When you mess with a classic, you better get it right. This sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, does very well on several levels, but it doesn’t match the original. If you enjoyed the original, you will likely enjoy this one too, it is well made, and it is, Mary Poppins.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) came from theater but has developed into a quality filmmaker and knows what to do with making a musical. The original was directed by veteran filmmaker and top Disney director, Robert Stevenson, who was rewarded an Academy Award nomination. The film received a total of 13 Academy Award nominations, winning five, including Julie Andrews for Best Actress.
I’ll get this out of the way upfront. The music in the sequel doesn’t compare with the original. No contest. Not even close. Fifty years from now you won’t be humming the songs from the sequel. Lyricist Scott Wittman and composer Marc Shaiman are successful with composing musicals and their songs here are effective and nice, but not classics. The original film won Academy Awards for Best Song and Best Score. Deservedly so.
The original film was light and airy, much more comedy than you get with the sequel. Walt Disney wanted an enchanting, upbeat story, despite the objections of Mary Poppins’ writer P.L. Travers. The sequel is dower at times, very effective in creating a serious dramatic tone, perhaps more in line with the source material. The first clue in the sequel is learning the mother of the Banks’ children is deceased. Then a foreclosure note is hammered to the front door of their home. The original film does have a slight dramatic skeleton, but it is mostly subdued and mainly serves to advance the narrative. The original is a delightful confection, the sequel offers less sugar and more dietary fiber.
Julie Andrews is Mary Poppins. But Emily Blunt holds her own and is quite pleasing in the role. She’s an extraordinary actress and has a big future. She displays the commanding presence that Andrews did, is firm with children and adults, and resists sentimentality with the children.
One of the delights of the original was the mixing of live action with animation, something tricky to get right in that era. Those sequences were some of the most enjoyable of the film, when Mary Poppins, Bert the chimney sweep, and the kids go on their adventures. The sequel also has such sequences, and with great surprise, keeps the animation style of the original instead of using modern CGI technology. The effect is pleasing and keeps an old school charm.
Much of the Mary Poppins story was told in the Savings Mr. Banks film about the making of the original film and the composition of the music by the Sherman Brothers. The role of Walt Disney in making the original film cannot be emphasized enough, he convince Travers to trust him with her character, he saw that the story had heart and the music not only enhanced the film, but was memorable.
Both films are quite effective in portraying the struggles of the fathers, however different that they are. George Banks is a traditional father, preoccupied with business and leaving the child-rearing to his wife. Michael Banks has been a more hands-on father, particularly after his wife’s death, but forgets this as he must confront his immediate financial difficulties. In both cases, the fathers come around, embrace their children’s help and remember what it’s like to be a child.
In the original, Dick Van Dyke was much more the showman than Lin-Manuel Miranda in the sequel, though Miranda does a fine job in an intentionally less showy role. Van Dyke has big dance shoes to fill, but Miranda, as the lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep, is a pleasing counterpart to Blunt’s character. Miranda has a fine background in stage and film musicals and a good choice for Jack. For me, the musical number involving the chimney sweeps in the original is much better than the one with the lamplighters in the sequel, it is more creative and satisfying. Tough competition.
In the sequel there is a scene with Meryl Streep as Mary Poppins’ cousin. She is there to repair a broken porcelain bowl and have a musical sequence with Mary Poppins, Jack and the kids. In the original film, Mary Poppins has an uncle Albert, portrayed by Ed Wynn. They laugh uncontrollably and end up on the ceiling, enjoying an amusing song. Neither sequence is essential to the films but they are fun and show Mary Poppins taking a backseat to a relative. Ed Wynn is just a funny guy, no weird accent or contrived situation. The musical number involving Streep is showy but one of the weaker musical moments.
Interesting side note, the screening I attended for Mary Poppins Returns, was mostly adults, who applauded at the end. Nice touch.
Admittedly, time and sentimentality may color my perspective. After viewing the sequel at the theater I went home and pulled out the original and watched it, while the memory was fresh.
It is not really Mary Poppins vs Mary Poppins, there is room for both, but you know which way I lean.