Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Written by David Magee, Rob Marshall, & John DeLuca
Directed by Rob Marshall
It’s The Great Depression in England and Michael Banks is still reeling over the death of his beloved wife. Now he’s a single father with three children, getting support from his sister Jane and their long-suffering housekeeper Ellen. Lawyers from Fidelity Fiduciary arrive one morning to inform the family that due to lax payments on a loan the bank will be seizing the house at the stroke of midnight in five days. That’s when an old friend returns to the lives of the adult Banks children, Mary Poppins. The mysterious nanny from the sky helps the newest generation of Banks kids work through their still lingering grief over their mother and rediscover the magic and joy in life that has been lost during such trying times. Along the way, they are joined by Jack, a lamplighter and former apprentice of Bert the chimneysweep.
Full disclosure: I have never enjoyed the original Mary Poppins. It has always just felt tedious and way too long. I was never charmed by any of the songs or characters. It’s still sat a perfectly okay Disney movie in my book. It should come as no surprise then that this sequel did not impress me much at all. The film has stellar production values and looks excellent. However, beneath the spectacle, there’s just a lot of overdone and underbaked plotting and character development.
About midway through the film, out of left field, they introduce a romance subplot between Jack and Jane, two characters who have zero interaction up until this point. The conceit of their burgeoning love is that Jane is an activist for workers’ rights and Jack is…a lamplighter? There’s zero chemistry because the minute they see each other on screen, the story writes them into leaving the screen or other plot elements intervene. There’s no closure on the love story, and it could have been completely cut from the film with no effect on the final product. It’s one of those aspects of the movie that is utterly baffling to me. There is no presence of this storyline in any of the books P.L. Travers wrote so we can’t say it was a case of wanting to stay faithful to the source material. On reflection, it plays as a realization that Jane has literally nothing to do in this film and so they shoehorned this waste into the story.
The main plot revolves around the evil bank manager Mr. Wilkins who is hellbent on taking the Banks home away from the family. Of course, he keeps things friendly in the presence of Michael and Jane who believe he has their best interests in mind. I kept trying to figure out what reason Wilkins has for trying to take the home other than “being an evil business guy,” but I couldn’t come up with one. This appears to be an easily written narrative hook that propels the story without really saying anything. Wilkins never exposits a reason why he would have such ill will towards the Banks family, and it is made very clear that he’s foreclosed on many, many other houses. So why the passionate need for this one? shrugs
The songs are fine with highlights being Lovely London Sky and The Place Where Lost Things Go. There’s nothing here that will be as iconic as the original’s songs and every song in Returns feels like it is attempting to fill the place of a more classic song. Can You Imagine That is Spoonful of Sugar, A Cover Is Not The Book is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius, Lost Things is Stay Awake, Turning Turtle is I Love To Laugh, Trip a Little Light Fantastic is Chim-Chim-Cheree, and Nowhere To Go But Up is Let’s Go Fly a Kite. It feels like the screenwriters and the songwriter just made a template out of the original film and filled in the pieces. I would have found it interesting to have Mary in a different scenario with maybe a different family. I remember reading opinion pieces where detractors called out The Force Awakens as just a rehash of the original Star Wars. Well, Mary Poppins Returns is less original than that and without any reason to be so redundant.
I can’t say I’m surprised that Disney went the route of retreading familiar territory. It’s become their business model with the endless live-action remakes of everything in their catalog. The only reason this wasn’t a remake is that the original Poppins was live-action already. I can’t imagine children being able to endure the entire two hours and ten-minute runtime. I felt my interest waning around the halfway mark when the repetition from the original film took over the whole affair. I could guess where this plot was headed but hoped the movie could at least be organically charming enough to belie that. I was wrong.