Emily Blunt is a very brave woman. Mary Poppins is as revered and beloved a film as one could imagine, and Julie Andrews’ Poppins is, let’s face it, and with apologies for the obviousness of the comment, practically perfect.
So to take on the role of Mary Poppins is to invite comparisons, comparisons that will all but inevitably find one lacking, with Andrews. Blunt, then, has wisely decided not to try to follow directly in Andrews’ turned-out footsteps, but instead has given us a new reading of a childhood favourite.
The story of Mary Poppins Returns is quite straightforward. Michael and Jane Banks, the children of the original film, are now adults who are doing their best at adulting, Jane (Emily Mortimer) doing a little bit better than Michael, who now works for Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, as had his late dad. Michael, played with beautiful fragility — but then, what else would you expect? — by Ben Whishaw, has mortgaged the house on Cherry Tree Lane, and the bank, the bank he works for, the bank he’s inherited shares in, has decided to foreclose on the loan. His children, the twins John and Anabel and their little brother Georgie, try to keep the house running with the help of Ellen, Julie Walters’ housekeeper whose character appears to be on secondment from a Paddington film. And so into this chaos descends Mary Poppins.
And Blunt’s Poppins is a joy. Rather than the precise, clipped tones of Andrews, Blunt has given her Mary Poppins a gloriously tart archness so sharp you can hear the raised eyebrows. The character is intact, the effortless authority and the love of the children she has briefly taken under her wing, but Blunt has, instead of trying to imitate Andrews’ original, made the character, to the extent that this is possible, her own.
And so she works the magic one would expect from Mary Poppins. She has a chirpy cockney working-class mate, of course; this time it’s Jack, a leerie (a lamp-lighter; no, I didn’t know, either, but then, neither does the OED) played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. The fantasy sequences that follow are classic, old-school Disney; an extended half-cartoon bit that sees Miranda and Blunt performing a surprisingly risqué (well, by Poppins standards) A Cover Is Not The Book at the Royal Doulton Music Hall combines live action with traditional old-school animation, and the result is a fantastic combination of the familiar and the updated. The visuals evoke classic Disney animations of the last sixty years, even down to the penguins, while the music, written by Mark Shaiman, feels like it could have belonged in the 1964 original. And the music, while possibly not having a show-stopper on quite the same level as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, has songs like Trip A Little Light Fantastic that would have sounded at home being sung by Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; indeed, even if they do feel a little more everything-dialled-up-to-eleven, they gained the approval of Richard M. Sherman, co-writer with his brother Robert B, of the 1964 film’s songs and who served as a musical consultant on this version.
If this all feels a little gushy, then let’s consider, also, in the interests of balance the places where the film slightly falters. Emily Mortimer’s Jane is a hopelessly under-written character; Mortimer does her best with what she’s given, but the story revolves around Michael and his children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson), and his late wife, who isn’t, I don’t believe, even named in the film is more fleshed-out and sketched-in than Jane. And there is one rather odd mis-step. For reasons that are never properly explored — indeed for reasons that are tossed away, never to be revisited, as though the three credited story-writers, screenwriter David Magee, director Rob Marshall, and John DeLuca, got bored with the idea and couldn’t be bothered to figure out where to take it — Mary Poppins and the children visit her cousin Topsy, played with agreeably barking Russian-ness by Meryl Streep, who clearly had enormous fun exploring accents for the part, but the plot path is a dead end, and the film would have been every bit as effective without this little excursion.
So no, it’s not perfect, practically or otherwise, and for many people for whom Mary Poppins, in all her Julie Andrews delightfulness, is inextricably tied up with their most treasured memories of their childhoods, any attempt to revisit Mary Poppins is always going to be a risky job. But Emily Blunt is clearly the right woman for the job, and Mary Poppins Returns is a quite delightful film.