As the Banks children duck beneath trees, a wild and crazy ride unfolds on the roads in front of them. The sounds of ceramic cracking bounces through the theater and an evil wolf grows crazy at the mere thought of their progress. The score swells, and the animation is crisp. The insane madcap scene amps up the tension and thrills, and you fall within the grasp of a filmmaker with perfect control.
The scene that unfolds is one of technical mastery from director Rob Marshall, and it might be one of my personal favorite scenes of the year in film. The blend of animation and live action will thrill you, and the world is impeccably designed. Yet despite all of that goodwill, it is an uncharacteristic high in Mary Poppins Returns. While Marshall gripped me tight for about fifteen to twenty-five minutes, the control that is used so masterfully loosens. Rather than continuing to tell a unique and inventive storytelling, the film defaults to tell a story that is all too familiar. Sadly, Mary Poppins Returns is the latest film to fall victim to what has been, instead of what could be on the big screen.
Mary Poppins Returns follows Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) as she returns to Cherry Tree Lane to help the Banks children (both the young and old). Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) lost his wife months ago, and struggling to raise his children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson). When the bank’s employees (Colin Firth, Kobna Holbrook-Smith, & Jeremy Swift) comes by the house, he’s given a five days to collect the money to pay off the Banks house. His support system Ellen (Julie Walters) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) try to help find his father’s shares of the bank’s stock. Meanwhile, Jack the Leerie (Lin-Manuel Miranda) helps Mary in her various endeavors, making sure the children remember that they are, in fact, children.
Blunt owns the screen for most of the first half of the film. She has complete control over the tone, navigating between seriousness and comedy. This is not Julie Andrews’ Poppins, but instead, a far more mischievous and playful version of the character. It fits the tone of this film, but does not have the stern tone of the original. Blunt reworks the character to accentuate her strengths, and her line readings bring out a new personality.
Marc Shaiman handles the music despite Miranda’s involvement in the project. His score is perfection, and he captures the emotion perfectly in each scene. The soaring music helps transport us to new locations throughout London and the magical worlds Mary visits with the children. His songs, co-written with Scott Wittman, don’t quite capture the mood of the first film. While a few of the songs are good, especially “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and Mary’s segments of “The Royal Doulton Music Hall,” there’s nothing as instantly iconic as deep cuts from the original. “Feed the Birds” would easily be the best song in this film, and it wouldn’t be close. The songs are fine, but fail to stand out in a year full of amazing music.
The cast feels mostly wasted, which might be the most shocking issue for the film. Marshall gets a lot out of Miranda, but his ridiculous accent is somehow even more laughable than Dick Van Dyke‘s from the original. Meanwhile, a couple good moments aren’t enough to sustain someone as talented as Whishaw. He’s too good to waste, and he doesn’t play a foil to Mary in any scene. Meryl Streep‘s scene takes you out of the movie, while Angela Lansbury has an excellent song that comes very late in the film. However, each only has a single scene. Mortimer is the most tragically misused character, who gets set up as if she’ll take the mantle of her mother as an activist. Yet we never see her as a competent or even interesting character. She gets no song, no scenes where she can be actively fight for the unions she supposedly tries to help, or even any identity outside of the Banks family. It’s a tragically underwritten character that makes Mary Poppins Returns shocking less progressive than the original film.
The real highlights of the film come from the set construction and the costume design. Another masterful film from Sandy Powell as the costume designer presents some of the best work of the year. The world of the Royal Doulton Music Hall is jaw dropping. Meanwhile, Mary has more costume changes than a Broadway show, and her style always feels perfectly period, why making you think Blunt could wear the wardrobe down the street today. The set pieces scream for attention during almost every scene, especially “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.” The movie comes off as a Broadway musical at times, which helps sell the mood of the film. This work really makes the world pop and make you wish the story was a big more innovative.
Last but not least, the visual effects fluctuate between draw dropping and a CGI mess. Sequences like the Royal Doulton Music Hall sequence feel like they’re out of the 1950’s Disney hand drawn animation book. Adorable penguins, elephants, dogs, and horses populate the world in distinctive set pieces. Combined with hand painted costumes from Powell, it’s gorgeous in every shot. However, there are many scenes that are not. The most notable is the tub sequence, which looks like a Lisa Frank CGI monster threw up. Other scenes in the movie suffer from subpar work on this front, and the movie suffers for it.
If you go to see a film like Mary Poppins Returns, it should be a transportive experience. Thanks to some amazing craftwork and the blending of live-action and special effects visuals, it almost does. However, the paper-thin story is a disservice to the excellent cast assembled. While Blunt transcends this issue, no one else has the charisma to do so. Ultimately, the nostalgia trip will make you want to return home to watch the better Mary Poppins, which might have been the idea all along.