By Farheen Jawaid
A spoonful of sweet, iconic Disney sugar helps the medicine go down (though not as smoothly), in Mary Poppins Returns – a direct sequel set years after the first Mary Poppins (1964).
Loveable, strict and very much magical, Mary Poppins, once again floats down from the clouds with her bird-headed Umbrella and carpet-print travelling bag, into the lives of a family that direly needs to clean the cobwebs of depression with a healthy dose of imagination.
The plot takes us back to Bank’s family home in Cherry Tree Lane, London in 1935. It is 25 years later according to the story’s continuity, and Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw), one of the two children from the first films, is now a widower trying to find his footing in society, while Jane (Emily Mortimer), his sister, is a pant-wearing labor organizer. Still living with the two is their old housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters, taking over from Hermione Baddeley).
Michael also has three children of his own – Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) – good kids who are mildly neglected, yet loved by Michael.
Like his father, Michael is caught in the same whirlpool of fate: his plate is full with the responsibility of providing for the family and the burden of saving their family home from the banks repossession.
Under stress, Michael does not have too much time to spend with his children, so comes in Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to the rescue. When Mary Poppins suddenly drops into their lives, Michael and Jane vaguely remember her and their childhood adventure, laughing their old memories off as childhood fantasy.
Poppins immediately gets to work setting down a timetable for work and play for the children, without fear of others spotting her enchantment (her magic, and the magic of visual effects, is more pronounced than the last film – obviously).
Everything she does with the children is woven in a tapestry of imagination and magic; Bath time turns into a fun underwater adventure, getting lost in the London fog becomes an exciting excursion, and – one sequence, nostalgic to the nth–degree – takes them to an animated world in a chipped china bowl that has talking animals rendered in old-school 2D animation.
At the very end of this movie, a park outing under a clear blue sky has everyone in town flying off in balloons (in the first Mary Poppins, everyone flew a kite). Every sequence is original, yet harks back to the original Mary Poppins.
The highlight of the movie, however, is not Poppins or the family dynamics, but the street lamplighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Broadway’s Hamilton). His presence is of such subtle significance that the movie starts and ends with him humming the song “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”. Stealing every scene he is in, this man of many trades has the heart of hero, and is by far the most memorable element in this Poppins adventure.
Director Rob Marshall, a veteran Broadway artist who directed many modern Hollywood musical to the screen (Chicago, Nine, Into the Woods, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Memoirs of a Geisha), does nothing unique to this musical. For the most part, he keeps the mood generic, with big fake plastic-y smiles plastered on Blunt and the young cast.
Blunt, a fine actress and singer, unfortunately gets to personify an impersonal candor in every scene. At times, the actress plays Poppins with more gravity in her eyes than what the story requires.
The musical numbers, also unfortunately, are vaguely notable, with “Underneath the Lovely London Sky” being the most striking in terms of its theme and performance.
Despite not being remarkable, this Poppins, with its fantastical props and feel-good family moments, does stand out in the holiday season. The films’ best aspect (the ‘Returns’ part of the title), formally acknowledges the story’s continuation years after the events of the first film, and irrespective of the burden Marshall and co. may feel when Returns is compared with the original, the sequel, miraculously, does not fall flat on its face. That is feat on its own in a market filled with overambitious, limp avatars of superior original films (Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast immediately come to mind).
Although far from perfect, at its the heart Returns tries to simulate the emotions associated with the first Mary Poppins, yet despite well-meant ambitions and grand production design, doesn’t stray anywhere near the classic status of the original.