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“Mary Poppins Returns”: Sequel Gal a Frabjous Mystic, Extra Braggadocious

Mary Poppins Returns!

Meanwhile in the evil Mirror Universe, a misbegotten Mary Poppins reboot rues its poor box office and looks upon our universe’s sequel in envy.

Anne and I haven’t watched the original Mary Poppins in 35-40 years. We had considered revisiting it before lining up for director Rob Marshall’s showy happy sequel, but all the legal streaming services wanted twelve bucks or more for one (1) showing of one (1) 54-year-old film. We moved on without it.

I remember very little of the plot, but the songs have haunted me ever since. Credit goes mostly to the legendary songwriting team of Robert and Richard Sherman, and partly to my grade-school music teacher Mrs. Quebbeman, later Mrs. Surdi when she remarried. She taught us songs we never wanted to know (“Up with People”), didn’t notice when a few of us discovered the new fad called “lip-syncing” in sixth grade, assigned me solos in three consecutive Christmas programs while I still had a stable singing voice, and blessedly introduced us to the wonders of wooden percussion, “The Rainbow Connection”, “Danse Macabre”, and at least half the Mary Poppins soundtrack. For me the film may have faded, but the tunes remain etched into my brain. Long after all the useful parts have shut down, I’ll be in my bed humming the chorus from “Step in Time” till the end of days.

Sadly, Mrs. Surdi passed away about a month ago. She was firmly in my thoughts as Mary Poppins Returns played on. Thanks to her, I knew ahead of time there’s no way I’d like the sequel more than the original. But sometimes it’s nice to sit back, be patient, listen closely, and wait to be surprised at what sticks.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Mary Poppins is back! But Julie Andrews is older now and Hollywood cruelly enforces term limits on such roles. Thus the mantle and the umbrella are passed on to Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place, Edge of Tomorrow), who finds her own version of prim uprightness and mischievous altruism for her portrayal of that magical Miss Manners from beyond.

A couple dozen years after the first film, she once again descends from the heavens above to pursue her own peculiar agenda involving an oddly specific family. The Banks children are all grown up now, but haven’t strayed too far from their roots. Jane (Emily Mortimer), following in the footsteps of her suffragette mom, is a pro-union campaigner. Michael (Ben Whishaw, James Bond’s recent Q) is an anxious father struggling to make ends meet for his offspring but who keeps making poor choices (the same character he played in the film Suffragette). The former Banks children believe the events of the first film were entirely in their imagination, because apparently Ms. Poppins’ witchcraft includes a Men in Black failsafe that rewrites the memories of her human victims and clients once they reach the age of maturity. (Not really a joke. There’s a line to that effect.)

Fortunately Michael’s three kids are still kids and therefore are quick to believe in Mary’s talents, though the reason she’s shown up sucks: Dad had to take out a home equity loan to get by after Mom died, but payments are three months overdue and it’s now in default. If they can’t find some way to pay off the full balance by deadline, they’ll have to move somewhere less charming. It’s tough to believe the England in a feel-good live-action Disney musical would hold any non-charming housing, but on the brighter side none of the characters worry that actual homelessness is a potential consequence. No one asks, “Where shall we go, father? Must we sleep in the alleys where Jack the Ripper might prey upon us, and we’re forced to cook singing rodents for our meals, and we’ll have to make tea from rainwater and yard trimmings?” The fact that we see a moving van later means they do have a Plan B; they would simply prefer not to use it.

Anyway, singing and dancing and magic and smiling ensue, plus there are interactive cartoon animals a good deal more advanced than the days of Roger Rabbit. Also, one rap break, but don’t tell your grandparents or else they’ll refuse to go see it. And they do need to get out of the house periodically, don’t they?

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: After “nostalgia”, the #1 reason for anyone to see this is Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, one of the chimney-sweep sidekicks from the first film who’s grown up and changed career tracks. Now he’s a lamplighter, possibly the merriest one in all of England’s history. Jack is a fount of infinite optimism and a good friend of Mary’s, possessing the finest dancing moves and singing chops around, which could make him a superstar in the entertainment industry if only he weren’t so madly in love with lamplighting in particular and London in general, from its immaculate cobblestone streets to its eternally gray skies (the opening number is an ode to finding joy even in that seemingly colorless climate). He’s related to no one here and has no stake in any of this, but keeps showing up as a happy helper exactly whenever one is needed.

