“Mary Poppins Returns” review by Nate and Alex Blake

Nate: Last night we finally got to see one of the most anticipated films of the year. There were some big questions on our mind as we sat in our reclining loungers and waited for all the horrible trailers to end so we could see what we came for. Two hours later, we had our answers and we have quite a bit to say about Mary Poppins Returns.

How is Emily Blunt?

Nate: To call Julie Andrews’ Oscar winning turn in the original 1964 film iconic is an understatement. It’s a performance generations have grown up with and treasured. When Blunt was cast, I knew she could do musicals well based on her performance in Into the Woods, which was also directed by Rob Marshall. I was skeptical though that she could step into this role well enough to make me not wish I was watching Julie Andrews instead. I’m relieved to say she is wonderful. I don’t think there’s any topping what Andrews’ brought to this beloved character, but Blunt does an excellent job of blending some of her predecessor’s attitude and mixing it with her own flourishes. It never feels like an imitation. Blunt is the Mary that we love.

My only criticism, and it has to do more with dialogue she was given than any choice she made as a performer, has to do with certain recurring attempts at humor. I’ve never read any of P.L. Travers’ books, but as for the 1964 film, I don’t remember so much of Mary’s dialogue being on-the-nose. There are instances where she comments on events that we just saw happen, and every time I thought to myself, “yeah, we just saw that happen.” I guess these little Captain Obvious statements were intended to be funny, but they felt forced every time.

Alex: I went into this film knowing that Julie Andrews and Emily Blunt would not be comparable. Julie Andrew’s original Mary Poppins performance is so iconic and ubiquitous in our society that there is no way that Emily Blunt could achieve that same level. I will say though Emily Blunt’s performance was probably the closest anyone could get to Julie Andrews.

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Blunt did a wonderful job of making this role her own while still drawing from the original character. In general, the film did a really good job of being nostalgic without being too derivative. And a big part of that was because of Blunt’s performance. She was her own Mary Poppins, and it wasn’t obvious that she had drawn heavily from Julie Andrews performance.

I have to agree that my biggest problem with her performance was not in the choices Emily Blunt made in playing this character, but it was more so in some of the writing. It just was not as creative as in the original film and some of Mary’s dialogue just did not have the same feel. A lot of her dialogue was focused on her pointing out things that had happened instead of the more insightful and sassy observations that the original Mary is known for.  

Are the songs stuck in our heads now? Are we fine with that?  

Nate: Mostly yes on both counts. In contrast to the 1964 film though, this version only really succeeds with the upbeat songs. There aren’t any tunes in this sequel that have the same emotional impact as “Feed the Birds.” There are only two slow songs here; the rest are fast and loaded with whimsy. Those are very enjoyable, but it does lead to a film with a significantly lighter tone, and one that offers a little less for the adult audiences. Overall, the songs in the original film did a better job of balancing the fantastic with the routine. They were spread evenly between the fantasy worlds and the real world, and were much more effective at developing plot and character. Fortunately, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with some help from Richard M. Sherman (one of the Sherman Brothers who wrote the songs for the original film) created new songs that sound similar too but not like total rip-offs of classics like “A Spoon Full of Sugar” and “Step in Time.” The score combines the new songs with occasional musical references to several tunes from the original film. That blend works particularly well when Dick Van Dyke shows up as a different character than either of the ones he played 54 years ago.

One musical sequence that I didn’t enjoy involved Mary’s cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep). It was fun to see Meryl really get in to this brief part and disappear behind a thick Eastern European accent and some orange hair. The effects during her musical number are impressive, as is the editing, but the song was the one sour note in the soundtrack. It seemed to veer a little far from what the Sherman Brothers would have done and took a detour to Suessian territory. I don’t hate it but I am indifferent enough that I’ll be skipping past this track when I stream the album.

Finally, I’m so glad they gave Lin-Manuel Miranda an opportunity to rap. Blunt can be credited for the best acting in the film, but the best musical moments are Miranda’s. His parts of “A Cover Is Not The Book” in particular were great.

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Alex: Honestly, I don’t think any of these songs are stuck in my head after the first viewing. But I am willing to get them stuck in my head over time. In general, I did enjoy the music. I really don’t think the songs from this film are as memorable as the ones in the original film. I have loved Mary Poppins since I was a child. And, I am not going to lie, I still go back and listen to the original soundtrack a lot. With songs like “Spoon Full of Sugar,” “Feed the Birds,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” how could you not? And throughout Mary Poppins Returns, I just kept waiting for that catchy song that was going to drive me crazy for weeks. That moment never really came for me though.

I am sorry Nathan, but I have to tell you, you are wrong. The closest this film came to getting a song stuck in my head was the song that Topsy sings. First of all, this role was out of the ordinary for Meryl and that just made it so much better. I am not sure why she doesn’t wear an orange wig more often because she rocked the hell out of it the entire time she was on the screen. I liked the Suessian effects of this scene. It was beautifully shot and it was so much fun. I think it was one of the highlights. It was a fun escape from the “real world” of this film.

There is one particular musical scene that is really cool, but it wasn’t necessarily the music that made it what it was. It is one of those cartoon-y and surreal scenes where Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda perform together. It was visually stunning. There is a moment where Miranda raps and I am so glad that they used his talent in this scene. It really gave this film the updated feeling that was needed.

