Sunday, December 23, 2018

Review: "Mary Poppins Returns," and I'm glad to have her back

Mary Poppins Returns is a film that has no business working, and that it somehow does, even counting a small multitude of imperfections, is a minor miracle. Here is a 54-years-later sequel to what is undoubtedly the second-most iconic movie musical in Hollywood history, lagging only The Wizard of Oz in its grip on our cultural memory, arriving on the same wave of weaponized nostalgia that’s seen Disney cranking out remakes, reboots, sequels, and ‘reimaginings’ of every property in their vault, most of them as soulless as they are profitable. (In today’s context, Mufasa’s famous “Everything the light touches is our kingdom” line, repeated in the trailer for next year’s remake, sounds less like fatherly wisdom than it does a pointed corporate threat). It doesn’t help that the movie musical is a genre all but dead and buried today, with few alive who know how to construct a competent example, nor that the director chosen for this particular task, Rob Marshall, hasn’t made anything less than ‘disastrously terrible’ since his film debut in 2002’s Chicago (which worked in large part because of a strong cast and adherence to Bob Fosse’s singular choreography). 

And yet…Mary Poppins Returns works. Not perfectly, nor all the time, but beautifully enough and often enough to elicit smiles, laughter, awe, and, if not a tear, than at least a strong twinge of pathos. Its performances are outstanding, its musical numbers frequently marvelous, and it avoids even a hint of the crass, winking postmodernism or overwrought expository ‘world expansion’ that has defined Disney’s recent live-action output (I’m looking at you, Alice in Wonderland andBeauty and the Beast). This is a far more heartfelt, human, and purely, passionately creative endeavor than any of Disney’s recent catalogue mining expeditions, and if it doesn’t ultimately sit on the same shelf as the original, well, it obviously never could. That it exists as a more-than-worthy complement to Walt’s most beloved classic is no small thing. 

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Narratively, Returns starts from a reasonably interesting place: Michael Banks, the younger child from the original film (played here by Ben Whishaw), is now grown up with children of his own. He is not distant or pompous like his father, but has fallen on hard times after the death of his wife. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is there to help, and his precocious children (newcomers Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) are largely self-sufficient. When Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) arrives, it seems she’s there more to intercede on behalf of the emotionally distraught parent than she is to tend to the children. The same could of course be said of the original film, where Poppins’ ultimate purpose is about humbling the father from his perch of toxic masculinity, but the angle here does seem slightly different. The idea of Mary Poppins returning to one of her former charges in adulthood to help them through a crisis of grief is an intriguing one; it’s just not the one Mary Poppins Returns is most interested in pursuing. 

For the majority of its runtime, it would be fair to say Returns is as much a remake of the original as it is a sequel. Save a lovely solo in the first act by Whishaw to his character’s departed wife, virtually every scene in this film has an obvious analogue to a sequence in the original, and they largely occur in the same order. Mary Poppins using her magic to make household duties fun? Check. Poppins and a friendly London street worker (Jack, analogue to Dick van Dyke’s Bert, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) taking the children on an afternoon escapade through a cartoon landscape? Check. Poppins and her charges visiting a strange loner down a mysterious back alley in the musical number most likely to be forgotten by the general populace? Check. (Here, Meryl Streep is our Uncle Albert, and though she dutifully chews through a dozen films’ worth of scenery in her number, she’s nowhere near as fun as Ed Wynn). Poppins singing the children to bed with a contemplative solo that is darkly existential but ultimately uplifting? Check. Our working class character staging a big song-and-dance number with all his fellow workers themed around their profession? Check. 

It’s all there, every beat present and accounted for, as though the script were prepared by carving out the original’s scenario to create a Mad-Libs style formula for Marshall, screenwriter David Magee, and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to fill in. To their credit, it may be the most passionate round of Mad Libs ever performed. First and foremost, Mary Poppins Returns is one of the few films in recent memory that can rightfully call itself an original movie musical. None of this ‘let’s write 3 songs and pretend we made a musical’ nonsense that’s plagued recent genre efforts, both live-action (La La Land) and animated (Frozen). This is the genuine artifact, a composed-from-the-ground-up songbook that is rich and varied and builds upon itself with aplomb. Not every song is a winner, but there are some real standouts here, and they’re largely realized quite well. Marshall is still at his most comfortable when he can establish an obvious proscenium for staging, as he did throughout Chicago. As with that film, the technique sometimes pays off beautifully – “A Cover is Not a Book,” the centerpiece of this film’s animated sequence, is a triumph of playful imagination – and sometimes falls flat (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a fine song, but the dance portion feels far too stage-bound for my liking). But in general, Marshall avails himself well here, and it helps that he has a murderer’s row of below-the-line talent – from Dion Beebe on cinematography to the great Sandy Powell on costumes, the latter of whom might as well start polishing her next Oscar now – making sure every inch of this thing looks the part. (Though I do wish Marshall had shot this on film, rather than digital capture, as the lack of filmic texture clashes with the faithful-to-the-original production design; I also find the digital skylines a little baffling, for if there was ever a time to bring back physical matte paintings, this was it). 

