There was a time, not so long ago, when it was assumed that a sequel could never be as good as the original. It was a happy time, a simpler time, a time when even production companies like Disney were reluctant to go the sequel route. There was no “Snow White 2: Heigh We Ho Again!” or “Sleeping Beauty: The Reawakening.”
That time is over, however. This Christmas, the Mouse House is betting big on sequel/reboot “Mary Poppins Returns.” Starring Emily Blunt, the family friendly blockbuster is going up against fishy superheroes, large yellow robots and Steve Carrell in action figure format as it fights for holiday eyeballs. The verdict? A sequel over 50 years in the making, it’s not practically perfect in every way, but it will do.
A sequel over 50 years in the making, it’s not practically perfect in every way, but it will do.
The original “Mary Poppins,” which starred Julie Andrews as the titular nanny and Dick Van Dyke as the chimney sweep Bert, is considered a Disney classic, the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s live-action Golden Age in the 1960s. It is also the only Disney film to have been nominated for Best Picture while Disney himself was still alive, ultimately taking home four statues — the most by any Disney film ever. “Mary Poppins Returns” desperately wants to reach these same heights, and early award nominations suggest it may at least match the original in nominations, if not wins. But shiny hardware isn’t everything.
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To understand where “Mary Poppins Returns” falls flat, one must first understand why the 1964 movie soared. Disney’s musical is a loose (very loose) adaptation of the P.L. Travers novel of the same name, about a magical nanny who comes to live with the Banks family and raise their children. Travers’ book depicted a nanny who is often strict to the point of cruelty and whose magic is sometimes terrifying. This literary Mary Poppins represented order in a world of chaos, and the children love her for it.
Disney did away with all of this, making the overarching theme more about finding your inner child and less about the need for discipline. (As one might imagine, Travers hated what Disney did to her story. Actually, one doesn’t have to imagine this, as Disney mythologized it for us already in “Saving Mr. Banks.”)
And yet, while Disney’s simpler version might have been intellectually inferior compared to the book, it worked beautifully on the big screen. Jane and Michael Banks have no problems other than feeding birds in the park and occasionally going to bed at bedtime. The songs sung to them are just as simple: “Feed the Birds,” “Stay Awake.” The more intricate songs are saved for the adults, but even those are kept as simple as possible. “Sister Suffragette,” and “A British Bank,” for example, reflect reductive childlike understandings of adult life.
“Mary Poppins Returns” understands that the original is a classic, which is why it picks up a generation later, in the 1930s, with Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) now the single parent of three children. But the new plot, while closely following the structure of the original, lacks its simple joy. The new Banks children, Annabel, John and Georgie have all lost their mother, and are intimately aware of their father’s inability to handle money. Already these are characters with complex issues a spoonful of sugar cannot fix. Poppins is no longer here to remind a patriarch that family always comes first, she’s here to grant childhoods to everyone.
It is laudable for Disney to tackle deep emotional themes, but Walt would most likely caution about taking this approach too far. The worst part is that many of the new film's songs have become weighed down with overly heavy messages, by necessity. Children with deep emotional traumas cannot just go off on a “Jolly Holiday,” they need sequences and songs that explore the nightmares of losing their home. Because of this, entire segments of the movie become bogged down with forgettable, overdone lyrics. Perhaps child psychologists will be enraptured by “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” but as a timeless lullaby to sing to a three-year-old, it’s never going to be “Stay Awake.”
This is not to say the film doesn’t do everything to make it work. The cast is stacked, starting with Emily Blunt as a pitch-perfect update of Andrews’ Poppins. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack, the Bert stand-in, who now light lamps instead of cleaning chimneys. His character may be updated for the era, but the role is still that of a song and dance man, and Miranda proves himself a worthy heir to Van Dyke’s legacy. Speaking of legacies, Van Dyke also puts in a cameo appearance with better moves than most 93-year-old men. Meryl Streep shows up as Topsy Turvey, along with Angela Lansbury as The Balloon Lady — both characters pulled from unused chapters of Travers's books.
But even with this level of talent, the film often feels like it's trying too hard to be brilliant. It’s cute that Jane is now a union organizer where her mother was a suffragette, but the movie doesn’t go anywhere with it. Michael’s money troubles are all traced back to his desire to feed the birds with his tuppence in the original film, but no one quite knows how that connects to the evil bank manager (Colin Firth) and his plan to take away the family's home.
This is not to say “Mary Poppins Returns” is a bad movie — at times it is even great. A movie with dancing cartoon penguin sequences cannot be bad. The Lin-Manuel Miranda-led “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” sequence is a legitimate showstopper. (When “Mary Poppins Returns” is remade into a successful Broadway musical in the early 2020s, this will be a marvel to behold live.) And the final song “Nowhere To Go But Up,” led by Ben Whishaw — who knew he could sing? — finally nails the “simple is best” mantra. Cleverness takes a backseat to joy.
If only the movie had set its sights on joy to begin with, this could have a sequel for the ages. Instead, it’s just another decent family movie for the holidays.