Mary Poppins Returns movie review: Emily Blunt gets overpowered by Disney's nostalgic obsessions

Anupam Kant Verma

Jan 04, 2019 10:23:56 IST


Once upon a time — a little more than half a century ago — Mary Poppins first flew across the cinema screen, leaving adults and children gasping in wonder and craning their necks to watch her go. She leaped out of Disney’s steaming creative cauldron that mixed live action and animation to create a dazzling spectacle. The endlessly hummable songs written by the Sherman Brothers and Julie Andrews’ infectious charm ensured that this simple tale of a nanny blessed with magical powers became an endearing Hollywood classic.

 Mary Poppins Returns movie review: Emily Blunt gets overpowered by Disneys nostalgic obsessions

Emily Blunt in a still from Mary Poppins Returns. YouTube

Whatever the film lacked in consummate artistry, it made up for with oodles of charm, earnestness and a living, breathing heart. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins Returns, Disney’s latest nostalgic trip to its own glorious past, possesses neither. It replaces ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ — from the iconic song of the original — with bucketloads of saccharine. The endearing dance numbers make way for overlong, often yawn-inducing musical sequences whose sloppy editing is rivalled only by their annoying frequency. One can almost feel the creators reaching for the right notes and beats that would make for a catchy sequence or a memorable song. This laboured approach shears away any sense of the instinctive and the inspired that lies at the heart of a truly memorable sequence. Ironically, for a musical that seeks to reinstall faith in ‘ever let the fancy roam’, Mary Poppins Returns seldom takes off, dragging the carcass of Emily Blunt’s bold central performance across the windswept 17, Cherry Tree Lane.

What the new film retains from the original is a period London setting, but with the Banks children now all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are a bank teller and a driven, supremely optimistic workers’ rights campaigner respectively. Michael lost his wife. It has been downhill for his three children and everyone else in the household ever since. The bank has begun to threaten foreclosure unless a loan Michael took is paid off instantly. Under the relentless financial pressure and grieving over his wife, Michael starts getting distant from his children. In swoops Mary Poppins, dropping down through the London skies, pulled along by the children’s kite. And in a clear reprisal of the story arc of the original film, she begins to set the house in order and bring the family together once again.

The gravest error that Disney makes is in trying to remain faithful to the story and character arc of the original. This fanaticism uproots any notions of new directions that the Poppins story could have taken. Shorn of memorable songs that lit up the original and crumbling under the weight of the artifice and nostalgia that Disney has lately been guilty of, it ends up losing the spirit of the Julie Andrews classic. Poppins always championed the idea of simple solutions to the most complex problems of life, filtered through the sieve of the imagination. One can only feel interminably sad to find all our favourite characters and their creators all grown up, the child inside them long dead, having stopped paying heed to Poppins simple advice long ago.

Make no mistake, the seeds of Poppins’ message are still there. They are sprinkled, albeit without finesse, in the dialogue that Blunt delivers with an incandescent mixture of wicked charm and wit, and the songs that she sings. But one cannot ignore the manner in which the star of the show is marginalised throughout the film, only appearing at the last moment like a wise grandmother to save the day. There is a portentous symbolism to this directorial decision on Rob Marshall’s part. It is too glaring to move on from. Even in the magical world of a children’s film, is the person who believes in the simplest solutions only meant to end up relegated to the corner spot? Paid lip-service all too frequently, loved and celebrated by everyone else in the film’s world, is her engagement minimal and shallowly authoritative? These ideas seem to sprout out of some strange directorial and writing decisions, but they are not fleshed out clearly, thereby serving to confuse the discerning viewer further. The seeds are scattered in the wind.

The most worthy moments in the film come out of Poppins’ interactions with the children, most of which see them transported to the world of their imagination. Marshall seems most in command when in the realm of the purely imaginary. He draws lush, rich visuals and the choreography, although not special, is beautiful to watch. But the moment the push and pull of the narrative demands more substantive engagement, the director seems to throw up his hands. The film plods along from one song to the next, with Blunt’s ebullient visage and Whishaw’s deeply felt grief offering it patches of genuine engagement. Nothing — neither the efforts from its cast nor the endless singing — manage to make the film soar, even for a moment.

In the end, it is a long, drawn-out cavalcade of song and dance offering tiny bits of wisdom that are reduced to truisms owing to Disney’s nostalgic obsessions. Mary Poppins Returns is neither memorable nor a whole lot of fun. Unless the studio sets its house in order and puts its heart back in the right place, we cannot be expected to feel sad to see the back of Mary Poppins as she returns to the skies.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 10:23:56 IST