Mary Poppins Returns

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mary Poppins Returns
"The stakes are high and the fears tangible in this return, which invites discussion and doesn't protect parents from uncomfortable questions. This is the power of the film. Mary Poppins herself wouldn't want it any other way."

Mary Poppins is back and most of us didn't even realise how much we missed her and how good it is to have her around. Rob Marshall's gloriously uplifting and thoughtful film is based on PL Travers' original Mary Poppins stories and the screenplay by David Magee (screen story credits to Rob Marshall and John DeLuca) continues a number of years after the classic 1964 movie where Julie Andrews left off.

The kids of the Banks family, Michael (Ben Whishaw, who is the voice of Paddington) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) have grown up in the meantime. In fact, Michael is a widower with three small kids of his own, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), while Aunt Jane, in her mother's activist footsteps is a union organiser under the banner SPRUCE (Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Underpaid Citizens of England).

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Things are not so good in 17 Cherry Tree Lane in the 'days of the great slump'. The family might even lose their home to foreclosure if they cannot manage to find proof of old Mr Banks' shares in the bank within five days. This is quite real and frightening business when two lawyers approach the house (Jeremy Swift and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith).

It is a departure from the bowdlerising that took place in many Disney movies during the past three decades as far as parents' economic situations were concerned (Belle's father has not gone bankrupt before his daughter joins the Beast, nor do Rapunzel's parents sell their child for lettuce in Tangled).

The stakes are high and the fears tangible in this return, which invites discussion and doesn't protect parents from uncomfortable questions. This is the power of the film. Mary Poppins herself wouldn't want it any other way.

And Emily Blunt is a wonderful incarnation of the magical nanny who floats down from the heavens, when a kite delivers just the right message and kids are in need of some attention. Blunt's air is nonchalant, cool and caring. Mary Poppins is categorically in charge and up for mischief - the perfect non-mother who is there because she likes to be there, pays attention from a distance and encourages the children to explore their imagination.

Mary Poppins Returns begins with beautiful hand-drawn paintings (inspired by Peter Ellenshaw) of backdrops that set the tone. So does the music with the new songs returning as well in homage to the sounds of the classic precursor. Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack the lamplighter, has taken over the function of chimney sweep Bert, played by Dick Van Dyke in the 1964 film, the non-father who goes along on the adventures with the kids. Miranda's opening number on bike, ladder and lampposts puts La La Land to shame from the get-go.

The lack of sarcasm and gratuitous violence is something to relish. Mary Poppins has a way with children and street lamplighters alike. She gives permission for them to try out things on their own - be it to convince the head of a bank to do something against his interest or to turn back time on Big Ben. Colin Firth plays banker Wilkins and voices the cartoon Wolf that matches the former's character. It's a splendidly pale kind of money man evil and Firth never slips into caricature.

Sandy Powell's costumes (Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite) are, as is her award-winning trademark, demonstrative rather than revelatory. Mortimer's pants are altogether fabulous and flowing, whereas the blouses and vests are chartreuse overkill and cherry-tinted catastrophes. There is so much nuance in the other departments that it is curious why they all have to look like clowns in colours that match neither the 1930s shapes nor the 1960s filmic Banks ancestors.

Whereas, to full spectacular effect, Meryl Streep as Poppins's Cousin Topsy stops the show with her lament that every second Wednesday her world resembles a tall tale where everything is upside down. Streep, sporting a bright orange wig and a thick, unidentifiable Eastern-European accent, channels Lila Kedrova as Countess Kuchinska, who wanted Julie Andrews (!) and Paul Newman to be her 'sponsors' in Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. As silly as the song and dance may seem, there is also a good message in there about changing your point of view from time to time.

Marshall and his terrific team didn't go for the fast and easy path, the nostalgia comes with rhyme and reason. The song lyrics all have depth to them if you care to listen. Kate, the kids' dead mother is not just a Disney gimmick but an element that speaks to very real childhood anxieties. The famous old kite that ropes our heroine back down to earth has holes and tears, but the 'Vote for Women' ribbon (worn by Glynis Johns) is fully intact.

Getting children to wash has been a part of the Disney education since Snow White instructed the Seven Dwarfs at the trough. Here Mary Poppins helps the children discover an underwater world in the bathtub, complete with dolphins, coral reefs and rubber duck.

A broken porcelain pot leads them into the equivalent of the Jolly Holiday number in the original movie, where hand-drawn animation and real-life performers dance and sing together and discover that 'a cover is not the book.' Performed by Blunt and Miranda, it is not just spectacular to look at but also includes an excellent and timely reminder that one should open books, read them and discover perhaps that 'the king may be a crook.'

There is also a dangerous abduction involving a stolen toy giraffe, a Wolf (Firth), Weasel (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and Badger (Jeremy Swift), in a sequence that brings to mind Pinocchio and the logic of nightmares. A big production number features shadows on bikes that look like Busby Berkeley fireflies in the night.

Mary Poppins sings a song about the place where the lost things go. "The dish and my best spoon play hide and seek behind the moon;" it is also where spring might be hiding and the kids' dead mother. Feeling forlorn is not only allowed to the little ones, Michael is allowed to cry and be comforted and be none the less manly for it.

A lovely tiny moment has brother and sister, Whishaw and Mortimer link their arms as if they were to start a dance - right before they are to vacate their family home. It is familiar and loving and strange and a symbol of the humanity that flows throughout.

Van Dyke, in much more than a cameo, raises the story to yet another level of brilliance, whereas Angela Lansbury verbalises what you always suspected, the utmost importance of picking the right balloon. And an Ahoy goes out to Admiral Boom (David Warner) and Binnacle (Jim Norton), his first mate, for keeping everyone at 17 Cherry Tree Lane on high alert.

Reviewed on: 24 Dec 2018
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Mary Poppins Returns packshot
In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane and Michael Banks, along with Michael's three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins at a difficult time.

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