I did not like “Mary Poppins” when, as little kids, my brother and I were dragged - sorry, treated - to it by our parents for what they thought was going to be a fun family outing. Maybe I was already too cinematically sophisticated for such an obvious kid’s movie. I mean, that was the same year that I had gone, with my friends, to see “7 Faces of Dr. Lao,” “The Moon-Spinners” (I had a big crush of Hayley Mills), “A Shot in the Dark” and, most memorably, a double feature of “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love.”
And then there was “Mary Poppins,” with all of that sweetness and treacle, and those damn songs, and the fact that I was already looking at my watch around the 90-minute mark and, as it turned out, it still had almost an hour to go. To prepare for “Mary Poppins Returns,” which is a sort of hybrid sequel-remake of its predecessor, I revisited “Mary Poppins” and found that over the years I’d become a fan of its songs - notably “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” But the movie remained silly and dragged out and practically unwatchable. It seems to be on everybody else’s best ever movies list. My loss.
And so we come to the new one, which - full disclosure - I approached with trepidation. At its start it’s revealed that there’s been a death in the Banks family, yes, the same family that a certain floating nanny visited last time around. Michael and Jane were the two Banks kids whose lives were brightened by Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins back then. Now the adult Michael (Ben Wishaw) has lost his wife and is trying his best to raise their three young children - Anabel, John, and Georgie. And, along with some help from his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), he’s doing it well.
But times are tough, as this takes place during the Great Depression or, as it’s called in its London locale, the Great Slump. We’re talking repossession of the family home sort of tough. Michael, terribly saddened by the family’s loss and by their impending situation, tries to put up a front, but it isn’t working. The kids, still too young to really understand what’s going on, are troubled. Jane sees it as her duty to attempt a semblance of happiness.
And then Mary Poppins, who had been on the scene and when her work was done, vanished, some 20 years ago, comes floating down through the skies, talking umbrella in hand, ready to help everybody set everything straight ... again.
She had some able assistance the first time, from the happy-go-lucky chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke), and she has some this time from the happy-go-lucky lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
And here sits a question that bothered me all those years ago, and has again reared its head: Why does the Disney studio keep hiring actors to speak in a Cockney accent who have no idea of how to do a proper Cockney accent?
But there’s a more pertinent question: Who the heck is Mary Poppins? Where does she come from? Why does she suddenly have the authority to take over the household? What is the extent of her powers (beyond floating and allowing people to breathe underwater)?
Beyond another time frame and some different faces, there’s not much new here. Mary comes in, everyone falls under her spell, some of the characters burst into song (the only memorable one here is “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky”), and there’s a shamelessly derivative live action-animated sequence that seems flat and shoddy compared to the one in the original.
Emily Blunt is perfectly competent in the lead role, as she can come across as both mischievous and serious, and she has a pleasant singing voice. And the rest of the actors, even when their parts are miniscule, are very good at what they’re doing. Wishaw, Mortimer, and Miranda hold viewers’ attentions with plenty of screen time, and Dick Van Dyke, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, and David Warner are fun to have along in cameo roles.
But was this follow-up film, all these years later, really necessary? Let’s put it this way. I don’t think Mary will be floating through the London skies again anytime soon.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Mary Poppins Returns”
Written by David Magee; directed by Rob Marshall
With Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Wishaw, Emily Mortimer