Second, the film’s cast is just absurdly good, led by a commanding new interpretation of the title character by Emily Blunt. Every line, every gesture, every withering glance is downright perfect, a grand, delicious meal of a performance deeply informed by Julie Andrews’ iconic work, but undeniably made Blunt’s own. Her singing may not be as strong as Andrews’ – whose is? – but she more than makes up for it in the palpable confidence and joy radiating from her work. Her impeccable comic timing is worth the price of admission alone. Lin-Manuel Miranda leaves less of an impression than Dick van Dyke did in his role’s analogue – again, we’re working with impossible standards here – but it’s still a lovely performance, and Marshall knows full well what a wonderful tool Miranda’s smile can be when properly deployed. Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, and the rest of the adult cast are just as excellent, and the child actors each avail themselves nicely, even if the youngest registers a twinge too twee at times. Oh, and that cameo by a 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke is every bit as joyous and heartwarming as one may hope, even if it intersects with one of my least-favorite aspects of the film’s story. The man’s still got it, and it’s a hell of thing to see him up on the silver screen again. 

But as I said earlier, it’s Ben Whishaw, more than anyone else in the supporting cast, who really steals the show, and I think the film’s biggest problems – other than an out-of-left field car (er, carriage chase) sequence that feels completely out of place and the aforementioned interruption by Meryl Streep – can generally be defined in how the work tends to underutilize his character. As I said before, the dynamic established here, of a grieving rather than toxically removed father, is an interesting one, but in choosing to hew so very closely to the shape of the original film, Mary Poppins Returns stops itself from fully exploring this dynamic. If Mary is spending most of her time going on adventures with the children, there’s not a lot of room left over to work with the new ideas actually brought to the table here. 

It also, I think, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the original film’s structure so powerful. 1964’s Mary Poppins is a curiously constructed film, a series of long, elaborate sequences that at first seem so loosely connected one may as well call them vignettes. It isn’t until one arrives at the last half-hour or so, and the film shifts its focus more squarely to David Tomlinson’s Mr. Banks, that the film’s narrative ingenuity shines through, and all these seemingly disparate threads – the joy of saying Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,the significance of a tuppence, Uncle Albert’s childish jokes, etc. – come together to support the father’s interior awakening. There’s a lot more at work thematically in the original Poppins than I’d wager most people remember. It’s a film about gender, power, and parenting, most specifically about toxic masculinity, those barriers men of a certain class and upbringing put around their own hearts, and the hurt such shields cause. It’s also, implicitly, a class narrative, with most of what Poppins teaches the children revolving around them stepping outside their own privileged experience. And a lot of those thematic threads are being woven quietly in the background, until the film is ready to tie them all together in the closing act and bring the full weight of the story’s emotional impact to bear. 

Mary Poppins Returns, then, is a film that mimics its predecessor’s structure without the same sense of purpose. Mary’s various excursions don’t revolve as clearly around a single unified set of ideas, nor do the majority of the various sequences bear particular meaning upon the film’s finale. The film’s middle hour or so is frequently very enjoyable, even terrific on a moment-to-moment basis, but there’s no sense of cumulative power; most cynically, it can even feel like killing time until the film is ready to get back to Michael Banks and the problems set up in the first act. That’s not to say this is a film without ideas; far from it. There are absolutely threads worth pulling on here, about grief, single-parenting, kids growing up too quickly, and so on. It’s just that the film dances around these ideas more than it engages them directly, and it doesn’t help that the driving plot mechanic – the Banks house being foreclosed upon by a banker who is evil just for the sake of being evil – has nothing to do with those deeper thematic concepts. Put another way, a film about rediscovering the magic and wonder in the world probably shouldn’t revolve so much around procuring enough cold, hard cash to maintain one’s material possessions. 

All that being said, I wouldn’t say this is a film entirely devoid of cumulative impact. The closing number is a winner, and the message the film ultimately builds to – that magic and wonder are real, even, if not especially, when the world seems darkest – is a poignant one, and one that feels awfully timely to me in 2018. For all its missteps – some minor, some more broadly structural – Mary Poppins Returns is nothing if not a true believer in the power of a healthy dose of childlike joy, and if its narrative content doesn’t always put its best ideas front and center, its aesthetic realization absolutely does. This may be a film greenlit out of Disney’s latest burst of nostalgic fervor, but at its best, Returns couldn’t feel less like a crass, empty cash-grab. When it works, this is passionate, soulful filmmaking, rich in heart and imagination. Watching that final number play out, I couldn’t help thinking this may be a film we need right now, a light in the dark calling out to our better, purer selves. This Mary Poppins is not practically perfect, but I’m awfully glad she came back – like the Banks family, we all could do with another visit from her, now more than ever. 

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack

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