As a cautious fan of the first Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Returns has completely exceeded my expectations.
I had the privilege of seeing Mary Poppins Returns in the theater twice this Christmas season, once with two good friends and once with my parents, brothers and sisters-in-law.
I should explain that the first Mary Poppins movie is highly nostalgic for my family. My older brothers saw it in the theater when it was first released. All this happened years before I was born, but my parents bought the movie soundtrack in the theater and that soundtrack became part of my childhood. I played the soundtrack over and over again until I had it practically memorized, although I had to wait years to finally see it as an ABC Disney movie special. The youngest of my older brothers was still practically a baby when Mary Poppins was released, so he remembers nothing of that experience, although he remembers practicing the “Chim Chim Cheree” dance with broomsticks along with my other two brothers.
So, with all of this nostalgic association with the original movie, I was cautious about seeing the new one. I thought perhaps it would seem too different and modern or that the main actors wouldn’t seem to suit the roles made famous by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. (There is no Bert in Mary Poppins Returns, but there is a Bert-like character.) Of course, at the same time, I wanted it to be a little bit new and different. Otherwise, it really wouldn’t be a sequel.
The movie does an excellent job of capturing the nostalgic feel while still being a new and different story. I was not at all disappointed in the performances of Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins or Lin Manuel-Miranda as Jack.
Emily Blunt was fantastic in capturing the character and quirks of Mary Poppins, the “practically perfect” nanny who has a bit of an ego and yet is still likeable. (The only other characters in fiction I can think of who can manage that are Hercule Poirot and Inspector Clouseau.) On the surface, she’s a persnickety and no-nonsense nanny — “Spit spot!” — and when she lets out her fun and magical side, always denies it afterwards. Blunt has all the eye rolls and perfectly turned out toes down just right.
The character of Jack is a lamplighter (or leerie) who supposedly worked with Bert as a chimney sweep when he was a boy. Manuel-Miranda is charming in the role and shows off his talents for singing, dancing and even a little rap. The sequel movie shows that the secret lives of leeries are just as magical as those of chimney sweeps.
The effects in Mary Poppins Returns, of course, are wonderful. Dick Van Dyke’s penguin dance with cartoon penguins was revolutionary at the time. Movie techniques and effects have improved a lot since 1964, so the sequel has more movie magic where real-life characters interact with cartoons in an animated world, jump into a magical underwater adventure and multiple characters float up into the sky.
There are many parallels between this movie and the original Mary Poppins, while still creating all new magical adventures, striking a good balance between nostalgia and new innovation. Of course, when Mary Poppins returns, Jane and Michael Banks are grown, with Michael a widower, now the father of three children: Anabel, John and Georgie. England is in the “Great Slump” in the 1930s, and Michael is in danger of losing the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. He is a teller at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his father George had a more important position, and keeping the house due for foreclosure, seems dependent on finding a certificate proving he has shares in the bank. Without telling too much, Jane and Michael’s kite from the first movie has an important role in the second in a multitude of ways.
You will find Winifred Banks’ Suffragette banner still attached to the kite. Jane Banks has also become an activist … for laborers, in this new period of the “Great Slump,” something that gives her a opportunity to befriend the charming Jack. I always thought there was a bit of a flirtation between Bert and Mary Poppins, but it makes more sense for Jack to have a flirtation with Jane, rather than with Mary Poppins. For one thing, she’s a magical person and, presumably, old enough to be his mother (at least,) though without seeming to have aged at all.
Here are some of the various parallels I observed. There is no cleaning up song like “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Instead, the next generation of Banks children have an underwater (and boating) adventure while cleaning up themselves in the tub, with the song, “Can You Imagine That?” They do not jump into a chalk pavement picture but jump into a Royal Doulton bowl instead, where there are adventures and two musical numbers.
Instead of visiting Mary Poppins’ uncle and having tea parties on the ceiling, they visit the store of Mary Poppins’ cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep, where things “Turn Turtle” on second Wednesdays. For my mother and one of my sisters-in-law, this was their least favorite scene and song. I don’t agree. Topsy is a colorful character, and the song has a gypsy/klezmer feel to it. There is a lullaby scene too as in the first movie, where Emily Blunt sings, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
Of course, instead of a “Chim Chim Cheree” dance, the lamplighters dance a lively acrobatic dance to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Instead of hopping over broomsticks, they hang on light poles and do stunts with ladders and poles for lighting. For one of the brothers who practiced the broomstick dance as a boy, seeing this scene was “pure joy.” There are even some extreme sport sort of bicycle stunts for this number. Where that may seem anachronistic, (the extreme stunts, not the bicycles,) it all fits with the acrobatics of the scene. A section of the song has a little fun with Cockney rhyming-slang.
Dick Van Dyke returns as the banker Mr. Dawes and does a little dance in one scene, singing appropriate lyrics about his dancing days not being over. How delightful! (By the way, Dick Van Dyke has a book about aging called, “Keep Moving.”)
The ending number, “Nowhere to Go But Up,” sung by Balloon Lady, played by Angela Lansbury, is also reminiscent of the playful, joyful, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
I noticed in the credits that one of the Sherman brothers who wrote music for the first movie was a musical consultant for Mary Poppins Returns. The sequel’s soundtrack is excellent too and highly recommended.