MARY POPPINS RETURNS – no, not quite

Steve and I don’t often write on the website about the same film, although we compare notes all the time on our podcast/vidcast. But having digested his just-posted review of Mary Poppins Returns, I thought I’d add a few extra thoughts. Not because I think his assessment of the film is significantly askew, but to discuss a different point: who is this film for?

Mary Poppins Returns is primarily a children’s story, but it’s surely aimed not at today’s kids, but rather at the inner child of today’s adults, who saw the film the first time around. If you reprise a beloved children’s story of more than 50 years ago, set it pretty much in the same era, take a similar approach to songs, characters and the mix of live action and animation, plus include an actor from the original film, what else can the answer be?

There were plenty of young ones in the session I attended. As far as I could tell they were occasionally entertained, but I sensed some boredom setting in over the two hours and ten minutes duration of the film. So let’s put that age group to one side and focus on people in my age group, for whom this film is a full blown nostalgia trip.

The writers deserve credit for making this a genuine sequel rather than a straight-out remake. The story is set 20-25 years after the original, which keeps the audience guessing as to where those writers will take the story, and also guessing as to what scenes from the original they will be treated to. For my part there were nostalgic delights on offer, none more potent than the scene near the end when Dick Van Dyke reappears.

But the film would rise or fall on how entranced we are by Emily Blunt’s performance in the lead role, and by how we react to the film being made in essentially the same way as the original. Blunt is a better actor than Julie Andrews, despite Andrews winning a Best Actress Oscar for this role in 1965. Blunt dances and moves well, and although she’s a fair singer she’s far short of Andrews’ ability here. This means something of Mary Poppins’ original charm is lost, although Blunt compensates by bringing her acting skills to bear to give the character a sharper attitude. But I think this is only a partial success, because this approach makes Mary Poppins just a little more detached. Poppins’ compassion is skilfully delivered by Blunt but in a measured way. It seemed the Banks children are impressed and delighted but Poppins but do they grow to love her? No I don’t think so. It would have helped to know more about Mary. What’s really going on inside that brain? Could we have been given some backstory? Why not? Without it, Poppins remains a mystery, which in the end doesn’t give us much to cling on to emotionally.

Add to that our Mary somewhat disappears from focus as the story reaches its climax, and our attention is directed to the fate of the Banks family. Fair enough, the humans are who we should care about most, but by the time we get to Poppins’ departure I wasn’t too fussed. She came, she saw, she helped, she left.

Mary Poppins Returns is not, as many remakes are, peppered with modern day cultural references, included as in-jokes for a modern audience. (Recent example, the Donald Trump references in Holmes and Watson, which Steve and I have both recently seen) No, here the film makers have told a story of many years ago and set it in that era. The only nod to modern times is in the selection of a more ethnically diverse cast, and the lamplighters occasionally doing BMX style leaps on their bicycles. Apart from that, the language, costumes, and the style of animation, take you back to the 1960’s film. The three Banks kids animated chase of a stolen toy was genuinely exciting, but in other respects I found the animation was like going back for the first time to a place you visited as a child: it can seem smaller and less magical somehow. And like those young kids in the screening I attended, I just started checking my watch after a while. It was too long.

Mary Poppins Returns is made with a lot of craft and care. It’s done pretty good business at the box office and so I guess it’s found an audience who want that immersive dose of nostalgia. But for me it didn’t quite work. Maybe nostalgia is sometimes best left in your mind than on the screen.

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