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CINEMASCOPE: RETELLING A CLASSIC

December 30, 2018

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Whenever a beloved classic that was perfect in every way sees a sequel or a remake, some argue that the new installment should only be released if it is as good or better. Of course, such thoughts aren’t very practical because these are huge financial investments. Moreover, sometimes a film is underwhelming despite the best of intentions, and a rule like this would have stopped us from seeing a Mary Poppins Returns that was potentially better than its predecessor.

As it stands, Mary Poppins Returns is a good film with plenty of cinematic magic to capture your childhood whimsy, but it also has enough issues to be considered good without feeling like it is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Like the timeless 1964 version, this musical fantasy is a family film. In terms of continuity, it isn’t a remake or a soft reboot, rather it’s a direct sequel. For better or worse, Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t quite realise this, following the patterns of the original so faithfully as if it were a remake. Some of this is down to paying homage to a Disney classic many of us have seen dozens of times — a piece of cinema that shaped our childhoods. At the same time, I am sure director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee were instructed by Disney to play copycat, much like the filmmakers behind Disney’s The Force Awakens.

Will Mary Poppins Returns stand the test of time like the original?

Set in 1935, the narrative reintroduces us to Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), who is now all grown up. He also has three children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Georgie (Joel Dawson) and Annabel (Pixie Davies). Sadly, this isn’t a happy reunion for fans of the character. At the peak of the economic downturn of the Great Depression, Michael is a recent widower, having lost his wife Kate only a year back. Michael is employed only part-time at the bank while also working as an artist. To make matters worse, the bank is threatening to repossess his house after he fell behind on his payments. Meanwhile, Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), like her mum, is an activist. Here, she realises she can help her brother if the two can find certificates their father left behind at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.

Entering the picture soon enough, is the magical nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who descends through the clouds to make a grand appearance. The family are soon joined by Jack, played engagingly by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a lamplighter trained by Bert who we all remember from the original film.

The performances are excellent overall, but the one who truly stands out is Emily Blunt. Fans of Julie Andrews will always see her as Mary Poppins, with her kind, loving, somewhat maternal performance but Emily Blunt’s stricter, more egotistical, occasionally flirtatious, mysterious version is truer to the characterisation from the book and certainly more intriguing.

The performances are excellent overall, but the one who truly stands out is Emily Blunt. Fans of Julie Andrews will always see her as Mary Poppins, with her kind, loving, somewhat maternal performance but Emily Blunt’s stricter, more egotistical, occasionally flirtatious, mysterious version is truer to the characterisation from the book and certainly more intriguing. Not only does she play the character in a manner that is more alluring but complex as well, allowing Mary Poppins to feel more relatable. To be fair to Julie Andrews, it would have been difficult for her to be as authentic to the original Mary Poppins in 1964 where such a performance would have been deemed too lively from the female lead of a family film.

Where Mary Poppins Returns struggles, aside from the derivative nature of the story, is with the pacing and tone. In one scene, the mood is gloomy — especially when it comes to the financial difficulties being faced by the Banks — and in another, Mary Poppins is flying around dancing with the children in fantastical worlds where sometimes gold coins are a plentiful. I realise this is a fantasy film, but in those moments I wondered if she and the children couldn’t simply take back some of those valuables for the family and end the film. There are editing issues as well, that leave Mary Poppins Returns feeling heavy-handed in a couple of sequences. This goes for the music too, with some of the numbers overstaying their welcome.

Thankfully, the production values are outstanding. The sets look magnificent and the costumes are lovely. The computer-generated visuals are gorgeous, with my favourite being a fun animated scene reminiscent of the film’s predecessor. Will Mary Poppins Returns stand the test of time like the original? I suppose we’ll have to ask our little ones when they’re all grown up.

Rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 30th, 2018

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