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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is not a great movie.  Heck, it's hard to ignore its obvious flaws while you're watching it.  And yet, it's filled with so much joy, energy and enthusiasm that the movie is next to impossible to resist.  At least it was for me.  I can see how some may not get into this.  It's essentially an old fashioned Hollywood musical, and when you boil it down, not all that different from the original 1964 film.  But, it's well-crafted, and the performances are wonderful.

It's simply not as great as you might be expecting.  Yes, doing a sequel to Mary Poppins is pretty much an impossible order, and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) deserves much respect for what he does here.  He's managed to create a loving tribute and follow up to the original.  But at the same time, while the movie remains entertaining, it never quite lifts your spirits up like you keep on expecting it to.  The movie and the cast is giving it everything they've got up on the screen, but I never felt truly transported like a great musical usually does.  I never quite fell in love, though I did come pretty close when Dick Van Dyke showed up in a cameo late in the film. (This is not a spoiler, as the trailers and ad campaign have already revealed this.) This is a consistently entertaining film, but as mentioned right at the top, not a great one.

The film is set some 20 years after the original, during the time of London's "Great Slump" (i.e. The Depression).  The Banks children from the first movie are now adults, and are now facing their own troubles.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a recent widower with three children.  He has a job at the same bank his father once worked at, but it's a low-level job, and he's behind on the bills.  His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) helps take care of Michael's kids (played by Nathaniel Saleh, Pixie Davies and Joel Dawson), along with the aid of his aging housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters), but it's obviously a burden for Michael to run his home without the help of his wife.  And now, the bank he works for is threatening to repossess his home due to an unpaid mortgage, unless he can find his father's missing stock certificates.

The time has come for Mary Poppins to return to aid the Banks family, and this time she's played by Emily Blunt.  Honestly, she's as fine of a modern day stand-in for Julie Andrews that audiences could wish for.  Descending from above with her magical umbrella and her seemingly-bottomless handbag, she is as sharp as we remember her being - Always willing to remind the children (and their parents) about proper manners, but also never forgetting to remind them that nothing is impossible.  This new adventure will seem very familiar to most audiences, as Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi) pretty much never miss an opportunity to pay tribute to some classic moments from the first, only with a slightly different spin, obviously.  And this time, Poppins and the Banks children are joined by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manual Miranda), who fills in for Bert in the first.

This familiarity carries right through to the musical score, and the new songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray).  Their songs are clearly fashioned after the ones in the original, so instead of the chimney sweeps performing "Step in Time", we get Jack and his fellow lamplighters singing "Trip a Little Light Fantastic", as they show the Banks children how to find their way home in a fog.  And yet, despite the familiarity, many of the musical numbers are given their own life and energy by Lin-Manual Miranda, who performs many of the numbers in the film, and shows himself once again as being one of the great musical showmen of our time.  Even if the Shaiman and Wittman tunes are nowhere near as memorable as I would have liked, the energy with which they are performed, as well as the choreography provided by Marshall, are so strong that I was still won over.

So, yes, Mary Poppins Returns feels very familiar.  There's the visit to the magical world where animated penguins and other cartoon animals entertain the live actors, there's the song where Mary explains how an everyday chore can be fun and full of imagination (this time, it's about the children having to take a bath, rather than clean up their room), and there's probably plenty of more instances that I could list, but would make this review far too long.  However, somehow, it all works.  I think it's because the filmmakers have respect for the material, and do add their own twist when they can.  This is not a case of the artists being lazy and recycling, rather they are being respectful.  Besides, the filmmakers were kind of stuck here.  If they did not bring these elements back, the diehard fans probably would have staged a riot at the box office.  So, they had to walk a fine line between tribute and rehash, and to me, they managed to stay afloat. 

I think the fact that the film still managed to win me over, despite the fact I knew how safe the material was being played, is the highest praise I can give it.  For all of its familiarity, there is a warmth and joy that is ever-present, and despite the PG-rating, this is as gentle and as tame a movie that you can find at the theater right now if you have young children.  Like I said, I'll get it if this movie is not for you.  There were a few moments here where I wasn't sure if I could recommend it or not.  But, the final scenes made me feel so happy, I just couldn't resist.

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