Does the film work despite the plot or because of it, or did it not work at all? 

Nate: The film works. As a fantasy and a musical, it’s above average. It falls short of the original in terms of story and character though. There are some arcs here that feel tacked on, particularly a half-hearted attempted at a love story between two major characters. I can’t say there was any story line in the original film that its script failed to explore thoroughly. I like how this one handled adult Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), but by comparison, Jane (Emily Mortimer) is given nothing to do.

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It might be a mild spoiler that Michael’s wife has died and he is struggling with balancing financial and parental obligations. Dead parents are little more than a crutch for the Disney company at this point. It would take less time to list the number of the studio’s films that don’t feature a dead mother or father as a trope. It’s also an issue here because for the first half of the film, I was unsure why exactly Mary Poppins was needed. Yes, Michael’s children get into some mild mischief, but overall seem to be coping well with their loss and are even fairly responsible. The second half of the film does a little better job, if retroactively, of establishing why her arrival was necessary. None of these issues I’ve mentioned are fatal flaws, but are symptomatic of a script that just needed revising. This time around most of the effort clearly went into the technical side of things and the music. The plot exists just enough to facilitate whimsical outings and musical numbers. As thinly plotted musicals go though, I’ll take this one over most.

Alex: The plot is not why I enjoyed this film. It really was not that strong. Without giving too much away, let me just say that it was overly simplistic. The music in my opinion meant more than the plot overall. So, I guess my answer to the question is that the film worked despite its plot.

At this point, Disney has killed so many parents. I totally agree that the dead parent plot line is completely overdone.

One of the biggest issues with this film is that it is never established why Mary Poppins is needed. She serves a small purpose in helping to solve Michael’s financial troubles. Other than that, the children seem to be doing okay on their own. Mary’s purpose was much better fleshed out in the first film.

How are the actors/characters overall 

Nate: This is sort of a continuation of my issues with the story, but I felt like the Banks’ children were under-developed. Georgie (Joel Dawson) is the standout. Annabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) are stuck in the background most of the time. I wish the script had given them more to do instead of focusing on an underdeveloped love story.

I’m heading off on a tangent, but thanks to a recent Stephen King adaptation, a part of me really gets nervous anytime a kid named Georgie starts approaching balloons. I did actually have a dream last night where the balloon lady (Angela Lansbury) smiled at Georgie and said “they all float down here.” It was odd.

Colin Firth plays William “Weatherall” Wilkins, the president of Fidelity Feduciary Bank and the film’s villain. With his mustache I kept thinking how he resembled, just a bit, David Tomlinson as George Banks in the original film. Wilkins is a bit of a stock character. Just one glimpse of him and you can tell he is the villain. I still really enjoyed his scenes though and if they make another sequel (I’m neither encouraging nor frowning upon that possibility), I would like to see him return and have a bigger role.

I’m not going to say much about Dick Van Dyke other than his appearance is brief but awesome.

Alex: Overall, I did really enjoy the rest of the cast. I definitely agree with you that the children were very underdeveloped. In the beginning, they all seemed like they would have some personality. But as the film went on they were not developed any further. They were there because they had to be as plot contrivances.

Ben Wishaw was awesome as Michael Banks and Emily Mortimar was great as Jane. I just wish she had had more to do throughout the film. She really didn’t serve a purpose other than to support her brother. Honestly, it felt like a bit of a waste of the character and especially a waste of Emily Mortimar’s talent.

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Colin Firth’s villainous character did fell a bit stereotypical. But he was perfectly cast in this role. And ugh that mustache. Let’s be real though, this really was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie. He was great in this film. I wish I could say the same about his accent though.

Is the film Oscar worthy? 

Nate: Yes. I don’t see it winning much though. It certainly deserves nominations in several categories, but every field in which it could contend is going to be highly competitive this year. There are several songs I think are worthy of being nominated, but I don’t want to see any of them win over “Shallow” from A Star Is Born. The score should be nominated but it’s not entirely an original work. It would be a shame if it won over Justin Hurwitz’s haunting melodies for First Man. I do think it will not only contend for visual effects, but could win. First Man is the only other film I can think of from 2018 that had memorable visual effects, but there are a lot more effects here and sometimes quantity helps.

I expect Mary Poppins Returns will also contend for costume design. It faces an uphill battle against Black Panther and The Favourite. Whether it will be nominated for Best Picture is anyone’s guess. It has received nominations from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, so it has some momentum. I think it would be a solid choice for a nomination, but there are other films I’d rather see win.  

Alex: I would say that this will probably be an Oscar contender in some categories. I would be surprised if Emily Blunt is not nominated for this role. Given the tough year in this category though, I don’t really see her winning. It was a solid performance, but I just think when going up against certain performances it isn’t as strong.

I think you are also right that it will probably be nominated for visual effects. The cartoon like scenes in this film were really well done. I appreciated that even given the advances in CGI technologies, these scenes were still like drawings come to life, similar to the original Mary Poppins.

I think this film will definitely be nominated in a few different categories. But I don’t have the confidence that it will be a big winner that night. I think we could see a nomination for best picture. But again, compared to other films this season, I don’t think it stands a chance. With all of this being said though, it really is an enjoyable film.

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