★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN
- It was always going to be hard to watch for a diehard Poppins fan, but this sequel to the 1964 classic retains the magic.
For decades, I’ve been insisting that Mary Poppins is one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. Despite having watched it 100 times or more, each viewing of Disney’s 1964 masterpiece still reveals something new. Robert Stevenson’s film (from PL Travers’s stories) touched me deeply as a child, and affected me even more profoundly as a father. Just listening to the soundtrack still reduces me to floods of joyful tears.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Mary Poppins Returns, a late-in-the-day sequel wherein Emily Blunt steps into those magically out-turned shoes and comes down once more from the Lovely London Sky. The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, plays Jack, the lovable lamplighter, who fills the role previously occupied by Dick Van Dyke’s everyman, Bert. Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw are Jane and Michael, the now grown Banks children, sorely in need of a spoonful of sugary wisdom. As for me, I adopted the role of quivering child, praying that this new movie would not trample over my dreams.
The good news is that it did not. While it may not be practically perfect in every way, Mary Poppins Returns is never less than perfectly palatable, and in some ways comes close to perfection – practically speaking. If that sounds like damning with faint praise then rest assured; coming from a Poppins obsessive like me, it’s a ringing endorsement.
After a Disney castle logo reconfigured to feature an eerily familiar skyline (a neat touch), director Rob Marshall leads us through the suitably softened streets of 1930s London to the familiar frontage of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Having raised three children of his own here – Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) – Michael has recently lost his wife and is now in danger of losing the house. An artist at heart, he has followed in his father’s footsteps to the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, and now needs to find a certificate that proves his father’s ownership of shares. But also like his dad, Michael has lost sight of what truly matters.
Enter Mary Poppins (“I was flying the kite and it got caught on a nanny!” squeals Georgie), talking parrot umbrella by her side, homespun wisdom at her fingertips. Much has changed since Poppins’s last visit, but more remains the same. There’s still a redoubtable housekeeper in the form of Julie Walters’s Ellen; a campaigning woman (Winifred Banks’s Sister Suffragettes become sister Jane’s workers’ rights activists); and a financial crisis looming. And as with the original (as Saving Mr Banks made clear), the real focus of attention is the father.
Strange accents have always been a part of the Poppins cinematic universe, and it is perhaps to Emily Blunt’s credit that here she is so clearly not doing an impression of Julie Andrews’s brisk tones. In fact, with her clipped consonants and haughty vowels, she sounds closer to the campy theatricality of Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Meanwhile, Miranda’s Jack shares the same weirdly antipodean inflections that beset Bert, although a star turn here reminds us once again that Van Dyke can do a note-perfect British accent when playing Mr Dawes – senior or junior.
As for the new adventures, they lovingly echo the set pieces of yore. An underwater fantasia recalls the Beautiful Briny sequence from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, for which the Sherman Brothers, Robert and Richard, repurposed a tune originally written while they were composing songs for Mary Poppins. Here, the aquatic japes play out to the strains of Can You Imagine That?, one of many memorable songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, channelling that old Sherman magic (Richard served as musical consultant).
There’s a jolly holiday outing, too, accessed not through a chalk pavement picture but via a spinning Royal Doulton bowl, in which Mary and Jack perform a very un-Poppinsy saucy music-hall number (A Cover Is Not the Book). Meryl Streep’s Cousin Topsy gives Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert a run for his money. There’s even a street-level reprise of the chimney sweeps’ rooftop dance, in which Jack’s lamplighter pals step in time to Trip a Little Light Fantastic.
For me, the moment where it all came together was during Blunt’s haunting rendition of The Place Where Lost Things Go, a heartbreaking lullaby that has something of the spine-tingling melancholy charm of Feed the Birds. Watching this sequence, I noticed I had started crying, and realised that I was safe – the movie’s spell was working and the magic was still here.
- Mark Kermode, THE GUARDIAN