OVERDUE REVIEW: Mary Poppins Returns
For an occasional new segment, Every Movie Has a Lesson will cover upcoming home media releases combining an “overdue” film review, complete with life lessons, and an unboxed look at special features.
MARY POPPINS RETURNS
MY LATE HOMEWORK EXCUSE:
Because of this movie’s stature, this was a regrettable missed opportunity. On my press credentials end, it was choosing between this and Aquaman during that busy holiday week. I can’t see everything and was happy about that pick. Still, I can tell this would have looked marvelous on the big screen.
ANTICIPATORY SET AND PRIOR KNOWLEDGE:
Fifty-four years after Robert Stevenson’s masterpiece original, Mary Poppins Returns brings our favorite umbrella-toting nanny back to the big screen. Chicago Academy Award-winning director Rob Marshall returned from Into the Woods to helm this 2018 holiday tentpole that went on to slightly underwhelmingly earn just under $350 million worldwide. The long-distance sequel takes place during The Great Slump in London, 25 years after the events of the first film where patchwork kites are no longer flying for the formerly precocious children of George Banks on Cherry Tree Lane.
Michael and Jane (the steady pair Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) have grown up from spoonfuls of sugar. Real-life responsibilities are their bitter medicine now. Jane is a labor organizer who occasionally causes the heartbeat of Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a local lamplighter. Michael works at his father’s bank under the corrupt William Wilkins (a stiff Oscar winner Colin Firth) and is a widowed father of three children, Annabel, John, and Georgie.
When the bank calls for the untimely foreclosure of the Banks home and the immediate repayment of accumulated debt, the value of the ownership shares from Michael and Jane’s father are their only hope at the capital needed to save their livelihoods. Enter Mary Poppins, played by the lovely and astute Emily Blunt. With Michael tirelessly searching for the share certificates, she arrives from the clouds to take charge of the child care. With a whooshing back dive into a bubble bath, she and Jack embarks the three children on fantastical journeys.
LESSON #1: YOU CAN’T LOSE WHAT YOU NEVER LOST — This parabolic chestnut is missing for Michael Banks right now. Mary Poppins imbues this reminder into his kin. The question becomes whether the renewed wonder and joy within the children can rub off to reignite some lifting spirit and luck for their beleaguered father, who once long ago did the same for his own father.
LESSON #2: NANNIES ARE TOUGH NUTS — Even through Blunt instead of Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins is still as the stickler for quite a number of unwritten policies and expectations of manners and behavior. Let’s just say she’s good at her job even before her power of levitation and animation. Once the magic bubbles forth, she becomes a transformative influence beyond the discipline. Have fun, but behave, kiddos.
LESSON #3: REMEMBERING THE MAGIC OF CHILDHOOD — Like all Disney films of old and recent vintage, the central theme present is typically universal yet embellished to a level of dazzle all their own. The new adventures of Mary Poppins, now zigging and zagging with modern special effects, are meant to be the ringing bells that remind all, young and old, of the simple joys of life manifesting themselves in the world’s loveliness with or without outside magic.
Mary Poppins Returns is the cinematic equivalent of a very pleasant British greeting. The film is completely courteous and undoubtedly well-meaning. It presents itself with manicured poise and a dress-to-impress sense of style. It aims to please and presents the proper success. The movie makes kind contact and bows nicely before you. Mary Poppins Returns is the nicest hat-tip possible, but then is gone as soon as it arrived. It’s merely a grand gesture and not more than that.
The performances match that impermanence. Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, and Colin Firth are not really stretching. The top-billed star, though, is bending to a degree. Emily Blunt narrows her portrayal of the famous nanny to mostly curt responses and ever so many judgmentally-squinted gazes and line deliveries of demeanor descriptions in a slightly lower register than her norm. It’s all almost too slight. No one was going to match Julie Andrews, and it is a good thing the actress didn’t try. Still, Blunt is no show-stopper when a show-stopper is still needed.
In a Mary Poppins film, a peak should be the music. John DeLuca’s choreography and David Krane’s arrangements are busy enough to keep their sequences moving, but the narrative in between numbers is a slog that moves nowhere special. Worse, it all feels like pretending more than dream-building. One would think Hamilton showman Lin-Manuel Miranda would extend his song-and-dance legend to the silver screen. Try as he may, he too is bland when not at full performance speed. Backing him, Blunt, and company, Marc Shaiman’s Oscar-nominated score is rich and fitting. However, save for the vibrant balloon-lifted finale “Nowhere to Go But Up,” the songs and story arc peaks are unmemorable minutes after they finish and pass. Two lovely notes that do brim with magic are the extended cameo appearances of a pair of nonagenarians. A prancing Dick Van Dyke and a serenading Angela Lansbury, both 93 years old, are the biggest moments to treasure in the whole film. That’s the definition of upstaging and bravo for them, even at the expense of the big picture.
To its great credit, nearly every aesthetic aspect is richly appointed inside of the zowie cinematography from regular Marshall collaborator Dion Beebe. The costumes by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell are very polished with bourgeoisie exquisiteness. Double Oscar winner John Myhre’s production design settings use scaled craft with bright imagination for the fantasy, all of which are greatly enhanced by Matt Johnson’s sizeable visual effects combining 2D hand-drawn animation with CGI polish. For all of the combined artistic talent at work in front of and behind the camera, something about their finished presences fade rather than forge resonance. This delight is all too slight.
The home media release of Mary Poppins Returns boasts several notable special features. Chief among them is a sing-along edition that puts the lyrics on screen for all to enjoy. Fittingly, the songs become front and center, which is something devoted fans will appreciation. A full deleted song, “The Anthropomorphic Zoo,” is waiting to be unearthed next to a pair of cut scenes and the obligatory blooper reel.
Further insight into the massive production fills nearly an hour of the bonus content. Two 20+ minute featurettes spread their chapters into many facets. The four phases of “The Practically Perfect Making of Mary Poppins Returns” outlines casting and the visual filmmaking. It is paired with “Seeing Things from a Different Point of View: The Musical Numbers of Mary Poppins Returns” showcasing the music. Director Rob Marshall looms everywhere while genuflection is given to the inclusive coups of Van Dyke and Lansbury. Dick gets his very own bonus piece with “Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns.” All of these little videos gleam in 1080p, just as they should.