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Film Review: Mary Poppins Returns

8 January 19 words: Hilary Whiteside

After a 54 year hiatus, Mary Poppins is back on the big screen... 

Director: Rob Marshall

Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw

Running time: 120 mins

Mary Poppins Returns is set in the 1930s inter-war depression and bills itself as a sequel to the original 1964 film, rather than simply a re-boot. The writer, Davis Magee, makes use of material taken from the original seven P.L. Travers’ novels to provide a backbone to the narrative and lend some authenticity to the script. As in the 1964 version, there is a trip to a magical, animated land allowing the inclusion of talking, dancing animals provided through familiar Disney style animation. The mix of live action interfaced with animated inserts is technically effective.

The central narrative of the film is provided by the Banks family, headed by father Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), his sister (Jane) and his two children.  Michael and Jane, who were the children featured in the original film, provide a link and some continuity to the original.  The family has fallen on hard times both financially and emotionally (the children’s mother has died) and their only prospect of remaining in their family home rests with unearthing a share document hidden within the confines of their palatial London home.

Michael’s nemesis comes in the form of the replacement head of the family bank (Colin Firth) who determinedly attempts to foil their search. Meanwhile, Michael’s two children appear to be out of control; they are seen to run amok in the park and frequently leave the house late for school. However, enter Mary Poppins from the sky (still bearing that iconic umbrella) who imposes a strict regimen on the children and restores them to saintliness. Mary Poppins’ screen presence offers an opportunity for divergence from the main narrative allowing for scenes of fantasy created, not only through song and animation but also by encountering some of Poppin’s rather surreal friends. Cameo roles are provided here by Meryl Streep as cousin Topsy and also Dick van Dyke (remember the penguins?) The film ends on a cheerful note where moral and social order are restored.

Could you take children of a certain age to this film? Yes! Will they remain entranced for 130 minutes? Maybe.

Whereas in the original 1964 version it is conceivably possible to recall some of those classic tunes and indeed, hum along and venture some of the words, it would perhaps be difficult to name any individual song in this latest version or remember any of the music.  However, as the musical score of Mark Shaiman has been nominated for the Oscar long list of Academy Music Awards, this is clearly not the general consensus.

The film is on to a winner from the technical point of view and there is certainly much to admire.  The ‘real time’ settings have been meticulously researched and provide a historically accurate depiction of London in the 1930s.  We are presented with shots of a series of familiar London icons, such as St. Pauls Cathedral and Big Ben. However, more interestingly and less obviously perhaps, Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian sewers feature in all their glory in an escape scene and viewers witness the historical finery and affluence associated with the London Georgian Square, juxtaposed with foreboding, cobbled backstreets. Authenticity is added through lavish, no expense spared, costume design.  The ragged clothing of the lamplighters and the marching ‘workers’ is used to highlight the poverty and deprivation of the time. Subtle nods to the suffragette movement are made with fleeting images of torn protest papers in waste paper baskets and the suffragette colours of green, purple and white are in evidence.  

The cinematography in the animated interludes of the film is lush and extravagant.  Extraordinary imagery and colour bombard the screen with surreal underwater scenes depicting fish, galleons and bubbles galore. A Chinese bowl is recreated in this fantasy land and takes on a life of its own; attention to detail is meticulous. Needless to say (this is Disney after all) we witness Mary Poppins and the children interacting with talking animals lending a slice of humour and fun to the screen.  

Could you take children of a certain age to this film? Yes! Will they remain entranced for 130 minutes? Maybe. Interestingly, when I viewed the film I expected the cinema to be full of very small heads below seat-back level, but instead was met with a sea of large, grey heads, probably original 1964 devotees hoping to recreate ‘that experience’ and sing along.  So maybe it’s a film for everyone.  Of course, there are quibbles:  should we feel sorry for a family in possession of a very, very large house who are threatened with something smaller?  Did the children simper just a little too much?  Is Mary Poppins just a little bit too ‘buttoned up?’ How could Jane flirt with the ‘workers’ and yet still remain an ardent capitalist as she enthusiastically seeks those elusive share documents?  Although, I guess she did show some solidarity by falling for a lamplighter! 

Did you know? Dick Van Dyke was offered four options for his dance scene, each with a varying degree of difficulty. He insisted on performing the hardest dance routine and refused any help from fellow cast members while filming the scene.

Mary Poppins Returns is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 10 January

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