), and Michael’s three young children Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson).
We learn that the family is struggling to pay the rent as curmudgeonly old bank president, Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth) threatens to foreclose on the home and kick the Banks family out unless they come up with three month’s back rent.
Sounds a lot like the original, huh? That’s because it is essentially the same story told with slightly updated characters, and a very similar ticking clock to doomsday, while Mary and Jack dance and sing to constantly remind each one of us to find the child within ourselves and to never give up on hope.
Admirable lessons for sure, and what would a Disney film be without such tried-and-true sentiments? But there’s a looming feeling that the filmmakers decided to play it safe with Returns. It is certainly pleasant enough, contains some much appreciated updates, and features plenty of toe-tapping numbers – though not quite as catchy – to have you singing all the way to the parking lot. Especially memorable are Jack’s Trip a Little Light Fantastic, The Place Where Lost Things Go, and the rousing final number, Nowhere to Go But Up.
But it just isn’t catchy enough. Nor does it have the necessary memorable moments to match up to the success of the original. A lot of the film’s high points come from the same charm and charisma Marshall and company manage to recapture from its predecessor. But does it strike enough unique chords to endear the film to a whole new audience of kids brought up on The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Frozen? I suppose time will tell, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that it was made for purely nostalgia purposes pointed at those who remember watching the original as a child. Speaking of the original, keep an eye out for a special cameo from an old Cockney friend.
Regardless, Mary Poppins Returns is Blunt’s show, and in her hands (or rather her voice and toes) Poppins pops and warms our heart with its recurring themes and valuable lessons that can teach adults to see past our cynical disillusionment and learn to look at life through a child’s eyes again.
(Released by Walt Disney Studios and rated “PG” for some mild thematic elements and brief action.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.