Mary Poppins Returns: If You Say It Loud Enough, by David Bax
If you come to Disney movies looking for dead parents, Mary Poppins Returns has what you’re looking for and then some. In this sequel set some three decades after the original film, not only are both the Banks parents long gone, the now grown Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has recently lost his wife. The trope is so familiar that it comes as a surprise when, not too long into the film, Whishaw sings a song called “A Conversation” that is one of the most poignant, specific and crushing songs about grief I’ve ever heard. The departed wife and mother to Michael’s three children is not just a plot point for once. That’s kind of how Mary Poppins Returns works in general. It does pretty much exactly what you expect except it does it better than you could have imagined.
Michael does have help from his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), who hasn’t started a family of her own because she is devoted to her life as a labor organizer. It’s nice to see the franchise continue the leftist politics of its predecessor and its focus on women’s suffrage. It’s also charming, in a way, to see another tradition followed, that of the working class Londoner played by an American doing a terrible accent–Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack the lamplighter takes over from Dick Van Dyke’s Bert the chimneysweep. And then, of course, there’s Mary herself (Emily Blunt), who arrives to help with the children and most likely save the family home from the predatory banker Wilkins (Colin Firth), who has channeled the hardships of depression-era London into a very profitable practice of repossession with extreme prejudice.
Really, the threat of losing the house is never that strong. You probably won’t have to have seen many movies in order to pick up on the extremely heavy foreshadowing as to how Wilkins will be bested.
Not to worry, though. Mary Poppins Returns is far more interested in emotional highs and enveloping spectacle than narrative intrigue. It never goes too long without a musical number and almost all of them are lush, sweet delights. An early underwater adventure features up to the minute CGI but the biggest treat comes with an extended sequence in a hand-drawn, two-dimensional cartoon world. The throwback magic of that sequence is impeccable and proves that director Rob Marshall has his head in the right place.
Even more than with Marshall, though Mary Poppins Returns lives and dies on the performance of Blunt. She is, in a word, impeccable, just like Mary herself. The blend of schoolmarmish primness and incorrigible mischief that Julie Andrews originally brought to the role is immaculately recreated. The rest of the cast matches her, from Mortimer’s intelligent pluck to Firth’s smarminess to Miranda’s guileless optimism. The only weak spot, unfortunately, is a one scene cameo from Meryl Streep, who swoops in from a different, kitschier movie and briefly brings the whole affair down with her.
That sequence is the only one that recalls the Marshall of lesser film musicals like the shambolic Into the Woods or the cynical Chicago. With that one exception, Marshall has finally made an unabashed, full-throated movie musical without smirking or condescending to the material. In that way, Mary Poppins Returns actually does manage to shatter your expectations.