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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Mary Poppins Returns

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Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for Lasvegasroundtheclock.com
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Mary Poppins Returns | Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh | Review

Anticipation and curiosity run high for this long-awaited (54 years!) continuation of the 1964 Disney classic.  It has great big sensible, low-heeled shoes to fill, after all. Of course you want to see it to relive the cinematic childhood magic.  You really, really want to like it.  You’ve absolutely memorized the iconic Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke version.  You decide to give this new iteration a chance.  The theater lights dim.  Then Mary Poppins actually returns and you think, “Wait a minute…”

The film is set in 1930’s England during the Great Slump (UK version of the Great Depression).  A newly widowed Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children (Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh) now live in the about-to-be-foreclosed family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.  If only Michael could find the shares of stock in the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank that would save their home.  Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) is now the activist that her mother was, an unmarried, kindly presence in her niece and nephews’ lives.

Their housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Walters) must adjust the vases and furnishings blasted out of place by the canon-shooting Admiral (David Warner) who keeps faulty time every hour.

A visit from bank representatives sends the household into a tizzy of searching for the shares, with the clock - the one in the Tower of Big Ben no less - counting down the days, hours, and minutes until the bank takes possession of the beloved childhood home of Jane and Michael.

Enter Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) on the string of a kite, no less.  Frequently accompanied by lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) Poppins and the three children have a series of adventures that try to capture the wonder and magic of the first film while you wait for the WOW.  And wait, and then wait some more.

Despite the return of one half the original songwriting team (Richard M. Sherman is credited as a consultant) musical numbers feel forced, slick, and overproduced.  Only one song, sung to the grieving Banks children about their mother, evokes the comforting Poppins we love.  Unfortunately, that goes away when the scene does. All of the songs are original, but a few bars of the old favorites can be heard in the background at intros to key scenes. These conjure up nostalgia for what (apparently) cannot be replicated.

The resulting lackluster film is puzzling because all of the elements for success are there: charismatic cast and characters, lively animation, top-notch CGI, an endless budget, national treasure Dick Van Dyke, etc.  Somehow it all seems calculated and forced, like someone sat around and thought up what “ought” to happen based on what happened before.  Except the before is so much better than the now.

There’s no question that Emily Blunt is a multi-talented, dynamic triple threat.  She nails the look, but not the sound of the prim and proper Poppins, coming across as a haughty socialite, almost sarcastic at times.  C’mon, now.  She can, however, sing and dance impressively.

Broadway darling, composer/singer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack is woven all throughout the film. Lamplighters are important, and everywhere apparently. There is no hint of romantic intentions with Mary, but Jane Banks is another story. Shouldn’t this be about the kids?  You’d think.

Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer are just fine, better than adequate in their roles, as are Julie Walters and David Warner.

Meryl Streep plays an absolutely unnecessary character with an absolutely unnecessary Russian accent.  The invented - and inverted - Topsy - a Russian Poppins cousin, is there for the quirk, the star power, and the vocal calisthenics.  Plus a thin lesson on point of view.  This plot point goes nowhere.

Dick Van Dyke is a lively throwback to the original - now playing the son of his former character.  The always delightful Angela Lansbury seems out of place here, her balloon lady character inserted to pay homage to Lansbury’s previous Disney roles in the live-action Bedknobs and Broomsticks and the animated Beauty and the Beast.

Colin Firth’s bank president Wilkins is a one-note villain, adding tedium to the mix. The foreclosure plotline is just about the least magical element of this tale.

All three of the child actors are adorable, but their characters are not allowed the Jane and Michael experience their father and aunt had.  They worry about losing their home, even with the magical Mary Poppins around, and try to help their father, getting reprimanded in return.  

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) makes a film worth seeing if you are willing to give up past expectations and give in to Poppins as a mere bystander, her magic showing for all to see.  She is not so much instrumental as incidental to the plot, squandering her legendary charm and allure.  Way to drain the conspiratorial and proprietary childlike wonder from the story.

Screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) repeats several successes from the first film, albeit unsuccessfully.  Michael now works at the same bank that his father helped run, as a teller. Jack has a whole crew of lamplighters that can sing and dance with precision.  Mary Poppins visits an eccentric relative.  She and the children have an adventure within an inanimate object or two.  Michael speaks to his children in the same harsh tones that his father used on him.  My, how soon they forget.

Along with the neighboring Admiral, nods to the original film include the St. Paul’s Cathedral snow globe, the kite, the banister, and the carpet bag.  If you need any of that explained to you, you’re either very young or not a Poppins fanatic.  

This reviewer once wrote to a television network to complain about cuts in songs and dialogue during an airing of the original film.  They quickly re-ran the film some weeks later, completely intact.  Not because of me, but because a whole legion of Mary Poppins aficionados let it be known that you don’t mess with a classic.

Mary Poppins Returns is not a bad film, just a disappointing one, needing much more than a spoonful of sugar to make it palatable.