The original Mary Poppins, from way, way back in 1964, is a cherishable movie for one reason and one reason only. When you see it, whatever your critical disposition, however tough it was to swallow its lop-sided accent work, whatever you thought of its putrefying air of quaintness, the segment of your brain which deals in audio pleasure will be engaged in a full-blown earworm civil war. Every single song in that film is a belter. There are choruses as big as entire solar systems, lyrics that capture a dainty mid-century literary wit, and hooks so sharp that they’ll burrow into your very being.
Mary Poppins Returns is an alienatingly synthetic rehash of the superlative original, only this time everyone’s favourite blue-blooded levitating child carer packed everything into her carpet bag but the good tunes. You’re watching this film and waiting to be ensnared in the net of a catchy ditty, or for those ankle muscles to slide into spontaneous paroxysms and start those toes a’tapping. Yet there’s a 100 per cent flatline here. Richard and Robert Sherman’s music hall bangers from the original have been callously asset-stripped for this new vision, but now come across as phoney karaoke dirges performed by a cast who appear to have little sincere connection to the material.
Returns whisks us back to a snow-globe vision of Olde London, this time during something called the “Great Slump” where pencil-moustached bankers are tightening the financial noose on honest-to-goodness owners of three-story crescent townhouses. An ageing sea captain still marks time with a canon. Dowagers still walk their dogs in the park. Knee-high tykes Jane and Michael Banks are now all grows up – the latter (Emily Mortimer) is now a union activist, the former (Ben Whishaw) is a dead-eyed salaryman.
Both share no memory of the hand-animated larks they experienced with Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), and it is for that reason that when a battered old kite is accidentally sent up into the sky as a beacon of lost youth, she descends from her cloud to once more espouse the joys of creative living and imaginative endeavour in her playfully threatening manner.
No more needs to be said than that the film plays out – pretty much beat-for-beat – as the original did, the only twist being, everything is less interesting, less original, less powered by passion and verve. Instead of tidying their room, the Banks kids have a bath (fully clothed!). They dive into a decorative potty rather than a pavement chalk etching. Lamp lighters dance in the sewer where chimney sweeps once danced on the rooftops. They fly balloons rather than kites.
Every detail is a calculated inversion of the original which allows its makers to ride roughshod over the cultural iconography while allowing them to feel that they’ve done due diligence to make this new outing worthwhile. The dance numbers are poorly photographed and edited, packed full of unnecessary cuts and gurning reaction shots. Visually, it’s an ugly film.
Blunt is certainly game in the lead role, and comes into her own for the cockney knees-up number, ‘A Cover is Not the Book’, but she fades from the plot soon after. It never feels like she’s taken ownership of the character – she’s playing Julie Andrews rather than Mary Poppins. It’s a strained performance, and you can see that the considerable load of posh accent, singing, dancing and stealthy educational childcare is just a little too much to carry.
Lin-Manuel Miranda as cheeky lamp-lighter and ad hoc tour guide Jack never really fits the bill, while Whishaw and Mortimer simply don’t have that much to do. They spend much of the film rifling through draws and cupboards in search for a deed which will prevent foreclosure on their house, and that thin slither of paper offers a decent physical representation of the entire plot line.
By the end, all the same lessons are learned and blissful happiness is attained once more. If this film achieves its purpose of being a gigantic financial success, it will be no surprise at all. Yet a further sequel could prove tricky, as it would involve the makers having to bite the bullet and this time accept the lessons of its flighty nanny, and bask in a few imaginative flights of fancy.