Mary Poppins Returns: Review by Little Sister Hayes
Release date: December 19, 2018
Run time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
The “day after Christmas” packed house spontaneously applauded at the end of this film when I saw it at the Arclight in Pasadena, California, and fans of the Mary Poppins franchise will receive exactly what they came for. Emily Blunt undeniably owns this movie. This statement has been said in so many words by many others, and it’s true.
There’s also much more happening here.
Disney fans, especially the type of Disney fans who delight in touring Disney theme parks with guidebooks exploring obscure facts about the empire, will delight in what is obviously a loving homage to the 1964 original film and to a lesser extent to the company’s personal history. Interestingly, the run time clocks in only 9 minutes shorter than the original, though I would have cut at least 25 minutes from this installment (we’ll get to that later). Lines of dialogue and moments of original choreography are repeated verbatim (sometimes cleverly worked into other contexts), Winifred Banks’ “Votes for Women” suffragette ribbon is still attached to the family kite - and daughter Jane has followed her mother’s legacy in becoming a social activist. Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawing is still (miraculously) freshly perfect. Disney’s unabashed love affair with itself continues through straightforward references to other family favorites in the empire: the grotto that Mary and the children swim into during their magical bath hour is only missing Ariel and her statue of Prince Eric, and “Let’s go fly a kite / Up to the highest heights” from the original in this rendition becomes a surreal nod to Up (2009) as the cast soars to the sky on the strength of balloons. Disney fans will also note that the hand-drawn animals inhabiting the Royal Doulton bowl’s cabaret world are cameos from Fantasia (1940), The Jungle Book (1967), and Robin Hood (1973). And of course, the sinister preoccupation with menacing ticking pocket watches is drawn straight out of this film’s English cousin: Peter Pan (1953). Mary Poppins’s lullaby reassuring us that no one is ever really gone, they are simply at “the place where the lost things go” reinforces the Peter Pan reference. Disney fans of all ages will undoubtedly enjoy the thoughtful attention to legacy detail that runs deeply throughout this movie.
Disclaimer: I cringed when Ben Wishaw broke out into his first musical number (and he’s perfectly adequate as Michael Banks, by the way). I’m typically not into musicals and found nothing in the music here that I would consider essential to the film (except that it is of course a musical). I’ve mentioned that the film is a loving homage to the original and to the Disney universe. A less sentimental way to describe this could be: self-indulgent. For example, I would have cut Meryl Streep’s “Cousin Topsy” character and the entire sequence at her repair shop completely out of the film. When my research later indicated there was 7 months of pre-production time spent creating Cousin Topsy’s store, to me that screams someone had a pet project. Even as a nod to (presumably Cousin Topsy’s father) Uncle Albert and the tea party on the ceiling of the original film, I felt the Cousin Topsy sequence was unnecessary. However, altogether the film is highly effective and gives its target audience exactly what they came for.
If Disney wants to develop this movie into a new theme park attraction, they definitely have built the foundation. That thought ran through my mind constantly as the film explored various highly detailed worlds. I’m assuming that the ride vehicles would be bathtubs, and I’m sincerely hoping that no children viewing the movie attempt to hold their breath underwater indefinitely to replicate that extended sequence a la those well-intentioned fish flushers inspired by Finding Nemo (2003).
Now let’s look a bit deeper.
Whenever I’m watching a movie that takes place on earth and aspires to be epic on a grander scale than the Hallmark channel, I always pay close attention to how the movie exists within the natural universe. Are the natural elements present? Are they balanced? Is there a good flow of energy through the movie and does the movie embrace the natural world even as it creates its own universe? It is in this area that Mary Poppins Returns impressed me the most. This movie completely nails the harmony with nature that I always watch for. The team who produced the environment of this movie created an ideal world for this adventure to exist. The camera lingers just long enough on fast moving currents of the Thames, water in the form of fog is thickly present, and the film opens with a water related plumbing crisis. Mary possesses mastery over the elements, transforms the bathtub experience into an alternate universe and makes her entrance and exit through ethereal clouds (with her feet in textbook perfect ballet first position, mind you).
