It’s been 54 years since Mary Poppins was released, and the release of Mary Poppins Returns sets a new record for the longest gap between original and sequel. Why the delay? P.L. Travers (if you don’t know who that is, go and watch Saving Mr Banks and come back, because Emma Thompson) was repeatedly approached and repeatedly refused her permission. Her estate, it seems, was more open to negotiation or perhaps didn’t have such strong feelings about animated penguins…
In any case, I was dubious about this film, to say the least. I’d been deliberately avoiding the trailers, pop-up adverts and so on. I wanted to see it clean. There were reasons to be cheerful – Emily Blunt as Mary with blessings from Julie Andrews, a stellar writing team for the new songs, Rob Marshall at the helm – but in this generation of Disney just pumping out live action versions of its historical successes – I was more pessimist than positive in my outlook.
On the live action remakes, I do understand the ‘it’s for a new generation’ argument, but seeing the Dumbo trailer last night I was all UGH not another one. I suppose it really comes down to if you have loved (or are indifferent to) the original – I didn’t want to see the Total Recall remake either, but realise I have no problem with say the 90’s version of Miracle on 34th Street. In any case, let the kids have their CGI elephant I’ll stick to hand drawn.
So a part of me was expecting Poppins to be a shot by shot remake masquerading as a sequel. Or that it would try and be clever, perhaps put some knowing nods to the adults in the audience, perhaps up the peril – this generation has been raised on Marvel they are not going be scared of characters Dawes Sr like I was (as an aside I didn’t know until I was a grown up that was Dick Van Dyke as well…), such scary wheezing…
And one other worry was in that in this knowing modern world, we would get a La La Land style musical. I enjoyed the watch, but I didn’t love La La Land because it wasn’t a BIG enough musical or PROPER enough musical for me, and yes yes I know it was the point, but I did watch it going ‘if only they could dance and sing better’… La La Land has zero re-watch value for me. I appreciated rather than adored it. And the songs were a bit depressing to be honest.
As you’ve probably guessed, I did adore Mary Poppins Returns – I thought it was utterly delightful. Why? Because it was uncynical and it had just the perfect amount of homage to the original while being a proper stand-alone film. Like the original tale and P.L. Travers’ intentions, Mary comes to save the adults not to nanny the children. And it’s all wrapped up in BIG BIG set pieces, dancers and singers at the absolute top of their game, COLOUR and ANIMATION and lots of joy. Wonderful.
At the helm we have Rob Marshall, who also directed Into The Woods, while there was a lot right with that film (Meryl Streep) it was too cleaned up and Disney-afied and it lost the knowing adult themes and dark twists Sondheim intended. As I may have blogged at the time, an adult playing Little Red Riding Hood or Jack on stage has a totally different dynamic to an actual child singing those songs. However, Into The Woods, Chicago, Nine… we know that Marshall can deliver a big, proper, musical. He delivers here, fighting the right fights for Mary Poppins Returns, such as waiting for Emily Blunt (who initially declined the role due to her pregnancy, just as Julie Andrews had done the same in the early 60’s) insisting on hand-drawn animation and getting it just right.
Now casting. We must start with Emily Blunt, who received Julie Andrews’ blessing (Julie Andrews declined a cameo role in the film stating it must be “Emily’s show”, she is sheer class) and cleverly returned to P.L. Travers books rather than Andrews’ performance, to prepare. She is an actor at the height of her power, to deliver A Quiet Place and Mary Poppins Returns in the same year is no mean feat. She is committed to Mary but never clichéd,;there is never a sense of her winking at us and going ‘look guys I am totally Mary Poppins’ – she just IS. I absolutely adored her mirror watching vanity and bluntness, alluded to in the first film, but Blunt captures that element of the character very differently. Blunt has a phenomenal talent for song and dance as well – my particular highlight is her delivery of A Cover is Not the Book. Like Fred Astaire she makes you feel you can get up and do that too, so effortlessly does she deliver.
