Friday, December 21, 2018

Film Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

Disney is doing very well with their live-action remakes of properties like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book.  Where Disney really struggles is with their live action sequels like Christopher Robin and now Mary Poppins Returns.

The advantage of remaking an animated classic is that there is the novelty of seeing it transposed into a different medium and you have the chance to put a bit of a spin the film.  But the core elements like the timeless songs and the mythic themes remain the same.  In a sequel, the filmmakers have to match the original's strengths while at the same time feeling consistent with its overall aesthetic.  And Mary Poppins Returns suffers by comparison to the original.

The story takes place a generation after the last time we saw Poppins.  The Banks children are all grown up.  Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is recently widowed an living with children Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) on Cherry Tree Lane.  One day while his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is visiting, he receives notice that a loan of his is due and that the house will be reposesed in five days.  Michael and Jane are overwhelmed with the crushing burden of adult responsibility and this has affected Michael's children who have been forced to grow up to quickly.  So Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to help sort everything out, along with the help of Jack the Lorrie (Lin-Manuel Miranda).

The most disappointing thing about the movie is the music.  With all of the resources at Disney's disposal, you would think they could have worked a little more on this part.  Heck, you have one of the most celebrated Broadway composers in a generation as the star of your film and you couldn't get him to toss you a couple of songs?

Right now, off the top your head, list off the names of songs from the original Mary Poppins.

Without really thinking about it I can list:

"Spoon Full of Sugar"
"Feed the Birds"
"Let's Go Fly a Kite"
"It's a Jolly Holiday."
"I Love to Laugh."

And when I name them, I can hear them spot on in my memory.  It isn't because I listened to them a lot as a child (which I did).  It is because the songs are excellent and catchy.

While I could name you some of the songs from Mary Poppins Returns, almost none of the melodies remain in my memory in any real way.  There some nice songs like "The Royal Doulton Music Hall," "Can You Imagine That," and "The Place Where Lost Things Go."  But there are mostly bland time-fillers.  And some of them are time wasters like "Turning Turtle."  If the music had just fallen short of the standard of the original, this wouldn't be a problem.  But composer Marc Shaiman missed the mark by a mile.  In fact, one song, "A Cover is Not the Book" references a naked woman.  It isn't horribly lewd, but I was surprised that a children's song would even go there.

This would be a bit more forgivable if the script was better.  There is a dreariness that hangs over much of the movie the same way it did with Christopher Robin.  Both films were about adults who have lost their way and remember to be child-like.  But you can make a drab setting without making your audience feel melancholy.  The scenes feel very by-the-numbers without any real sense of scope of depth.  I have a sneaking suspicion that something like this script was written decades ago for a Disney Channel or direct to DVD sequel, but PL Travers (the author of the Mary Poppins books) refused to allow it).  After Travers' death, it feels like the rushed this movie into production, when they really should have taken another year to develop it.

Having said all of that, the movie isn't a total disaster.  In fact, it is able to build up some good will because of the performances.  Blunt is exceedingly charming as Poppins.  She constantly lets you behind the curtain to see how she puts up an act for others in order to direct them to their greater joy.  This always makes you feel like you are in on a secret.  Her voice and her grace all serve the character well.  Miranda is one of the best parts of the film.  His cockney accent is about as good as Dick Van Dyke's, but he makes up for it with a boyishly buoyant spirit that comes across in everything he does.  Wishaw and Mortimer are fine as the adult Banks children, but they seem to have no continuity with their younger selves from the original.  Colin Firth plays a suitably snide villainous banker and I love David Warner in everything he does, and here he plays the crazy, aging admiral next door.  But the cameo by Dick Van Dyke was short but wondrous.  I am in awe that this 93-year-old actor dancing like he's a man in his twenties.  Seeing that scene alone was a whole movie's worth of magic.

The movie does improve as it continues.  Director Rob Marshall makes use of the contrasts between London and Mary Poppins' world of imagination.  The more time we spend with the characters and the world, especially after we finish with the obnoxious "Turning Turtle" sequence with Meryl Streep, the movie actually becomes more enjoyable.  "Trip The Light Fantastic" is a fair song, but the dance number for it is outstanding.  The only thing that taints it is the fact that it feels like a rehash of "Step in Time."

Mary Poppins Returns used all of the Disney money it could to make a movie that can stand side-by-side with the original.  Instead it feels like an incredibly expensive, star-studded fan film.

image by Yasir72.multan

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