December 15, 2019

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No spoonful of sugar required for sweet Mary Poppins sequel

Return of magical nanny matches its practically perfect predecessor

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/12/2018 (361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Those who grew up with the 1964 movie Mary Poppins may be at a disadvantage when it comes to realizing how very unusual it was for a kids’ movie.

First and foremost, it was a full-blown musical, using the talents of Broadway vets Julie Andrews (My Fair Lady, Camelot) and Dick Van Dyke (Bye Bye Birdie). Second, in the nascent years of psychedelia, it had a decidedly hallucinogenic flavour, with whole sequences putting live actors in animated settings and acting opposite cartoons (now standing operating procedure in visual effects-driven films).

Emily Blunt (right) is Mary Poppins, who falls from out of the sky to again help the Banks family, Michael (Ben Whishaw, centre) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). (Disney)

Emily Blunt (right) is Mary Poppins, who falls from out of the sky to again help the Banks family, Michael (Ben Whishaw, centre) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). (Disney)

Most challenging of all, perhaps, was the character of Mary herself. A magical nanny, Mary arrived at the home of the Banks family to sort out the tangled tensions of the household. Wise, mysterious, mystical and possibly ancient, she often speaks in Zen koans. ("Open different doors. You may find a you there that you never knew was yours.") She is also "practically perfect in every way," meaning she is a character without an arc: she is the exact same person at the end of an adventure that she was at the beginning. Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her performance anyway, on the strength of formidable song-and-dance skills and her stoic embrace of the madness of it all.

In that spirit, director Rob Marshall (Chicago; Into the Woods) embraces the madness of doing a sequel 54 years after the first film. In Mary Poppins Returns, the Banks children are all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is struggling to raise his three rambunctious children after the death of his wife. His supportive sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), following in the tracks of her suffragette mother, is a labour activist.

The bank where Michael works — the same bank where his father toiled — is threatening to foreclose on the family home as the distraught Michael has missed payments. He could use a little magic. And though he attributes his childhood adventures with Mary (an unflappable Emily Blunt assumes the role) as a flight of juvenile fancy, he assents to putting his kids under her care after she descends from the sky, still her favourite mode of travel.

Director Rob Marshall captures the spirit of the original, but is at a disadvantage in that none of the movie’s songs are as infectious as those from the first film. (Disney)

Director Rob Marshall captures the spirit of the original, but is at a disadvantage in that none of the movie’s songs are as infectious as those from the first film. (Disney)

Lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator-star of Hamilton) serving as the proxy of Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character Bert, accompanies Mary and the kids on their adventures, which include a visit to a cartoon English music hall. Interestingly, the kids’ cartoon adventures mirror the realities they will face in the real world. (In a way, Mary Poppins Returns is like a Disneyfied version of Carlos Castaneda’s guided peyote-flown adventures with Yaqui shaman Don Juan.)

Marshall captures the English-eccentric spirit of the original, and the former Broadway choreographer is well-suited to stage the musical sequences with lively energy. He is at a disadvantage in that none of the movie’s songs are as infectious as the original Sherman brothers-penned ditties.

Having conquered Broadway, Miranda proves a good match for the film medium; he is a magnetic presence, and if he can’t quite match Van Dyke’s goofy charm, he’s a lot more successful with the English accent.

By contrast, Blunt matches Andrews quite successfully in playing Mary. The character still doesn’t have a discernible arc, but Blunt succeeds in finding her own shadings to the character, particularly in the gleeful wickedness of Mary’s wit.

Blunt is, in the end, perfect enough.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, from left), Annabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) take audiences on a new adventure 54 years after Marry Poppins first opened her umbrella. (Disney)

Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, from left), Annabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) take audiences on a new adventure 54 years after Marry Poppins first opened her umbrella. (Disney)

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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