Onto Lin-Manuel Miranda. I spent a lot of 2018 listening to Hamilton and my love of Moana is well recorded, so sure I am biased, but we surely agree this man has talent. He also has an absolute schoolboy JOY to him that works beautifully for Jack. And he is a bona fide musical theatre star and when it comes to big movie musicals, it is wonderfully relaxing to have those people who can deliver on stage night after night in the mix. Having Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks in Les Misérables meant we could accept Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne. Well maybe only Redmayne and Hathaway – my word Crowe…what WAS that? Lin-Manuel Miranda puts you at ease, from the moment he appears on his little bike and belts out the opening number, I was hooked. Twinkles everywhere. Yes, OK, he did also graduate from the Ministry of Dodgy Accents but like Van Dyke before him it somehow just works! Like Blunt, he plays Jack utterly without guile there is a complete commitment to the joy and kindness of Jack. I also liked the fact that he first met Mary as a child, so there was no attempt to recreate Bert and Mary’s affectionate flirtation. When Manuel begins Trip a Little Light Fantastic you feel absolutely safe in his hands, here is a master at work, and boy is he having fun.
Ben Whishaw as grown up Michael and Emily Mortimer as grown up Jane are equally reassuring casting choices. Whishaw is basically the same in everything, but we are quite happy with him – like a favourite jersey that works for many occassions. Apart from Mortimer’s ill-advised Scream 3 outing, she is similar, rather comforting and safe. They both invoke enough of the original characters and commit fully to the musical vibe. Jane is a little thin on character development – she does LABOUR THINGS like her SUFFRAGETTE MOTHER BEFORE HER and has a FLAT and wears TROUSERS – but hey it’s a musical we are not here for grit. Although, if you have lost someone, particularly a parent, Whishaw’s lovely spoken/sung delivery of A Conversation will give you a very wobbly lip and possibly something in your eye. I absolutely loved the space Marshall gave to this song, a brave choice early on in a big bold musical, just to stay close up on one person. I had another listen and this is musical writing at it’s best, those lyrics are impeccable, tackling big themes and emotions in a few short moments. “I’ll carry on the way you told me, I say that like I have a choice”.
Let’s move away briefly from cast to mention the songs, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman had the biggest task in writing these original songs and making them work. They are supremely confident though, so much so, that they allow strains of the original Mary Poppins score to creep into the cracks between. I spotted Let’s Go Fly A Kite and Spoonful of Sugar – any others blog fans? The lyrics are witty, dense and clever and there catchy hooks a plenty. I found the “Leery speak” section a bit dubious, but hey when the dancing and bicycle sequences are this good let’s not dwell! I’ll leave proper critical musical analysis to those who know more than me, but my favourite songs were A Cover Is Not The Book, A Conversation and Lovely London Sky.
Back to the cast, Julie Walters doing Mrs Bird from Paddington but with a Laaaandan rather than Scottish accent, but that’s OK I’ll watch Walters do anything to be honest. The children were suitably stage school sweet and accomplished – Georgie was a bit too saccharin for me, he could have been a bit naughtier and I did have to dig deep not to eye roll when he sang the reprise of Where The Lost Things Go – Pixie Davis as Annabel was my favourite. I liked the fact the older twins are running things and in a nice flip of the original, have no need or wish for a Nanny. I was utterly unconvinced by Meryl Streep and the Turning Turtle sequence, perhaps as I never much liked I Love to Laugh in the original, so another ‘relative’ with no real purpose but to be weird and ‘amusing’ left me cold, despite Streep’s best efforts. And why they did they let Streep use her Sophie’s Choice accent….? Colin Firth is always a treat – though I liked him more as the Wolf than the nefarious bank manager. A shout-out for Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the “picked the wrong profession” lawyer. Generally it was nice to see some colour blind casting across the ensemble. I just LOVED the cameos – Angela Lansbury peeping out from behind the balloon made me squeak with joy. I adore her. And if I can dance like Dick Van Dyke can at 93…come to think of it if I could dance like him now….
Mary Poppins Returns was as perfect a musical as I could wish for, channeling the big 60’s musical set pieces, the lavish costumes and all of the joy of Disney. Check your cynicism at the door and let in some joy. In these gloomy January days where so much of the world seems dark and quarrelsome, there’s a real need for some happy. So get the bread we’ll have a lovely big Mary Poppins Returns cheese sandwich. Grab a balloon pals… there’s nowhere to go but up!