I need to begin this review on two points. First, the original Mary Poppins is easily my favorite Disney film, and it’s always been one of my favorite films of all time. Second, I generally think Disney is going quite a bit overboard with these sequels and remakes of their old material. Pretty much all of these recent projects have been fine at best, and painfully mediocre at most.
Now, when a Mary Poppins sequel was announced, I had both of these things in mind, so overall, I decided to approach the film with a very cautious optimism. I wanted badly to enjoy another Mary Poppins movie, but I also knew that Disney’s track record with this sort of thing wasn’t great.
The final result? Well...I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t dancing out of the theater in joy, either.
If I had to rank this among the list of Disney’s longtime sequels/live action remakes, it would probably be at the top, but again? That’s not saying much.
Well, let’s get to the positives first. Emily Blunt does a great job in the title role. Although she doesn’t perfectly capture the magic that Julie Andrews brought (and to be fair, I don’t think that feat is possible), I can’t think of anyone else working in Hollywood who could have embodied the character of Mary Poppins as well as Blunt, and her singing was wonderful. The children are wonderful performers, too, and I also enjoyed Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as Michael and Jane Banks, respectively. Colin Firth’s evil banker was probably my favorite character, just purely for the fact that there’s a scene where he tries to be intimidating by angrily chewing on a piece of toffee. (Keep up the good work, Colin.) There are some surprises in the cast, too, but I won’t give them away for those of you who want to see this film.
The visuals were stunning! I loved how the animated sequences were very much in the style of Disney’s classic films from the 1960’s, and the general look of the film is very reminiscent of the original, which is a welcome idea in a sequel. However, there were a couple of times where it felt a bit too similar to the original, almost to the point where it just looked like a blatantly remade scene. (Did Mary really need to be dancing at nighttime in a red dress with the chimney swe—err, I mean the lamplighters?)
The songs? I liked most of them! They were fine. Any song that Mary Poppins gets to sing was a lot of fun, and Lin-Manuel Miranda shows off his rapping skills at one point in an impressive tongue-twister performance at an animated music hall. (No, trust me, they make it work.) I liked that these songs weren’t updated in a modern, contemporary style; they were still written to fall in line with the old-timey feel of the original’s score, even if they weren’t as catchy and memorably charming as the Sherman Brothers’ work.
This movie takes a page out of The Force Awakens’ book in that the story is fairly similar to the original, just updated with different characters. Now instead of George Banks, it’s Michael Banks who needs to be reminded of what it’s like to be a child. He and Jane have fallen into some trouble with the bank, because after Michael’s wife passed away, he fell behind on finances and, as a result, owes an immeasurable amount of money in order to pay off a loan on his house. Meanwhile, his three children have become miniature adults as a way to cope with their father’s inability to properly care for them. They do their father’s grocery shopping, the older two lecture the youngest brother for indulging in childish fantasies, they evenspeak like little grown-ups. Predictably, it’s up to Mary Poppins to fly down on a kite (the same kite from the first film, in fact, and much is made about its importance later on in the story) and patch the family back together. Of course, hijinks ensue as Mary takes the children on wildly magical adventures amidst the drama going on with the adults. So...yes? It’s a lot like the first movie with a few differences to spice it up. I have no problems with that concept.
Now, the negatives aren’t terrible enough to make me dislike this film, but they do hold the movie back from reaching excellence level. Lin-Manuel Miranda feels a bit miscast as Jack the Lamplighter...or, as I like to call him, Great Value Bert. His acting isn’t terrible or anything, but he just doesn’t bring much to the part to warrant the film having a Bert replacement. He’s clearly struggling with the Cockney accent, but not in the charming way that Dick Van Dyke struggled with the accent. His singing isn’t that great, apart from the impressive rapping sequence in the middle of the film. To be fair, none of this is really Miranda’s fault; I think he could have done a much better job had they tried to make the role something more than just, you know, a cookie cutter filler for the hole left in our hearts over Bert not being in the story anymore. They could have even said his character moved over to England from the United States so that he wouldn’t have needed to use the accent. He does have a little romance with Jane, though, which I do think is cute.
The movie also starts off pretty weak with my least favorite song in the entire score. Great Value Bert rides around on his bike, doing his rounds with the lamps and singing about how much he enjoys London. There’s not really a tune, and it goes on for way too long. After the song is over, the scene cuts to the opening credits overlaying beautiful paintings that are, I guess, concept art for the film, because they show images of pretty much every musical number that happens in the story. My brother leaned over to me in the theater and whispered, “So they’re just spoiling the whole movie in the first ten minutes?” Still, I thought the art was pretty, and the overture was fun, so I was wondering why they didn’t just start the film off with that instead of opening at a rather low point with the Great Value Bert number.
Overall, the movie takes a while to really pick up, but once Mary Poppins arrives on the kite, the magic finally begins to kick in. I guess I just wish the film had found a way to set up the exposition in a quicker and better way and gotten right to the meat of it all, because without Mary Poppins being there to pull her usual tricks and cop her iconic attitude, the beginning falls pretty flat.
If you love the first Mary Poppins, then I don’t think you’ll hate this sequel. There are a lot of things in it to enjoy, and while there are some elements that I wish they had done better, I’m not unhappy with the final result we got. I’m going to go ahead and give this film a B. Take your families to the theaters and enjoy it.
(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures)