Saturday, December 22, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns Is Far Too Familiar Given Its Unpredictable Lead Character

Mary Poppins Returns kicks off in 1935, twenty-five years after the first Mary Poppins movie, with Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) now being not just an adult but also a single father of three kids who is under incredible stress to find the necessary funds to keep his families house. All of these efforts to try and make ends meet aren't just put on the shoulders of Michael, his three kids are also all business and no imagination. Clearly, things are glum around the Banks household and that means it's time for a certain Nanny to return. Yep, here comes Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to take care of Michael's offspring and teach them, plus their father, some important lessons.

It's clear from the very start of Mary Poppins Returns that this movie is slavishly devoted to making sure that the world of the original film is preserved right down to choosing to have Michael and his kids reside in the exact same house he grew up in during the first movie. Anyone worried that Mary Poppins Returns was going to distort the beloved 1964 classic to be more "cool" and modern can rest at ease, director Rob Marshall and writer David Magee are doing everything in their power to make sure that the world of Mary Poppins is just as you remember it. Hooray for the fact that this movie isn't straining to be hip by having Mary Poppins dab but being so adherent to the first Mary Poppins is actually the biggest problem with what's otherwise a serviceable family movie.

As the film progressed, I began to realize, with a sense of disappointment, that Mary Poppins Returns was basically just going through each of the plot beats of the original movie right down to the letter. We get another Dad who needs to learn a lesson from his children, more villainous bankers to serve as adversaries to be confronted in the climax, we even have Mary Poppins taking the kids to see an eccentric individual played by a celebrity (Ed Wynn in the original, Meryl Streep here) for a wacky musical number. A family movie that should be all about magical whimsy that makes the impossible possible gets weighed down by a plot that's all about mechanically making sure every key plot point of the original gets recycled.

Even forgetting the overly familiar similarities between Mary Poppins Returns and its predecessor, Magee's script still has its own fair share of problems, including a failure to give the individual three kid characters all that much in the way of personality beyond the youngster kid really liking a stuffed animal giraffe. Magee's screenplay also concludes with a race-against-the-clock (literally) finale that, while being at least a new idea not present in the original Mary Poppins, is surprisingly lackluster since it makes the peculiar decision to sideline the characters (Mary Poppins and the three kids) who have been the central focus of the story up to that point. This sequence so desperately wants the audience to be on the edge of their seat but how is that possible when it's about characters I haven't been given a reason to care about?

Now, before you think I'm a crank in desperate need of a spoonful of sugar, it's worth mentioning that overall Mary Poppins Returns is overall decent family entertainment, particularly since it actually aces one of its most crucial elements: the musical numbers. Happily, there are no reprises of songs from the original Mary Poppins movie to be found here, we get a wholly new collection of well-made tunes here that left me highly entertained. The lyrics of these songs are penned by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman and they're clearly modeling their lyrics in the style of the original film's tunes penned by songwriters the Sherman Brothers, though songs like Trip A Little Light Fantastic manage to work exceptionally well as memorable tunes in their own right.

The assorted songs are actually well-realized within the in-movie musical numbers, a rarity in modern-day live-action American musicals that, as seen in last year's musicals Beauty and the Beast and The Greatest Showman, to rely far too much on odd camerawork choices and clumsy editing. That's not the case here as cohesive editing and thoughtful camerawork allows the intricately choreographed musical numbers to be seen and absorbed properly.  Director Rob Marshall seems to have finally remembered, after the last two Disney blockbusters he directed, that you can use bright colors in your movie, which also benefits these musical numbers (particularly one set in a hand-drawn animated realm) that tend to be bursting with vibrant colors.

Emily Blunt and particularly Lin-Manuel Miranda really get to shine when it's time to belt out a tune, though they both fare well in their performances throughout the film as a whole. That's an especially impressive feat for Blunt who manages to make this iconic role her own despite following in the legendary footsteps of Julie Andrews. Speaking of legends, I really wasn't prepared for how emotional I would get upon seeing Dick Van Dyke in a movie or hearing Angela Lansbury sing again, the presence of both of these iconic figures is welcome. If only elements within the movie Mary Poppins Returns like its derivative characters and story had as much emotional power as its references to real-world icons, though at least the musical numbers and acting help pick up some of the slack.

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