An Open (Love) Letter to an Icon: A Review of “Mary Poppins Returns”
A few weeks ago, my wife and I, along with a few thousand other Disney die-hards, attended Destination D. Among the highlights of the event was a panel discussion with Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the composer and lyricist who tackled the daunting task of penning the music for “Mary Poppins Returns”. Both told a variety of stories, both from their experiences working on the new film and their personal relationship with the original. The reverence both men hold for the original was palpable, with Shaiman almost breaking into tears talking about the first time he heard the original score. They weren’t the only ones working on the film who felt that way.
For those of you who have been reading my articles for a while now, it won’t surprise you to know that unlike the esteemed members of the cast and crew, I have no deep, intimate relationship with the original film. My personal Disney-ness came about as a byproduct of my wife’s boundless love for all things Disney. When someone you love is excited and enthusiastic about something, it’s hard not to get swept up in it. But I’ve seen the original film, and I know it well enough to form a basis of comparison.
Let’s talk about the good, because there is a lot of it. The cast is uniformly terrific. Emily Blunt is stellar in the title role, effortlessly vacillating from no-nonsense nanny to caregiver to adventure enabler. She carries the movie as a matter of course, simultaneously guiding the three youngest Banks children while allowing them the space to make their own choices and mistakes. In classic fashion, Blunt rolls her eyes and pretends to relent to the children’s pleas, then grins impishly at the fun to come. I’d be very, very surprised if she doesn’t get an Oscar nod.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is his typically talented self. His Cockney accent does slip from time to time, but it’s a small problem to deal with in the face of his tremendous charisma and grace. His character, Jack, is a “leery”, a lamp lighter with a heart of gold and his head in the clouds. Much will be made of his “patter song” (i.e. rap), but according to Shaiman it was perfectly appropriate for the time period.
The grown Banks children are ably played by Ben Wishshaw and Emily Mortimer. Whishaw gives a nuanced performance as a father of three struggling to keep his family from sinking into despair in the wake of tragedy. Mortimer, who starred in one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen (a Netflix original called “Spectral”) plays the still flighty Jane, who is following in her mother’s footsteps as a labor organizer. The supporting cast boasts Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury, Meryl Streep and Dick Van Dyke. Needles to say, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Rob Marshall was the perfect choice to direct this film musical, with credits like “Chicago” and “Into the Woods” among others. Shaiman and Wittman have been wowing audiences with their collaborations since the mid 80s, earning Oscar, Grammy and Emmy awards and nominations along the way.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is, first and foremost, a love letter to the original. But this is where my criticism of the movie lies. It’s plain to see the passion and reverence the crew has for the original: it’s in every frame, line and note. But putting the original on such a high pedestal makes innovation nearly impossible. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Jack” simply replaces Dick Van Dyke’s “Burt”. Meryl Streep’s “Cousin Topsy” replaces Ed Wynn’s “Uncle Albert”. Two children forced to grow up too soon are replaced by three. “Nowhere to Go but Up”, the song of film’s emotional finale, stands in for “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”. I could list more analogues, but I’m sure you get the idea. There are dozens of “Easter Eggs”, some subtle and some rather overt, but all are nods to the original film. Dick Van Dyke is a marvel, even as a different character, but it’s still the man himself.
It’s a beautiful movie, full of hope, light and wonder. The music and performances are delightful, and it’s a wonderfully well-made film all around. Just don’t expect the unexpected.