Film Review: Mary Poppins Returns (USA, 2018) is a delightful return to the whimsy and magic of Disney musicals

Disney once again mines its own intellectual property for more family fun over the holiday season. Their recent trend of recreating their animated features into new “live action” films has been an ongoing and generally successful juggernaut. However with Mary Poppins Returns, they’ve opted for a new take on the Poppins tale.

The story picks up some 20 years later, where Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) with the help of his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is struggling to look after his three children John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) after their mother passes away. He’s just received notice that their family home, of 17 Cherry Tree Lane, is about to be repossessed by the Fidelity Fiduciary bank if they can’t repay the loan. Blowing in on an East Wind just when things start to turn pear-shaped is Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to once again come and help the Banks children – all of them – along with her friend Jack the lamplighter (Lin Manuel Miranda).

Directed by Rob Marshall (Into The Woods, Chicago) the story is a completely new tale by David Magee, John DeLuca and Marshall. An unusual step considering that there are a number of P.L. Travers’ own stories that could have been used. But in doing so, Magee, DeLuca and Marshall lean into much of the nostalgia of the first film to drive the underlying emotion and heart. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s trying to tug at your heartstrings and give you the warm and fuzzies like the first one did, which this one does admirably. And like its predecessor, it’s a film that’s meant to be a takeaway story for children and adults alike.

Having the film set in the 1930’s during “The Great Slump” (aka The Great Depression), visually allows for London to be looking a little bleak. This enables Marshall to have the costumes (designed by Sandy Powell) and sets and cinematography (by Dion Beebe) initially begin as fairly plain or dreary. But the arrival of our magical nanny not only restores the colour to everybody’s outfits but also the surrounding environments. You can notice the change as the story progresses, and it’s a simple technique for emotional resonance to reach audiences without it being overtly told.

The film trots from one set piece and musical number to another, each with their own distinct tone, style and flair, and yet none of them ever seem out of place to the overarching story.  The soundtrack and songs are not as ear-wormy as the original Sherman Brothers’ tunes, but the songs by Hairspray duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are still catchy to listen to in the moment. Particular standouts being Miranda’s main tune “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” where the lamp-lighters spin ladders and ride BMX bandit style. The raucous “A Cover Is Not The Book”, here Blunt dons a Velma Kelly esque wig and adopts her own Cockney to join Miranda in a duet that feels reminiscent of Marshall’s own Chicago. Bonus points for Miranda’s Music Hall-esque rap sequence that gets in here too. There’s a surprise knock-out from Meryl Streep as Poppins’ eccentric cousin Topsy singing “Turning Turtle” with a thick Eastern European accent and jazzy flourishes. And it wouldn’t be a Poppins film without the transformative transition of mixed live action and animation in “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” sequence.

There is clearly no replacing the wondrous Julie Andrews, but Emily Blunt is impeccably snappy, charming and delivers her own pointed take on the magical nanny. Be sure to keep an eye on some of Blunt’s best facial expressions that will often deliver some wry comedy. And there are moments where her sternness is contradicted by her warmth, and her disciplinary tone gets flipped for imaginary fun. This has always been a trait of Poppins, she is both sharp and soft, fun but diligent. Lin Manuel Miranda, inexplicably using a Cockney accent, is here to (kinda) replicate the role of Poppins’ sidekick. At least this time around his character has a bit more of an arc and growth, which I won’t spoil, but it’s nice that he has a bit more going on.

The same can also be said of the young Banks’ children, who are less gawping in awe and more participatory in all the adventures and intent on trying to help save the family home. Whishaw, Mortimer and Colin Firth as the manipulative murky manager of the bank also turn in solid performances. And the bonus cameos from Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury will have all the adults in the audience grinning from ear to ear.

Mary Poppins Returns is a delightful homage to its predecessor, full of whimsy, warmth and magic. As a musical it may not have the same catchiness as some of its peers, but it never disappoints and is consistently entertaining. The cast are all wonderful and wondrous set in a tight and engaging narrative.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mary Poppins Returns is screening in Australian cinemas from 1 January 2019 through Disney Pictures Australia

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