Carolyn Percy takes a spoonful of sugar as she reviews Mary Poppins Returns, the latest take on the 1964 Disney classic by director Rob Marshall.
It’s the 1930s, the period of economic downturn known as “The Great Slump”, and though, as lamplighter Jack says, there are still bright spots amid the gloom, times are hard at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Michael Banks’s wife has passed away, leaving him to run a household and bring up three young children with only the help of increasingly forgetful Ellen (Julie Walters’ “dotty old lady” routine at its finest) and sister Jane (who, following in the footsteps of her mother, is now a busy activist for worker’s rights), and the family finances are in dire straits, with the house in danger of being re-possessed. Then, on the tail of a kite, in comes Mary Poppins to aid the Banks family once again. And, with the help of some friends, they may find a way to save their home. But Mr William “Weatherall” Wilkins, nephew of Mr Dawes Jr and current manager of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, is determined to re-possess the house, by any means necessary.
Firstly, let’s deal with the elephant in room: is Emily Blunt any good as the new Mary Poppins? Short answer: yes. Though she’s unlikely to ever convince anyone for whom Julie Andrews IS Mary Poppins and nothing will ever convince them otherwise, Blunt’s performance is nail-on-the-head: the haughtiness of someone who knows she’s always right, and a mastery of reverse psychology that would make any parent jealous, but underneath is a heart that’s big and warm. (It’s been said that Blunt’s portrayal is closer to that of the character in P.L. Travers’ books but I beg to differ; Andrews may have been a little more openly affectionate but only a little, if you go back and watch the film you see that there are plenty of moments where she is strict, even cold.)
It is a testament to the cast that there isn’t a dull performance in the whole piece: Ben Whishaw portrays Michael Banks as a single father struggling to move on after the death of his wife beautifully; Hamilton star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda fills Bert’s shoes as Jack (and whose attempt at a Cockney accent isn’t as disastrous); Dick Van Dyke has a brilliant cameo – complete with desk dancing, at the age of 93! – as Mr Dawes Jr and the actors who play the children are definitely ones to watch.
Admittedly the story does hit most of the same beats as the original but it hits them well, and since the same criticism has also been levelled at the books it’s in good company. Of course, another important element of the original film were the songs and this is also true of Mary Poppins Returns. There have been critics who have said that the new songs aren’t as catchy. I disagree. Quite apart from the fact that part of the reason for the enduring nature of the original songs is, simply, that they’ve been around longer, composer and lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have done a fantastic job of creating some earworms that stay in your head for days – from music hall romp ‘A Cover Is Not the Book’, huge song and dance number ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ to the beautiful ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ – and the score itself has more than a few recognisable motifs that will bring a smile to your face.
Though it does come dangerously close to being too saccharine at times, Mary Poppins Returns is not only a great sequel but a great feel-good film in general, and heaven knows we need that right now.
Carolyn Percy is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.