The big-hearted efforts of the entire cast aren't enough to save Mary Poppins Returns from redundancy, reports Dan Slevin.
In general, and to his third-person surprise, this reviewer has been approving of the Disney company’s efforts to renew their copyrights and refresh their intellectual property by making new versions of their classics. Cinderella was the first and Kenneth Branagh and Cate Blanchett conspired to produce an affecting tale. Jon Favreau’s photorealistic The Jungle Book was so good it got him the gig to do the same for The Lion King which will be released later this year. And the bittersweet Christopher Robin worked as a cautionary tale for adults probably better than a light-hearted romp through the 100 Acre Wood for children.
And now we have Mary Poppins Returns which I found to be surprisingly off-key. It isn’t a remake of the much-loved 1964 musical, as such, although it hews to the structure so closely it might as well be.
The new film is set in the same house on the same street (17 Cherry Tree Lane) in the same romanticised version of London as the original, only a generation later. The house is now occupied by Michael, the little boy of the first film, and his own three children. His wife recently passed away allowing another famous Disney “missing mother” to fully play her role as motivation for all the other characters.
In his grief at losing his wife, Ben Whishaw’s Michael (an artist) stopped painting and took out a loan from the bank where his father had worked to keep the family going. When, again in his grief, he missed a few payments, the bank stepped in to foreclose on the house. He has a week to find either the money – or evidence of the shares in the bank that his father owned – or the family will have to… go and live somewhere else.
And there’s my first problem with the picture: the stakes. I know not every plot has to involve saving the universe but there really doesn’t seem to be enough going on here, especially as the life lessons for the family are pretty clearly that the house doesn’t matter as long as they have each other.
The other problem I have is that, while the songs from the original Mary Poppins were stone-cold bangers, the ones we have here are pretty weak, especially lyrically. Everyone on screen gives it their all, however, but it must eat at Lin-Manuel Miranda (playing the lamplighter Jack) that they give him a poor pseudo-rap number that riffs off his own – much better – style from his Broadway musical Hamilton.
There’s always the possibility that 50 years of exposure to these songs will render them classics but I’m doubtful. The most pointless is an extended cameo from Meryl Streep that is quite jaw-dropping for all the wrong reasons.
In the 2014 picture, Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson played the Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Hollywood, watching with derision the making of the original film. She was especially scornful of the songs (written by Richard and Robert Sherman) but when they turn up as refrains in Mary Poppins Returns everything feels lighter for a moment.
The acting is first-rate and I especially want to commend the redoubtable Emily Blunt who manages to pull off the crazy contradictions of Mary Poppins without ever reminding you of Julie Andrews.
Mary Poppins Returns is in wide theatrical release across New Zealand.