Dir: Rob Marshall. Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep. Cert U, 130 mins
Fifty-four years after the original film, the Mary Poppins sequel breezes in from the heavens. It’s a very classy affair, which pays homage to its predecessor while eventually establishing an identity of its own. Emily Blunt is a rather more glamorous nanny than the one played by Julie Andrews back in 1964.
With her red lipstick, her curt, precise diction and her effortless poise, she looks like a 1930s British movie star. She may not dispense spoonfuls of sugar but she still knows just how to make a new generation of Banks children jump to her bidding.
The film is set in London between the wars, during the “great slump”. A wondrously evocative pre-credit sequence shows cockney lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) on the Embankment, singing about the “treasures to be found underneath the lovely London sky”. We’re shown familiar landmarks (St Paul’s, Big Ben etc) and seething, colourful street scenes. It is also made apparent that there are a lot of hungry and homeless people.
Jack is a likeable figure with a Tommy Steele-like grin permanently fixed on his face. He is not as frenetic as Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the first film. Puerto Rican actor Miranda plays him with grace and charm – and with a less strident cockney accent than the one adopted by Van Dyke all those years ago. (Van Dyke, now in his nineties, reappears here towards the end in a very spirited cameo but not as Bert.)
Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, the Banks’ family home, has hardly changed at all. The Admiral (now played by David Warner) still lives in the adjoining house and fires off his cannon to mark the time. Just as in the first film, the Banks family faces financial hardship. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the little boy from the 1964 movie but now a middle-aged man, has recently lost his wife.
He is a would-be artist working in a lowly job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. He is not good with money and has taken out a loan he can’t pay back. The Fidelity Fiduciary is threatening to repossess his home. He has five days to find the money or he and his family will be turfed out onto the streets.
Early on, you half expect Paddington Bear to put in an appearance. Julie Walters is scurrying around as the housekeeper, just as she does in the Paddington movies. The plumbing is on the blink. Pipes are rumbling and sinks are exploding. The larder is bare save for pickled herrings and marmalade. In the event, it is not a bear from Peru who arrives to save the family but Mary Poppins herself. Michael and his sister Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are flabbergasted to see her again. She reacts as if she has never been away.
At times, Mary Poppins Returns seems not so much a sequel as an updated remake. It has an extended animation sequence, just as the original did. Almost every scene carries echoes of the previous movie. We have kites, balloons and umbrellas. There is no “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, but the filmmakers do introduce similarly surrealistic and nonsensical elements.
One of the stranger scenes involves Mary’s Russian cousin, Topsy (Meryl Streep), who can mend anything, just as long as it is on the right day of the week. (If it’s not, the world turns upside down.)
It remains to be seen whether Marc Shaiman’s songs here like “Turning Turtle”, “A Cover is not the Book”, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” will become as instantly recognisable as all those signature tunes (“Feed the Birds”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” et al) the Sherman brothers wrote for the first film. Some are catchy, some aren’t.
Emily Blunt puts across her songs with plenty of brio, singing them in the same posh and perfect pitch in which she speaks. Even when she talks a little “leery” in cockney rhyming slang, she never loses her decorum.
So much of the film is devoted to Mary and the kids disappearing down plug holes into magical underwater worlds or visiting cartoon music halls, that we don’t immediately realise that the plotting is pretty skimpy. The filmmakers are tentative in their depiction of the budding romance between lamplighter Jack and Jane Banks, who has grown up to become a Corbynista-like labour organiser and political activist.
A lot of the drama here hinges on Jane and Michael searching desperately for the share certificate left them by their father that will prove they have the means to pay off Michael’s loan from the Fidelity Fiduciary. It’s a race against time. They have been given until midnight at the end of the week. If they’re a second late, the bank president (Colin Firth) and his minions will take possession of the family home. The three Banks children devise their own money-raising schemes as their father becomes ever more distracted and despairing.
Director Rob Marshall has the full might of the Disney machine behind him. Exhaustive attention has been paid to every last detail. The beautifully drawn watercolours of London seen over the opening credits will probably have cost more than the budget of most independent British films. The end credits last a small eternity and contain details of the vast armies of craftspeople and visual effects artists who worked on the movie.
For all its pomp and formal splendour, though, the film is trading in primal emotions. It is a story about loss and longing. For Michael and Jane Banks (and probably for much of the older audience too), Mary Poppins is a missing link to the vanished world of their childhoods. For the kids, she represents magic and endless new possibilities.
The nostalgia here could easily have been very cloying. Instead, it adds to the richness and mystery. In an era of superhero franchises where sequels to successful movies turn up almost instantly, Mary Poppins’s return shows that sometimes it pays to wait. Half a century on, her allure hasn’t faded at all.
Mary Poppins Returns is released in UK cinemas on 21 December
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