Film review: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is familiar medicine
The hollowest words uttered in Mary Poppins Returns are by Michael Banks when he throws away his beloved kite and says “No looking back.” Not only does Rob Marshall’s musical continually peek over its shoulder, Disney’s entire strategy (outside of acquisition) now seems founded on looking back. This is true of Hollywood in general, now well and truly stuck in an endless cycle of repackage and refurbish. Audience cliques, flattered by the illusion of power, have become increasingly hostile to authorial innovation. This suits the studios fine – it’s easy to greenlight the same old hits, slightly modified.
Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a frame-by-frame remake like Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. It’s a sequel, with the magical nanny – now played by Emily Blunt – returning to the Banks family 25 years after her first visit. But there’s only the illusion of change. Michael (Ben Whishaw), the boy in the original film, has a moustache now, and a perpetually worried look – he’s in financial trouble and has recently lost his wife. We’re also reintroduced to Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, whose labour agitations are a substitution for her mother’s suffragette protests. Mary Poppins is again visiting at a time when the Banks children – Michael’s daughter and two sons – are in danger of being estranged from their father. And it ends, as the first one did, with the father rediscovering his inner child.
The parallels just don’t stop. Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep is substituted by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter (after all the fun made of Van Dyke’s Cockney accent you’d think they’d shy away from casting another American). The enemy is still Big Finance, represented here by a dry Colin Firth as the bank manager trying to repossess the Banks family home. Bravely, none of the classic musical numbers are revived, though you can hear and see their ghosts in the new ones: “Step in Time” in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” in “Nowhere to Go but Up”. Miss the dancing penguins? The parrot umbrella? Admiral Boom and Mr Binnacle? They’re all back.
It’s as if Disney is worried the adults who grew up with the 1964 film and are taking their kids to watch Mary Poppins Returns will turn into sullen fanboys if deprived of familiar pleasures or faced with a Hispanic-American leading man and a few black characters. And so it gives them spoons full of nostalgia to help the (minor) revisionism go down. Apart from Whishaw’s turn, the performances are variations on the ones that came before – unavoidable, considering Blunt is playing the same character as Julie Andrews did, and Miranda’s Jack is a facsimile of Van Dyke’s Bert. But they’re also winsome, especially when Blunt rolls her eyes or flashes her razorblade grin. The same goes for the music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s lyrics – heavily indebted to the earlier film, but deft and effective.
Unlike the Paddington films, which are set in the present day, Marshall locates the action in pre-WWII London. The longing is not just for a more innocent time but for a simpler cinema, one where it’s not considered emotionally manipulative to have children sing their father out of depression. Over the next 15 months, remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin and Mulan will release. If you have memories of old Disney films, enjoy them while you can. They’ll soon be supercalifragilisticexpialidated.
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