Mary Poppins Returns
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG // $39.99 // March 19, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 18, 2019
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To begin with, I'm not especially enamored of Walt Disney's original Mary Poppins (1964). What's good about that film are the sum of its parts: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, the delightful songs by Richard and Robert Sherman, the extended animated sequence, etc. But the film, adapted from the P.L. Travers book series, offered paper-thin characters and the thinnest of stories. The various components, taken as a whole, make it entertaining but, as a movie, it's not all that wonderful.

The now Walt-less Disney's long-in-gestation Mary Poppins Returns (2018) has some of the same plusses and minuses, with some good aspects lacking in the original film while exhibiting other problems all its own. My eleven-year-old daughter loved it, but I found it wanting much like the original film. Lavishly produced on a budget of, reportedly, $130 million, the movie looks great but under Rob Marshall's direction, so overdoes almost everything that it's almost literally an exhausting viewing experience. Where the original film offered finely-tuned simple pleasures, the sequel is like experiencing a $300/seat Broadway show where nearly every number is CGI-enhanced extravaganza. Curiously, the screenplay mirrors the original's structure in odd, mechanically realized ways, and Emily Blunt's title character is so aloof and self-satisfied as to lack almost any appeal at all.

Set approximately 25 years after events in the original film, the now adult Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recent widower still living in his childhood home raising three children, Annabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Though he aspires to paint, shaky finances have forced him to take a job as a teller at the old Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, where his late father worked years before. Despite this, the current bank president, Wilkins (Colin Firth), has called a recent loan, he greedily intending to repossess the Banks home due to late payments.

Increasingly despondent Michael and his sunny sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) remember that their father had left them shares in the bank that would cover the entire loan, but are unable to find the certificates. In the midst of all this, Mary Poppins descends from the heavens, unchanged by all the years since her last visit, announcing she will take charge of the current generation of children as their nanny.

For much of its running time, Mary Poppins Returns apes the structure of the original film. The 1964 movie had a superfluous but charming sequence with Andrews, Van Dyke and the kids visiting their eccentric Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn), prompting the number "I Love to Laugh," during which everyone floated around near the ceiling. In Mary Poppins Returns, the Van Dyke counterpart, lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), along with Mary Poppins and kids, visit Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep, weirdly channeling Molly Picon), for a similarly superfluous number in her upside-down house. There was a big number involving chimney sweeps in the original, so here it's lamplighters on bicycles. Unavoidably there's not one but two animated sequences to correspond with "Jolly Holiday," but each sequence is so emphatically busy and frenetically paced they're impossible to satisfactorily digest, like one of the newer, high-tech rides at Disneyland. The second sequence especially, with Mary prompted by Jack and others to join in a music hall's performance, is overwhelming in the bad sense, pomp and circumstance signifying nothing. That's followed by a dreary animated chase sequence, like something out of Disney's lesser ‘60s and ‘70s animated features. On the plus side, Marshall apparently fought hard to allow the animation to be hand-drawn and imitative of Disney's ‘60s-era style, a nice touch.

Julie Andrews's Mary Poppins was certainly aloof and vain herself, but played with a hint of warmth, self-awareness, and even a trace of sadness. Emily Blunt's nanny has none of that humanity, practically perfect in every way, but soulless like a CGI character. Miranda's Jack, while utterly imitative of Van Dyke's Bert (but with a more convincing, if still inauthentic, Cockney accent) fares much better. His "(Underneath the) London Skies" is a pretty good opening song, and incorporates images (real or imagined on a computer) of 1930s London that come off reasonably well. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, he looking like British character actor James Donald and she quite appealing and a good visual match for Karen Dotrice's from the original, are fine. The idea of Michael Banks overwhelmed with despair following the death of his wife, a looming financial calamity, and a failed career as an artist is a good starting point story-wise, but the movie doesn't do much with this premise, even less so in terms of how her death emotionally impacted the children, who seem no worse for the wear.

The eternal busyness in almost every scene unexpectedly subsides following a tiresome race-to-the-finish-line climax, with an obvious but undeniably charming cameo by 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke (Hollywood's worst-kept secret in many a year), and an equally touching small part by Angela Lansbury (several months older than he) near the very end, segueing to the film's one really good, truly Sherman-esque musical number, "Nowhere to Go But Up." In those final minutes, Mary Poppins Returns hints at the joyous fantasy musical that might have been.

Video & Audio

Shot digitally for ‘scope projection, Mary Poppins Returns on Blu-ray generally looks very good, up to contemporary standards. The colors pop and a lot of detail shines in this presentation, the cinematography opting for a kind of compromise between the harsher primary color look of the 1.75:1 original and the more subdued and varied visual scheme present here. The DTS-HD Master Audio has the expected oomph, but the orchestration of the score was more "Broadway" than "film" to my ears, and mixed that way. 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are available in French and Spanish, with subtitle options in all three languages. Region "A" encoded. Several editions are available, including 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital and Blu-ray/DVD/digital releases.

Extra Features

Supplements here are of a type typical of a wide release title like this: entertaining but unprobing puff piece featurettes and extras. They include a "Sing-a-Long" mode, bloopers, two very short deleted scenes and one deleted song (existing as a demo recording), and nine short featurettes all running under ten minutes, the best of which is "Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns," appealing for obvious reasons.

Parting Thoughts

Not great, not terrible but with only several minutes' worth of genuinely memorable songs and moments, Mary Poppins Returns isn't nearly as bad as some of Disney's other recent attempts to remake, reboot, or sequelize once-untouchable company treasures. A lot of obvious effort here, but the screenplay isn't good and it's over-directed. Rent It.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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