By Karen Gordon
I was apprehensive when I heard Disney was making another Mary Poppins movie after 54 years; the original holds a special place in my childhood. Given the way children’s movies have evolved, I was terrified they’d reboot by sublimating Mary Poppins to some plucky children who would teach her how to text while applying sparkly eyeshadow and heading out to the mall.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried.
Mary Poppins Returns is a more-than-worthy follow-up and a total delight. Even better, it’s a wonderful — almost perfect — old-fashioned family movie.
It even starts old fashioned: A scene-setting musical number, featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, goes straight into a credit sequence where the credits are placed over a series of what look like watercolour images of scenes from the movie, all set to an actual orchestral overture.
Miraculously, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine, Into the Woods) has made a nod to movies of the 1960s seem right and grand again. It’s also a relief to find that Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel, not a reboot. And Marshall has taken great pains to tie the film, in look and tone, to the original. It’s a bit of a gamble to root the movie in the 1960s, but one that pays off big time.
The story picks up in the mid-1930 in that big old Victorian house on Cherry Tree Lane.
Michael Banks, played by Ben Wishaw, lives there with his three young children, Annabelle, John and Georgie. Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Moritmer), lives across town but spends scads of time with the family. And then of course there’s Ellen, the Banks family’s long-term housekeeper, played by Julie Waters.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Michael works at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank to make ends meet but at heart he is an artist. Mourning the recent loss of his wife, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments. And even though he works for the bank, the president Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth) won’t give him any extra time to pay up.
Then the wind changes and in floats Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) open umbrella held aloft and as prim, stern, and as magical as ever. Michael and Jane are delighted to see their former nanny. Mary Poppins insists that the family hire her, and before they can say “spit spot,” she’s turning bath time into something magical.
Soon she and Jack, the local lamplighter (Miranda) are taking the children on adventures inside the picture on a cracked china bowl or to see her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), whose repair shop turns upside down every Wednesday. All the while, of course, Mary Poppins is keeping an eye on the big picture, without letting anyone know.
Mary Poppins Returns owes more to the previous film than it does to the stream of modern movies aimed at children. Which means it’s a true family movie with as much in it for the adults who grew up with the original as for their children and grandchildren
It’s a colourful, whimsical tale Marshall has made work in a modern context. He doesn’t just nod at the original, but pays it constant homage in look and feel… and in casting Dick Van Dyke. In the original, the veteran actor played Bert, Mary Poppins’ jack-of-all-trades dearest friend. This time, he’s a bank bigwig and at the age of 93 performs a song and dance routine that is breathtaking. Or maybe that’s just the kid in me happy to see him still hoofing.
The movie is also beautifully cast. And while there has been some criticism of the music, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the songs here serve the action quite well even if they aren’t quite as memorable at those penned by the fabulous Sherman Brothers, such as the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
Mary Poppins Returns is a rare treat. It’s an old fashioned movie musical with an old-fashioned message that works perfectly in the modern world.
Mary Poppins Returns. Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer and Meryl Streep. Opens wide December 19.