Fire is present as well: During a fantasy sequence involving a family friendly cabaret hidden inside a Royal Doulton bowl, we experience fire in a hand drawn animation sequence that immediately recalls the grim fear many of us felt in childhood when flames hurtled through the air in Bambi (1942). Lamplighter Jack, however, is a benevolent friend to the family and reinforces again that the mastery over the elements (in this case fire) is the sign of Mary Poppins’s tribe. Earth is a preoccupation in this film as well – transformed into china in Mary’s world, and in a playful dig at the stereotypical excessive propriety of classic London culture, there’s a joke running through the film about children being told to keep off the grass.
Most important, though, is this film’s preoccupation with air. The air is rarely still in this film. Even the fog is on the move, and the leaves rustle like a major storm is perpetually on the way. Mary Poppins’s levitating Uncle Albert of the first film shares the family trait of not being bound by the elements, as Mary’s travel via air currents is well established. The closing sequence in which everyone with a good and kind heart is able to partake in balloon levitation emphasizes that the laws of gravity and science only apply to those without magic in their hearts.
Art Direction is one of my favorite elements to watch for in films and this film delivers on that as well, to the point that I predict nominations for this film in art direction and possibly even wins. (It is difficult to imagine Disney not nailing art direction, but nonetheless credit is due.) Viewers of the film will enjoy the homage to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s famed Urban Light exhibit in the dance of the leeries, and in an interesting response to growing up with his domineering banker father, Michael Banks has become a painter. In another trope seen in The Music Man (1965), the fantasy world of the Royal Doulton cabaret is conjured in a frothy ice cream parlor pallete of pinks and purples. My favorite moment of artistic editing in this film is when the glass pane of a fog-condensed street lamp gives way to impressionistic oil paintings that evoke the chalk drawings in the original movie and which the credits mention are an homage to famed Disney artist Peter Ellenshaw (he of Mary Poppins and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea  Fame). And in a moment of satisfying artistic continuity with the original movie (in which Mary Poppins miraculously reassembles the children’s torn up advertisement for a nanny), this movie closes on the same note – the torn up pieces of the family’s stock certificates become a key plot element.
What else: As a lover of animals, I was a little put off by the plot line that Michael Banks investing his tuppence into the bank rather than (implication foolishly) using it to feed the birds in the original film is what enabled him to save the day decades later. Banks are definitely a good thing in this world: Dick Van Dyke deserves mention as the benevolent banker who saves the day – and his remarkable dancing with a still more remarkable vertical jump deserves special notice. I also appreciated the casting of diverse ethnic groups in this film.
And of course, Emily Blunt. I’ve been her fan since The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and as stated, she simply owns this movie. Emily and her magical parrot umbrella play this role crisp and tart. Much is being said about Emily Blunt’s sharp verbal demeanor in this role and her crisp, stoic, altogether British return of Mary Poppins’s personae to author P.L. Travers’s original intentions. What I find far more interesting and much more compelling is how Emily Blunt’s acting enables her to convey boundless love, compassion, and even wistfulness without saying a word. If you study Emily-as-Mary’s face when she’s watching the Banks family during happy moments, she also manages to evoke a definite trace of sadness as if regretting that her life path doesn’t enable her to remain. She somehow manages to convey without a word that good times will eventually end – and return as well.
During this film I found myself wondering if Mary Poppins was bound to the Banks family over multiple generations since it’s obvious that she exists outside the usual space/time continuum (besides the obvious fact that she never ages, she literally finds a way to turn back time – insert Cher joke here). Did the late George Bank’s consent to allow the magical realm into his home decades earlier create a permanent bond between the magical realm and his family? Will Mary return yet again when Michael’s children are grown? Will Jane pursue a future with the loveable lamplighter Jack who’s obviously infatuated with her and will Mary return to take care of their future hypothetical children?
All of these questions were raised on the strength of Emily Blunt’s talented acting. I predict numerous awards for her honoring this performance. It’s been a joy to watch her career evolve and flourish.
Bottom line: This film will be a treat for families, a special treat for those familiar with the original Mary Poppins film and/or the classic Disney universe, and is a moment of triumph for Emily Blunt.
3 out of 6 blueberries.
photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.