Friday, 28 December 2018

Film Review - Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Good to see you too, Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins Returns put me in mind of T2 Trainspotting - not while I was watching it, but afterwards. (I haven't lost my mind, bear with me here.) Both films are sequels to highly-regarded originals - T2 arrived twenty-one years later and MPR a grand fifty-four. Both draw strongly on our nostalgia for the first movie, while exploring new thematic and emotional territory. And both, ultimately, succeed as companion pieces that entertain, surprise and move in their own right. Admittedly Poppins has to use an (almost) entirely new cast due to the time lapse, while T2's was all the same, but in terms of follow-ups nailing the spirit of a classic, it can't be faulted. Hint - if you're choosing one of these two for family viewing this holiday season, go with Mary P. Analogy with 18-certificate drug movie ended.
Twenty-five years have passed on Cherry Tree Lane since the miraculous nanny left, having fixed the Banks family's dysfunctions with her magical touch. Michael Banks is now a father of three himself, but the children's mother has tragically passed away, requiring them to grow up unfortunately fast. Then disaster strikes in the form of a bank demand that threatens to see the family evicted from their beloved Number 17. Into this crisis floats Mary Poppins, exhibiting all the poise and eccentricity of before, along with just the right touch to set everyone's life back in balance. That's with a little help from a lamp-lighter name of Jack, who has a line in cheeky banter and a dodgy Cockney accent (not unlike a certain chimney sweep of old).
Balancing the familiar with the new is key here. This is a sequel in love with it source material, with the same quaint
 look and sensibility - including matte paintings of the London background, painstakingly reconstructed locations and delectable hand-drawn animated sequences. The story follows very recognisable plot beats as well, and the music subtly references the Sherman brothers' classic soundtrack, summoning up a heart-swelling sense of nostalgia. This film echoes its predecessor in a hundred ingenious ways. But there's enough that's different too - starting with the melancholy and the jeopardy that have enveloped the Banks family, prior to the eponymous nanny's reinstating of fun and wonder. There's also a sharp and witty script, a touch of daring and a vitality in every last performance.
And the first of those is Emily Blunt, who proves as inspired a piece of casting as fans of the original had hoped. Her Mary Poppins has both the primness and the warmth of the Julie Andrews version (along with the enigma and the ego), but she's also a shade more acerbic and significantly more mischievous. The animated worlds into which Mary leads her young charges are where she really lets her hair down, resulting in a dazzling and raucous music-hall sequence that serves as one of the movie's highlights. It doesn't hurt that Blunt can sing as well as she does, nor that her rapport with the children is so natural and rich with emotion. If you were in any doubt regarding her star quality, this will clinch it.
As Jack, Lin-Manuel Miranda is less the quirky comedian than Dick Van Dyke in the equivalent role. He still delivers a bucket of charm though, and demonstrates why he's been such a hit in stage musical Hamilton. (It's never more apparent than when he duets with Blunt on ribald vaudeville song 'The Cover is Not the Book'.) Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer are likewise splendid, with their touching grown-up portrayals of the original Banks youngsters. Beware - Whishaw will rend your heart as he gives vent tunefully to poor Michael's grief.  
As for critics who have cast doubt on the music's hummability factor, there's no questioning how well the songs fit character, period and context, nor how effectively they mesh with those of the 1964 film. Plus, similar criticisms were made this time last year about The Greatest Showman's songs, shortly before millions of people starting singing along. Only time will prove whether this new batch of tunes achieve a measure of supercalifragilistic status, but I'm humming a few already - surely a good sign. 
There's a prayer that film-lovers pray worldwide, when settling down to watch the sequel to some beloved piece of cinema (whether that movie is Trainspotting or Mary Poppins). It goes - 'Please God let it not be crap'. Five minutes into this 'return' those fears had been vanquished. After half an hour I was transported along with the Banks children. And by the end I felt I'd witnessed something truly wondrous. This sequel didn't just avoid diminishing the glorious original. It didn't simply hold its own. It made me love Mary Poppins - the film and the character - a little bit more than I had before. And that's quite the Christmas miracle.
Gut Reaction: Sheer grinning misty-eyed happiness, pretty much from start to finish, at all the talent, zest and love on display. 

Where Are the Women?: Mortimer, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury - all great. But it's Blunt you'll remember for her own fearless and fun interpretation of P. L. Travers' iconic character. Bravo, our Em. 

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. One of those scores that will probably rise on a second viewing. Mary Poppins' return is both total homage and original creation. In short, the spoonful of sugar we all needed. 

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