My notes on Mary Poppins Returns
I certainly saw Mary Poppins in the late 1960s – and I even remember being taken to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Dr Dolittle, though even as a kid I preferred You Only Live Twice and 2001 A Space Odyssey (we were all astronaut crazy) and was perhaps more enthused still by the Man From UNCLE films, Batman and Peter Cushing’s Dr Who … Disney’s big kid films were always too tame for proper 60s kids, and though Mary Poppins was plainly not one of those ‘flying rubber professor’ films (cf: Matinee’s The Shook-Up Shopping Cart), it was still a big slice of stodge from Robert Stevenson and had the added drawback for British kids of the ‘jolly holly-dye with Mye-ree’ Dick Van Dyke cockney accent that became a standing joke in the UK as soon as the movie was released. Still, it’s a classic that has seeped into the groundwater of pop culture – a parody on The Simpsons and the biopic Saving Mr Banks both assume you’ve seen and remember Mary Poppins. A sequel has been in development so long that I can remember when Michael Jackson was mooted to take over Van Dyke’s role (I imagine his cockney accent would have been something to hear).
Finally, Mary Poppins Returns is here – and is one of those rare big-budget miracles where no exec has been able to mess it up … yes, it’s a virtual repeat of the original film, and little snatches of the Sherman Bros score undercut a serviceable, tuneful, witty, ever-so-slightly bland new lot of songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (delivered with such enthusiasm by an eclectic cast that you won’t mind their ordinariness) but it’s a well-crafted script (by David Magee), directed by the well-named Rob Marshall, and realises just how lucky it is to have so many casting coups. Emily Blunt may actually be the screen’s best Mary Poppins, adding just a ghost of melancholy in a happy ending that we only now see is the same as The Searchers as the nanny floats out of the Banks’ family’s life once her job is done, memories of her and her magic already fading. She manages the combination of primness and riot too, with a very complicated bit of self-contradiction in her first number, ‘Can You Imagine That?’, which is at once an arch pooh-poohing of whimsy and a question that begs to be answered in the affirmative. Equally canny is replacing Van Dyke’s chimneysweep Bert with Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack – his accent steps around the minefield, but he has Van Dyke’s rubber-limbed enthusiasm, energy and shy geniality – and so, in a moving cameo, does Van Dyke himself, returning to the other role he played in the original, as a whiskery banker.
Ben Whishaw, recruited from Paddington (whose genial multicultural retro London is an influence), carries the dramatic weight as a Banks kid grown up but now bereft and hapless – and Emily Mortimer is so perfect you wonder why a dozen films haven’t been built around her obvious appeal … an across-the-class romance of Banks sister Jane with the lamplighter is hinted at, but Mortimer plays her as slightly gay (and it’s delicious that the heirs of union-busting Uncle Walt should back a film with an unashamed labour organiser as a sympathetic character). The plot’s a trifle about a repossession threat, with Colin Firth as evil banker, and a share certificate mcguffin, but this reprises the tactic of having fantasy intrude into normality via animated interludes/musical numbers … with a music hall inside a cracked glazed Royal Doulton china bowl and Meryl Streep laughing at her own accent (a theme, obviously) as upside-down magical repairwoman Cousin Topsy (we’re still shy about using the w word to describe Poppins and her kin). A few huffing British institutions (Julie Walters, David Warner) do schtick, and we love them despite the thinness of the material – and it’s hard not to be moved when Angela Lansbury, star of the Poppins follow-up Bedknobs and Broomsticks, sings a song about balloons going up, just as she did in her film debut in 1944 (Gaslight). It’s Christmas, and bonhomie is unavoidable – so that’s a recommendation from me.