FILM REVIEW: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

After 54 years, and a lot of negotiation with the estate of original author P.L. Travers, this sequel to 1964’s Oscar winning musical about a magical children’s nanny who looks after a banker’s family at the turn of the twentieth century, has finally made it to the big screen and will be released on New Year’s Day in cinemas everywhere.

There is always some trepidation beforehand when a much-loved film is given an update, a ‘modernisation’, to accommodate a new generation’s changed musical tastes and visual preferences.

From the very first frame of Mary Poppins Returns, those fears are allayed.

This new film is a wonderful companion to the original, and director, Rob Marshall (Into The Woods, Nine, Memoir Of A Geisha) has meticulously crafted it to recreate the feel, atmosphere and visual style of the original sixties’ musical blockbuster.

The two children from the original have now grown up but, as adults with some pressing issues of their own to deal with, they have temporarily lost touch with the magic and wonder they had experienced in their childhood.

The casting in this film is perfect.

The character of Jane, played by the delightful Emily Mortimer, whose smiling presence illuminates the screen in all of her scenes, has been created to be consistent with her mother’s political activism, something that was so well established in the earlier film, and she has grown to be an activist herself, striving to obtain better conditions for the working classes in pre-Great Depression London.

Her brother, Michael, a recent widower, played by Ben Whishaw, is having a very bad year. He is attempting to raise three children of his own in the old family house, whilst, at the same time, holding down a poorly paid part-time position as a teller at the same bank that had employed his father in the first film – the Fidelity Feduciary Bank.  He only has the clumsy and scatterbrained family maid, Ellen, played by the endearing Julie Walters, to give him any domestic assistance, until Mary Poppins arrives on a kite at his darkest hour to help him out. The bank, showing no leniency to its employee, has called in the family’s outstanding mortgage debt in full, and Michael is only given a few days to either raise the full amount owing, or find the lost bank share certificate that proved his father may have invested in the bank and which could be their last-minute financial saviour. Whishaw adeptly, and poignantly, conveys Michael’s harried ‘reluctant adult’ character and draws maximum empathy from the audience.

The children – Pixie Dawes as Annabel; Nathanael Saleh as her twin brother, John; and Joel Dawson as the younger brother, Georgie Banks – are all appealing and convincing, and their ability to convey wonder and joy at what is unfolding around them creates a very affecting viewing experience.

Emily Blunt, in the titular role, fully repays Julie Andrews’ endorsement of her for the part. She delivers a magnificent performance that simultaneously pays homage to Andrews’ 1964 interpretation of the character, whilst adding some of her own touches in her vocal inflections, telling eyebrow raises and knowing looks to camera. It would not be surprising, on the strength of this star turn, to see her offered roles in possible future sequels to Andrews’ other sixties’ musical triumphs such as The Sound Of Music or Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, a descendant of the old chimney sweep, Bert, is a delight as the children’s friend, guide and protector – and his accent is, thankfully, much more consistent than Dick Van Dyke ever managed to achieve!

The greedy and heartless bank manager is played by a wicked Colin Firth whose thirst for maximum profit at all cost is, thankfully, not shared by all of his employees. It is a fun turn for Firth, and he revels in the role.

Some other surprising faces turn up at various moments to further strengthen the many connections with the film’s predecessor, and the keen-eyed film buff will notice more than one name in the credits that were also scrolling down the cinema screen at film’s end in 1964!

This is a film proud to revel in old-fashioned values and in its use of traditional film technique.  It avoids the temptation to aim more directly for contemporary musical credibility and instead delivers many beautifully scored, orchestrated new songs written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, whose collective songwriting skills gave us the songs in Hairspray, Team America: World Police, and the TV shows Smash and Glee. These songs are clever and appealing, and yet could have also seamlessly fit onto the original Mary Poppins soundtrack, such is their stylistic consistency and compatibility with those well-loved songs of the first film.

The lyrics are thoughtful, intelligent and emotionally arousing. It is not often that you hear, in what is ostensibly a comic children’s song, someone dissing Tolstoy’s War & Peace as being too dense and turgid, whilst referencing the Germanic concept of ‘sturm und drang’, as we do here in Meryl Streep’s wonderful musical cameo as Mary Poppins cousin, Topsi!

The film’s set pieces are clever and beautifully staged. Many of the images included in these scenes will stay indelibly etched in your memory well after the film has ended. The decision to use hand-drawn animation instead of CGI was a risk in an era where we have come to take high levels of animated details in our films for granted. Here it works perfectly in further establishing the film as not only a sequel, but also as a respectful homage to the original. In fact, the final credits acknowledge that the opening title sequence was designed as a tribute to Peter Ellenshaw, whose artistic and design talent was so intrinsic to the success of the original.

I loved this film. It allowed me the rare chance to revisit that naïve wide-eyed child I once was, and to immerse myself in a film where I did not have to apply the usual age weary lens of cynicism. It will appeal to grandparents, parents, and to kids who have left their gadgetry at home and who still have the power to suspend their disbelief and accept that magic (and some gentle discipline!) still has its place in our seemingly rootless twenty first century world.

Mary Poppins Returns is simply a terrific film. The whole family will love it.

 

Mary Poppins Returns is set for release in Adelaide cinemas on January 1 2019.

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