Also in the Banks household are Pixie Davies (Bronwyn from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) as Annabel, the girl of the li’l Banks three-pack; and Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley!) as the Banks’ housekeeper, whose unconditional loyalty to her broke employer is commendable and unexplained. Living next door are David Warner (Star Trek VI) and Jim Norton (Straw Dogs) as longtime partners who think a ship’s cannon makes a perfectly acceptable hourly chime.

Meanwhile on the side of evil, Colin Firth is the bad, bad bank manager pretending he totally hopes the Banks home is saved, though he never explains how he stands to benefit from their failure (foreclosure is just such fun, maybe?). His subordinates include Jeremy Swift, previously the conniving butler Mr. Spratt eventually fired by the Dowager Countess from Downtown Abbey. Also, surprise trivia for fellow Statesiders: the actress playing the manager’s secretary is Noma Dumezweni, a.k.a. the adult Hermione from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

The film screeches to a halt for an extended appearance by Meryl Streep as a cousin of Mary’s who’s also super-powered but has her own specialties and quirks, such as impersonating Bette Midler doing her impression of Natasha Fatale. Two dear old Disney friends also drop by for a moment each: the Dick Van Dyke (though not reprising your first guess) and the Angela Lansbury, whose part oddly feels as though it could have been offered first to Julie Andrews, who is absent from this production but currently cameoing in another current theatrical release.

Assorted animated speakers feature the voices of Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Mark Addy (Game of Thrones, The Full Monty), and Edward Hibbert (Gil the food critic from TV’s Frasier).

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:

  • Manners, everyone! MANNERS!
  • Singing and dancing make everything better
  • Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
  • Keep your important financial papers in a safe place
  • Keep copies of every major financial transaction ever, because you never know when a big company will lose track of your stuff
  • Lenders can be evil on both sides of the Atlantic
  • When your children unanimously tell you someone is evil, listen to their side
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover, per the film’s best show-stopping tune, “A Cover Is Not the Book”
  • Grief is often painful, but it’s heartening to remember there are ways in which dead loved ones can live on
  • Just because a thing is lost doesn’t mean it’s gone forever, so stop assuming it was disintegrated by a laser death-ray or it ceased to exist because a time traveler killed the wrong butterfly

Nitpicking? Jack the lucky lamplighter advises early on, “One thing to know about Mary Poppins: she never explains anything.” Thus is the sequel identical to the original.

Why does Mary do any of what she does? Why is the Banks family so important to her? Will one of their descendants become the Chosen One foretold in the Sacred Scrolls of the Sorceror Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? And why does she tantalize them with her near-omnipotence but refuse to perform some of the more difficult feats, thereby letting their anguish and fears fester all the longer while she stands idly by and watches them suffer? At various points in the film she could intervene easily:

  • Point out exactly where a particular MacGuffin is
  • Expose Colin Firth’s lies
  • Pay the bill with magic money
  • Take five seconds to fix a broken thing that in turn would delete Meryl Streep from the film entirely
  • Bring in a Roadshow Antiques assessor (a la Marshall McLuhan’s cameo in Annie Hall) to advise that the previous bullet point comes entirely from a total red herring, thus deleting Meryl Streep and an extended animated sequence and all the voice-actor parts in one fell swoop

…but obviously none of these can happen because then the film would be a plotless, hour-long “Lin-Manuel Miranda and Friends” variety special. I would be fine with this. Instead, Mary exercises her powers only when she deems it absolutely necessary, because the family must fend for themselves as much as possible, with her stepping in only when the film would crash and burn without divine intervention. If you think about what she does (or doesn’t) much harder than you’re meant to, her universe is among one of the most annoying kinds in all of fiction: one where magic has no rules. At best, she’s a finicky feminist whose actions are willful demonstrations of “agency” over inferior beings who ultimately can’t succeed without her. At worst, she’s a tortured metaphor for the ancient question of “why does God allow suffering?” and her glib, dissatisfying answer is “because this too shall pass, except when it doesn’t, in which case here I come to save the day, but until then, do you mind if I merely stand here and watch you squirm? Just pretend I’m not here.”

