Rob Marshall discovered Mary Poppins as a child. He was 5 years old the year it premiered. It was the first film he saw and like many of us, the film widened his eyes and opened his mind, an escape to pure fantasy while nesting in reality. That sensation of wonderment is exactly what he recreates so brilliantly with Mary Poppins Returns. In the depths of Depression-era London he reveals an alternate reality filled with hope. With Mary Poppins leading the way, we believe anything can happen, even the outlandishly impossible. That’s part of what makes this an instant classic. Hail Mary! Get ready for an irresistibly perfect, unstoppable Poppins.
If there’s one person we can entrust to deliver a lavish musical extravaganza, look no further than director Rob Marshall. Chicago, Into The Woods, and even Nine. Yes, I loved Nine. I still rotate ‘Be Italian’ on my musical playlist.
And what of our dear, favorite British Nanny, the beloved Mary Poppins? When it was first announced that Marshall was bringing Mary Poppins back for 2018, there was a sense of excitement and dread among devoted fans of the classic original. Emily Blunt playing Mary Poppins? What? No. Not our dear Mary Poppins, the role that won Julie Andrews an Oscar 53 years ago. But rest assured my friends. Rest assured. You are in for the most delightful, Disney, musical magic because Rob Marshall gives us everything we would hope for in aces.
Based on the books by P.L Travers, Mary Poppins Returns picks up the in the 1930s when London, like the rest of the world, is in the grips of economic collapse. Michael Banks and his sister Jane (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer) are the grownups now. Michael has three young children in a family that has recently lost its wife and mother.
The title credits are a grand overture. Marc Shaiman’s score whets our appetite for the songs to come later and lyrics we will sing for days, long after we’ve left the cinema.
The film opens with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter cycling through the grey, foggy, and frankly dreary London, as he sings “Underneath The Lovely London Sky” setting an atmospheric stage for what’s to come.
When we first meet the Banks, chaos reigns. The kitchen sink is leaking, the house is in shambles, the Banks children are in need of a bath, leaving Anabel to fetch a plumber. The Banks youngsters are reluctantly forced to behave like adults. They try to handle the disorderly situation while their father grapples with the prospect of their home being repossessed.
With her impeccable sense of timing, it’s not long before Mary Poppins returns. An iconic silhouette emerges through the cloudy skies and we get our first glimpse of the immortal nanny. In the nick of time, she’s arrives to save the day, bring a carpet-bag filled with ample magic and fun.
After a spectacular bathtime sequence, a chipped Royal Doulton bowl leads straightaway to another fantastic musical number. Jack joins Mary and the children on an adventurous excursion as they seek to help save their home from being lost.
The eight-minute Trip A Little Light Fantastic is simply lavish. We see Jack and an entire troupe of lamplighters burst into uproarious athletic song and dance. It’s a defining moment, seemingly reaching an apex, until Marshall lifts us to the next musical pinnacle, and then the next. That’s what this reincarnation is all about: one lavish musical number after another, a joyous cascade of seamless and effortless delight.
Hang on tight as our emotions are swept from sheer bliss to heartbreak. The Place Where Lost Things Go destroyed me. It’s a beautiful song, a poignant expression about losing a loved one. The children have lost their mother. But the lyrics explain how nothing is gone for good, it’s only out of place. A poem of grief and remembrance set to music that struck me deeply. Blunt executes this song with the eloquence of a shimmering Broadway star. It wasn’t just her voice that had every hair on edge, it was words that made me come to terms with my own personal loss. Finally helping me mend a year of sorrow with peace.
A beautiful reprise will come later, when the children sing to their father. We feel the pang of his grief, a widower’s grief, a father’s grief, a tearful moment as his kids comfort him:
“Memories you’ve shed
Gone for good you feared
They’re all around you still
Though they’ve disappeared
Nothing’s really left
Or lost without a trace
Nothing’s gone forever
Only out of place”
What’s a great musical without a melancholy number to capture the spectrum of life’s contrasts? It’s where we feel the full force of emotional reality as Michael Banks and his dilemma quite literally hit home. Whishaw is superb here.
Emily Blunt brings a whole new magic to Mary Poppins, supremely spectacular in her turn as the nanny who reappears at just the right time to remind us all that there’s a pathway past all our troubles. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Cockney accent is utterly authentic and charming. Take it from me, it’s thoroughly convincing. He doesn’t lose it when he sings, which is where most can slip up. Not Lin! His Jack is just the perfect partner to Mary and it’s enchanting to see Lin exercise his acting chops, giving us a taste of what’s to come. More please, Lin!
The cameo guest appearances are a triumph! Social media has probably ruined the surprise of some of them, but try to avoid finding out in advance. Wait to see each sparkling revelation in the film.
The production values in Marshall’s movies are always truly remarkable, and Mary Poppins Returns may very well surpass them all. From the score, the production design, animations and the costumes — many hand-painted by the supreme Sandy Powell — the screen is soaked in lush and dreamlike visuals. The crafts in this film are marvelously exquisite. The animation sequence is a lavish beauty to behold. Bravo! Bravo to all! Heaps of praise on Mary Poppins Returns and Rob Marshall for gathering this marvelous and ridiculously talented crew and cast to give us the gift of an astounding Disney original with outstanding songs that will endear it to a new generation of kids and their parents for many years to come.
What makes Mary Poppins Returns so magical is not just the way Marshall finds the childlike awe in all his characters, but in all of us watching as well. Mary reminds us that we, as adults, must never lose sight of life’s most valuable treasures. It’s a movie movie that takes us back to the days of classic Disney, a cinematic confection with deep richness beneath the frosting. It represents the purest expression of Disney wizardry, and would surely make Walt and P. L. Travers proud. If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then Mary Poppins Returns is the happiest ride of the year. It’s a bright film for dark days, destined to become as much of an essential family favorite as its illustrious predecessor.
Trip the light fantastic and embark on a jolly adventure with Mary and Jack and the indomitable residents of Cherry Tree Lane. Tackling a sequel like this was courageous and purists of the original need not worry. Abundant homage is paid to the original with Easter eggs planted throughout, but Mary Poppins Returns stands on in its own. With generous originality and freshness, it will warm the coldest of hearts this holiday season. Filled with memorable moments that do what the original did: inspire uplifting thoughts and instill us with light, hope, and good cheer in a way that nobody but Mary Poppins can. Celebrate and be grateful that Rob Marshall holds the master keys to unlock every music box that comes his way.
Mary Poppins Returns flies into theaters on December 19