If you know me at all, you know that one of my favorite films is 1964’s Mary Poppins. I put off watching Mary Poppins Returns for ages because I just had a feeling that I would be disappointed. Then, one day, the movie arrived at my door because I, stupidly, forgot to decline it from the Disney Movie Club. I realized, realistically, I was never going to get over to the post office to return it, so I said, “screw it”. It’s now a film that I own, and I absolutely hate it.
I guess I’ll begin with what I did like because, honestly, that’s a shorter list: Meryl Streep, original melodies being used as part of the score, and the rearranging of Dick Van Dyke’s name in the end credits, a nice callback to the 1964 film. Meryl Streep gives a wonderful performance as Mary Poppin’s Cousin Topsy. I did have to ask myself, however, if it weren’t Meryl Streep playing the role, would I have still enjoyed the scene? And I don’t know that I can actually give you an answer.
Okay. Let’s start simple with the things I did not like: the music. I cannot tell you enough how annoyed I was that all the songs sounded the same. They all did that “talk singing” that has become so popular. None of the songs seemed to be in the performer’s vocal ranges. The songs for Lin Manuel Miranda, alone, needed to either be in a different key or a half octave higher. The frustrating thing about “talk singing” in this film is that there are at least two people who could really sing: Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep. And, yet, they never got the chance to really show their range. Lin Manuel Miranda, as much as I adore him and think that he is a talented writer and composer, is not very much of an actual singer. He can rap, yes, which is used to the film’s advantage in “A Cover is Not the Book” (which also happened to be a song with choreography that was more reminiscent of Marshall’s Chicago and felt out of place in a children’s film). I struggled with Ben Wishaw’s singing (grown up Michael Banks). At one point, in the beginning of the film, I hadn’t even realized that we had entered a song. And, when I did realize that a song was being sung, I was disappointed because it was not being sung well. I don’t quite understand why Disney seems to cast people who can’t really sing in these movie musicals. With Mary Poppins Returns, they can’t even make the argument that they wanted to have big names attached and risk having bad singing because the two biggest stars they casted were already known as fantastic singers. It just doesn’t make any sense.
As far as movie musicals go, this one’s songs didn’t actually seem to do as much for the plot, especially when compared to the original film. And it’s hard not to compare the two, musically, as the music that underscores a good number of scenes is the melodies from those original songs from 1964. None of these new songs were particularly memorable. They didn’t seem to really drive the plot in any way, like “The Life I Lead” had or even “Jolly Holiday”. Each one of the songs in this film sounded like a variation of the last one. It sounded like the same rhythm and the same five notes over and over and over again. It was utterly disappointing, especially because the only comparison we have is the tremendous music written by the Sherman Brothers from the first film.
Choreography-wise, I need to talk about a number that really bothered me. The big showstopping number in Mary Poppins Returns is “Trip A Little Light Fantastic”. It involves a big complex dance number ala “Step in Time”. However, the scene is so chopped up that it’s hard to get a sense and appreciate the dancing that is happening. There’s so much going on in the scene already, with the dancers and the (BMX?) bikers, that to chop the scene up to bits doesn’t do any of that hard work justice. Just compare it to “Step in Time”. That dance number is shown from an establishing shot, almost exclusively. We can appreciate the synchronized dancing happening because we can see it all at once. We don’t have to try and piece it together in our heads.
Now, on to my largest problem with this film: the story. The beauty of the original Mary Poppins is that there is no villain. There’s no “big bad” that the children have to escape from. There’s never even any real danger. Mary Poppins is about Jane and Michael’s father, Mr. Banks, and how Mary Poppins is there to save him and his relationship with his family. That’s it. No villain. In Mary Poppins Returns, however, that is not the case. We are presented with an unexciting villain, the chairman of the bank, Wilkins (played by the lovely Colin Firth). His motivations are unclear. Why he has it out for the Banks family, specifically, I still don’t know. Please let me know if I missed something. It’s an unnecessary villain if the point of Mary Poppins being there is, much like the first film, to save Mr. Banks and his relationship with his family (even the weirdly close relationship he has with his sister. Their body language towards each other was all wrong).
Mary Poppins Returns film structure is nearly identical to Mary Poppins, and that is frustrating for a whole bunch of reasons. If the filmmakers don’t want comparisons to happen between films, then they shouldn’t set up their film with the same exact formula that the first one used. If I were to write out the major plot lines in Mary Poppins Returns and lay them all out in a row and then, above that, lay out all the major plot points of Mary Poppins, you would see the similarities crystal clear, if you don’t already. Well, except for the weird, small love story that was thrown in for absolutely no reason between Miranda’s Jack and Emily Mortimer’s Jane. (Jack and Jane. UGH).
This is just another script that feels like it needed to go through one or two or five more rewrites, much like another live action film Disney released within the last year, Christopher Robin. The lack of depth in these films really emphasizes the rush that Disney is in to get them released. Take more time. Make better films.
The costumes and color palette for this film confused me. Why the color palette was red and blue is beyond me. They were harsh tones of red and blue, as well, which didn’t do the film any favors. The costumes seemed to be all over the place. It felt like the costume designer didn’t know which patterned item she wanted to use and just decided to use all of the patterns possible. A lot of it clashed. A lot of the colors seemed to clash because the colors were so vibrant. The worst costumes, by far, were the outfits that were used during “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” segment. The costumes were made to look like drawings or paintings, with sharp, dark lines and bow ties drawn on. But those costumes did not help with the environment surrounding them. Those costumes just stood out as unnatural. I hate to keep comparing this film to 64’s Mary Poppins, but the outfits that are worn once they have entered the chalk painting feel as if they fit there. They are classy outfits and they melt seamlessly with what is happening.
Mary Poppins gaslights everybody. And, that’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact. If you don’t know what “gas-lighting” is, look it up and then go back and watch either Mary Poppins film. Her best friend in Mary Poppins Returns is a lamp lighter. You can’t tell me that that is just a coincidence. The entire end plan is to make Wilkins think that it’s not actually midnight, when it is. The entire plan is to gaslight the bank manager on a large scale. Quick side note with that whole plan: I was beyond angry at the fact that Mary Poppins allows those lamp lighters to risk their lives, and then, in the end, she just flies up to the clock and changes it. What kind of power trip is that? It’s a power trip of a professional gas-lighter, that’s what.
The last thing that I want to talk about for Mary Poppins Returns is the last scene of the film. We join the Banks family and Mary at a fair where they meet the Balloon Lady. This scene very much echoes the end scene of Mary Poppins with all the kites. This Balloon Lady scene, however, lacks the emotional impact of that other film. I firmly believe that the emotion is not there because it is Angela Lansbury there and not Dame Julie Andrews. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love me some Angela Lansbury. And, I greatly respect Julie Andrews’ decision to not appear in the film as to not take away from Emily Blunt. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still be upset about it. The dialogue exchanged between the Balloon Lady and the different characters in the film would have landed much better with the emotional anchor of the original Mary Poppins being the one who’s exchanging dialogue. At the very least, when Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins looks into the red balloon, they could have had a reflection of Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins. Just something to connect the two on another level and reel in that nostalgia.
I was disappointed in this film. I remember hearing about it being made and so wishing that it would be good. Unfortunately, due to a vast number of factors, the film’s pacing was off and it did not seem to flow. It felt as if it were four hours long instead of two hours. I just wanted it to be over, and that’s sad to me. All I can say is that I hope they do not carry on, like I fear they might, and make more Mary Poppins films. Just re-release the original Mary Poppins every couple of years, please, and leave it at that.