Film Review: MARY POPPINS RETURNS (directed by Rob Marshall)

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by Joan Alperin on December 16, 2018

in Film


It may be sacrilege to slam an American classic — or rather, a made-to-be-foolproof sequel based on a classic film — but I’ll take my chances. While watching Mary Poppins Returns I found myself fidgety — which I knew could mean only one thing: I was bored. Very, very bored.

This isn’t to say that Emily Blunt can’t sing and dance as the titular magical nanny, because she can — and very well — but she was doing a little too much indicating, which reads as if she was afraid that the audience wasn’t getting it.

I certainly didn’t get it because the story is extremely weak and the musical numbers (written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) are too often completely unmemorable. There isn’t one song that even comes close to The Sherman Brothers’ “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “A Spoonful of Sugar” from the original 1964 version, which won an Oscar for the incomparable Julie Andrews (who turned down the opportunity to appear in this film; Meryl Streep and Dick Van Dyke, however, do have cameos).

It’s the early 20th century. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower and the father of three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson). It’s apparent that he hasn’t gotten over his wife’s death a year ago. He walks around in a slump, in desperate need of an anti-depressant; as such, he has forgotten to pay the mortgage for the last three months. This means that the family is on the verge of becoming homeless. The children despite missing their mother are doing their best to hide their sadness and act extremely adult but it’s obvious they are in as much pain as their dad.

Before anyone can say “Supercali…”, I mean, before we have time to contemplate their dire financial situation, in comes Mary Poppins, umbrella and all, descending from the sky just as Andrews did, instantly taking over as the kids’ governess.

She’s determined to cheer the children up and help them be kids again. This involves taking them on many magical CGI adventures with lots of singing and dancing, accompanied by Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, a street lamplighter who has the hots for Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) — I think this storyline wasn’t developed because its a family film — who is an organizer, fighting for workers rights, even though we never see her do anything more than carry a bunch of picket signs.

The head of the bank where Michael works as a part-time teller is William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), who holds the mortgage on Michael’s house; his great joy in life is repossessing people’s homes and now he secretly plans to do the same to Banks’s abode. Firth’s villain could not be more cliché; all he needs is a mustache to twirl and it would be a perfect caricature.

In trying to recreate one of the most magical films of all time, writers David Magee, John DeLuca and Rob Marshall (who also directs) went for charm and cookie-cutter memories of the original, but played it safe to the point that we wish Mary Poppins hadn’t returned.

photos courtesy of Walt Disney Productions

Mary Poppins Returns
Walt Disney Studios
United States | 130 minutes
in wide release December 19, 2018

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Bailey December 17, 2018 at 10:05 pm

Joan, thank you once again, excellent review and after seeing only the coming attractions (trailer) that was enough for me.


Susan December 18, 2018 at 2:42 pm

Well written critique as always. I appreciate your honesty. I won’t put this one on my must-see list.


John December 26, 2018 at 4:09 pm

I think that Disney thought that they were letting the original be by not making a remake but instead a 20-years-later sequel … but really it’s a remake disguised as a sequel. In any case, making a buck is the most important part to them, and reinvention is easier than invention.

I’ve never seen a film try so hard to be both very different from another film and at the same time as identical as possible. It attempts to evoke the original film moment by moment, feeling by feeling, scene by scene — leeries instead of chimney sweeps; magically clean up in a bathtub instead of magically clean and straighten a room; slow song that matches the similarly slow “Stay Awake” in about the same spot — but it never, ever ignites. It’s manufactured, unfelt joy. It’s like a bizarre trip to Nowheresville. Everything feels forced. Every song lacks feeling. A huge, huge disappointment.


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