Before it gets to Mary Poppins returning, Rob Marshall’s (Chicago) jaunty film offers a palate tester. It opens with Lin-Manuel Miranda vibrato-trilling in a just-passable Cockney accent about the “laverly Landan sky” while wheeling about theatrically on a bike amid a picture-book-perfect evocation of the ’30s-era capital. God, it’s perky. It’s uncynical. It’s old-fashioned. And if that’s not your thing, Mary Poppins Returns isn’t going to be either.
But if you’re cool with jazz hands (hello, The Greatest Showman fans), or craving a tonic for the drudgery of real life, or looking for a chance to recapture a youth spent watching Julie Andrews’ original take, then this effervescent, smart slice of escapism is indubitably supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. David Magee’s reverential screenplay flaunts the same alchemy he displayed with Finding Neverland. Infusing Poppins touchstones with new narrative drive, it takes in joyous interludes, blub-inducing moments and knowing nods to the world on the other side of the screen.
Moving the action forward to the decade covered in P.L. Travers’ books, Magee reintroduces original kids Peter and Jane Banks as adults (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer, respectively), now struggling with bereavement, parenthood, and the imminent repossession of the house on Cherry Tree Lane. Compensating for their dad’s distractedness following the death of his wife, Peter’s three nippers are preternaturally mature and clearly in need of a reminder of the value of play.
So when that kite is found and flown on a blustery day, who should glide in (toes out-turned) from the heavens ready to take the children on an animated adventure, a London skyline dance, a visit to an upside-down relative, a drop-in at the bank and a last-minute dash to save the day? And of course, there’s the talking umbrella, the bonkers admiral, the cartoon penguins, a painted title sequence – and a bit where characters are told to stop staring like “codfish”.
But it’s not all legacy hat-tipping. While it apes the 1964 original’s structure and emotional beats – and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s tunes are big, infectious earworms – this Poppins delivers plenty of modern verve by way of execution and it ignores Dame Julie’s sunny essaying of the nanny who never explains. Emily Blunt’s Mary may be pristine and no-nonsense, but she’s also vain, snobbish, disciplinarian, playful, and clearly packing darker depths.
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While Andrews painted this practically perfect nanny as just that, Blunt offsets her brusque kindness with mysteries. Where did she learn to sing and dance a bawdy music-hall number with such sauce? Why is her Cockney accent so convincing? Why does her umbrella think she’s such a pain? Where does she go when not with us?
That opaqueness makes her more engaging, as does her relationship with Dick Van Dyke surrogate Miranda, who brings warmth and wonder to their delightful partnership, as well as his considerable Broadway showmanship. When he busts a move in Technicolour tails during the animated segment and swivels round a lamppost with a physicality reminiscent of Van Dyke’s Big Bamboo hoofing from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it’s hard not to break into spontaneous applause.
Likewise, as Cousin Topsy, Meryl Streep understands expectations of her character and her own persona, chewing the upside-down scenery with ludicrous elocution (“That’s an unusual accent...” Miranda notes knowingly). Meanwhile, Angela Lansbury and Van Dyke have twinkles in their eyes as Disney-heritage cameos, and Colin Firth gives good perniciousness as bank manager William Weatherall Wilkins.
Execution is faultless, too, in two key fantasy sequences (a magical bubble bath and a trip inside the painting on a Royal Doulton bowl), in which Marshall walks a fine line between whimsical and twee, comedic and cute, all the while acknowledging viewer sophistication. Yes, the characters are in an animated world, but the Sandy Powell-designed costumes are physically painted confections and the swimming FX recall old-school favourite Bednobs and Broomsticks (1971).
As we know, “in every job that must be done there is an element of fun,” and while Poppins is slickly formulated with an eye firmly on the Christmas box office in the absence of Star Wars, it’s also sheer, unabashed family fun. Only a Scrooge could fail to feel the contagious joy in floating over a cherry-blossomed London holding a pink balloon, twirling in an undersea grotto with dolphins or chatting to the horse pulling a carriage. As Michael marvels, “I never thought I’d feel that wonder again.” Quite so.
For more hotly anticipated films, check out our list of the upcoming movies you don't want to miss - and while you're at it, why not take a look at the films we think are the best movies of 2018 (so far)?
- Release date: December 19, 2018 (Us)/December 21, 2018 (UK)
- Certificate: PG (US)/U (UK)
- Running time: 130 mins