To complicate the matter further, Mary and her wacky cousin Meryl aren’t the only witches/demigods around. Setting aside the shenanigans in the various animated dimensions that Mary can access, other wielders are seen around the edges, hinting at a vast Poppins mythology lurking underneath the surface, the stuff of which exploratory fanfics and contrived cinematic universes and Harry Potter knockoffs are made. So many magic-users abound, but lay low like hermits, hoarding their gifts like X-Men trying to hide from a normal world that hunts and fears them. The more casual oddities are tossed about as unexplained set dressing, the more questions they invite and the more one dreads a studio might be planning ahead for sequels, spin-offs, and other ancillary profit machines.

Frankly, absolutely none of this would’ve occurred to me if the music had captivated me from the first note, held on tightly, and given me no time to pause for thoughts. I spent the entire opening number getting used to and accepting Miranda’s supernaturally gleeful accent (you’ll hear no unkind Van Dyke jokes from me), but tried to keep an open ear throughout the rest of the film. Most of the songs are typically crowd-pleasing Broadway-style, by which I mean they lack catchy, repeated choruses that sink their hooks into your brain and earworm you into submission. I’ve enjoyed the music of Marc Shaiman in the past (Down With Love remains so very underrated), but his songs here (with co-writer Scott Wittman) are simply not the Sherman Brothers, except when they borrow some of the notes, which is not exactly what I was hoping for. They’re a fine accompaniment to an amiable viewing experience, but with a few fun exceptions, they fall short of being uniquely enrapturing on their own terms, and evaporated from my mind after we left the theater.

Beyond the music: I giggled at the final conflict resolution (not with it), which draws on the first film and an old episode of Futurama. Also, if you keep track of all the pieces of paper we’re shown, it’s not hard to find the MacGuffin. My wife guessed it early on.

So what’s to like? That being said and then swept promptly into the cellar: Mary Poppins Returns isn’t meant to be that kind of entertainment. Plot and world-building infrastructure aren’t the point. It’s a throwback to the glory days of musical cinema, a revival of upbeat rhythms and melodies, a reaffirmation of family togetherness, a wellspring of positivity, and a much-needed refuge from irony, grimness, and the pervasive negativity that feels like a necessary survival skill in today’s broken world, even though we intellectually realize that negativity is more like a defense mechanism too many of us have probably acquired from the wrong role models, to say nothing of our sometimes skewed sense of what is or isn’t “fun”.

All the animation sequences are glorious in their own ways, from the 3-D CG underwater extravaganza that all but sticks its tongue out at Aquaman (I love the prefacing bit with the premature dolphin) to the lovely, circus-tastic resurrection of 2-D cel animation, or at least a faithful approximation and celebration thereof. Whishaw’s grief is palpably touching, imbuing “The Place Where Lost Things Go” with aching gravitas. The lamplighter-squad choreography of “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is suitably groovy. But my favorite is the aforementioned “A Cover Is Not the Book”, which veers wildly into borderline verbal burlesque, lets Mary belt it out like you’ve never heard her before, and whips out a Lin-Manuel rap-break ambush.

Between the two of them, Blunt and Miranda (which would be a great name for a buddy-cop show) aptly anchor this two-hour getaway from trials and tribulations. If you’re not within easy access to Broadway or something like it, their weird, wide-eyed world is your best theatrical substitute.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Mary Poppins Returns end credits, though there’s a big shout-out to the late Peter Ellenshaw, a painter and visual effects artist whose works graced several films including the first Poppins. The opening credits feature works in loving homage to his distinctive style.

Among those named in the Special Thanks section are the family of P.L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins herself, and the Trustees of the P.L. Travers Will Trust. I presume their cooperation was received in exchange for Disney promising not to vilify them in Saving Mr. Banks Again.

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