Film review: Mary Poppins Returns

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, December 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It, Megan Basham reviews an old film with a new sequel, just released this week.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Even before it hits theaters, Mary Poppins Returns is breaking records. Not for box office, but for longest time between an original live action film and its sequel. Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers was known to be as prickly as her literary creation. She famously hated the songs and animation in the 1964 film. That left Disney unable to even discuss a second one until after her death in 1996.

MUSIC: A Spoonful of Sugar — Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.

The intervening years have only made our hearts fonder of the practically perfect nanny and those catchy tunes Travers inexplicably disliked. So there’s no doubt director Rob Marshall and his team had their work cut out for them in crafting a new movie featuring the old favorite that wouldn’t feel like sacrilege to families everywhere. For the most part, they’ve succeeded.

The heavy lifting falls to Emily Blunt.

AUDIO: My goodness, Annabelle. What have you done to your clothes? You could grow a garden in that much soil. And, John, yes, just as filthy. How do you know our names!?

It’s a brave actress who’s willing to reprise not just a Julie Andrews role, but arguably her most iconic. She doesn’t quite reach her predecessor’s level. And let’s be honest, who could? But Blunt manages a version that comes close enough to the original not to feel jarring while at the same time putting her own spin on the character.

Blunt’s singing voice is pleasant enough and we don’t really expect it to display the once-in-a-generation talent Andrews had. But while we understand Mary is still supposed to be commanding, Blunt fails to own the screen with the same infallible presence. One scene in which a now-grown Michael Banks—played by Ben Wishaw—snaps at Mary drew gasps from my screening audience. We all instinctively understood that no matter how many years have passed, Michael should remember that his old nanny is not a lady to be trifled with.

AUDIO: Close your mouth, please, Michael. We’re still not a cod fish.

But Blunt’s Mary is a little smiley to be truly imposing. There’s something about her that’s just a little less proper, particularly when she performs the cheeky number “A Cover is not the Book.”

MUSIC: A Cover Is Not The Book — Because under the cover one discovers that the king may be a crook. Chapter titles are like signs and if you read between the lines, you’ll find your first impression was mistook for a cover is nice but a cover is not the book.

She’s Mary Poppins by way of Eliza Dolittle, which, while different, is fun in its own way.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has the easier task as the successor to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert. It goes without saying he’s not nearly as funny. But his lamplighter Jack brings an infectious energy, particularly in a few fun rap sequences. His big musical number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” featuring ingenious BMX-style bike stunts by his fellow lamp lighters is an endearing homage to “Step in Time.” It’s the closest the music comes to reaching the height of the original songs.

MUSIC: Trip A Little Light Fantastic — So when troubles are incessant, simply be more incandescent because your light comes with a lifetime guarantee as you trip a little light fantastic, won’t you trip a little light fantastic—c’mon!—trip a little light fantastic with me!

While hitting the same narrative beats, the overall tone is heavier, focusing on the loss of a parent. Nothing wrong with that. But Christian moms and dads will want to make sure to discuss with their kids that, though beautiful, the song “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is ultimately tragic. It offers no assurance to the three Banks children that they’ll ever see their mother again. It’s equally sad that Michael seems to believe his wife lives on only in their memories.

But that aside, Mary Poppins Returns (rated PG) admirably strives to stay true to the spirit of the jolly holiday we’ve been having with Mary for more than 50 years. Beautifully atmospheric with watercolor parks and thick lamplight fogs, there’s nary a hint of cynicism in sight. Even if it runs about 20 minutes too long and the new tunes blow straight out of your mind like an umbrella caught by the west wind. You’ll still come out singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” in a most delightful way.

OUTRO MUSIC: Let’s Go Fly A Kite — Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest height. Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Disney via AP) This image released by Disney shows Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in “Mary Poppins Returns.” 

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One comment on “Film review: Mary Poppins Returns

  1. Diane says:

    I seriously LOVED the movie!

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