Sometimes it pays to be at the right place at the right time. I know someone who is a BAFTA member and he was standing in front of me at the office when he received a text saying his friend is unable to join him to a screening of ‘Mary Poppins Returns.’ He then turns to me, standing in front of him, and asks ‘You want to go?’ And boy, do I ever. If there is one movie this Holiday season that I was looking forward to, this would be it. Plus, the screening had a Q & A afterwards with the whole cast in attendance. Who could ask for anything more?
And I loved the movie. Well, I liked it a lot anyway, much more than I thought I would. You see, in the Julie-Andrews-as-nanny genre of films, I have always been on the side of ‘The Sound of Music’ vs ‘Mary Poppins.’ I look it more as melodrama vs. magical, real vs fantasy, and I guess I am more ‘realist’ in life. (Plus, nothing beats Rodgers and Hammerstein for me)
The story isn’t complicated, and I don’t think it was ever meant to be. Michael Banks, now an adult, is in a quandary – his wife passed away, and he is left with a debt that would cause for him to lose their house. And in comes Mary Poppins out of the blue. so you can see there’s really no intricacies to the plot, and I actually even think it is quite similar to ‘Christopher Robin,’ Disney’s summer film. About halfway through, the narrative stalls – there’s really nowhere else it could go. And the film gets filled with musical numbers.
And these musical numbers mostly work. The CGI isn’t breathtakingly ‘new.’ There’s a cool 2D retro-vibe to it, a sort of homage to the original, and for me it works better that way. And the music, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, probably won’t rise up to their bests, but they still work. They are tuneful, and sprightly, and lively, and probably toned down a bit for it to sound ‘Disney.’ I have no complaints.
And the performances are first rate. Emily Blunt shines on a muted version of the character – there’s enough sweetness and bitterness there for it to be balanced, though I thought her singing voice should have had more character. Lin Manuel Miranda is an odd choice on paper, but he works his ass off here to make it work, and yes, it does work. the ever reliable Ben Whishaw always rises above everything, and here he provides the beating heart. Dick Van Dyke’s appearance causes the scene to sparkle and musical theater fans will love a beloved musical theater cameo towards the end of the film.
All in all, does the film have cause to exist? Probably not, but this effort isn’t a waste either. This will probably garner a whole generation of loyal audience, just as the original did, and that is always a good thing. Maybe the kids will explore Emily Blunt in ‘Into The Woods,’ a much better film and musical. And if this happens, then it’s all for the love of Sondheim.