A Spoonful of Sugar Helps 2018 Go Down

Mary Poppins Returns
(USA, 130 min.)
Dir. Rob Marshall, Writ. David Magee
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke
Mary Poppins mirror
If there’s one silver lining to be found in Donald Trump’s administration, or the likes of Doug Ford and whatever other terrible people happen to be in power now, it’s that they make a film critic’s job too easy. One could have easily made a drinking game out of the number of films deemed balm for divisive times in 2018. Many films received praise for their relevance, while others got a passing grade for showing up at the right time. However, the holidays are here and everyone needs some Christmas cheer. If there’s a film to warm the heart and make the yuletide gay, it’s Mary Poppins Returns. The film is a welcome homecoming for the magical nanny who touched generations of children. Mary Poppins Returns is the grand finale to the “movie we need right now” festival of 2018!

Destined to join the original Mary Poppins as a beloved family staple, Mary Poppins Returns makes the rare feat of revisiting a classic film and doing it justice. It’s an enchanting time machine that reminds audiences that the world isn’t as bleak and dark as it seems. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) adds more singing and more dancing to the magical world of Mary Poppins, and veteran moviegoers are bound to enjoy it as much as young audiences will as they discover the nanny for the first time.

The story features Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) all grown up in the years since Mary Poppins first graced their house on Cherry Tree Lane. They once again need Mary to work her mojo, since Michael, a widower with three rug rats and a cantankerous housekeeper (Julie Walters), has his hands full and is about to lose the house. (Jane, a socialist, didn’t seem to find much favour in the family will.) Before Michael and Jane can say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” three times fast, Mary Poppins descends from the heavens to make everything shipshape.

A song here and a lesson there fuels the plot as Mary teaches the next generation of Banksies about the world as their dad gets the affairs in order. The script by David Magee (Finding Neverland) admirably revives the basic outline of the original film, offering something between a continuation and a reimagining of the 1964 classic. It provides something both familiar and new like a passing of the torch between generations.

The shoes left my Julie Andrews’ Oscar-winning performance are awfully big for any actor to fill, but Blunt couldn’t be a better choice to bring the spirit of Mary Poppins back to life. Her Mary is a little more posh and a little more playful than Andrews’ squeaky-clean Miss Poppins, who sometimes resembled a nun on the lam from a convent. Blunt looks as if she is having the time of her life playing Mary Poppins and the gaiety of her performance is simply infectious. Her singing, her dancing, and her perfectly composed poise combine for a newly spirited take on the nanny that is close enough to Andrews’ interpretation, but is an original and worthy feat in its own right.

Blunt finds a fine sidekick in Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, the prodigy of Bert the chimneysweep, who aids her lessons with some sprightly song and dance routines. The music of Mary Poppins Returns increases the scale of the original film, opening the story up for larger numbers with fancier moves and slicker choreography tailor-made for an inevitable Broadway adaptation. While none of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman provide magic as memorable as the Sherman brothers’ ditties of the original Poppins, Returns features some truly grand numbers, like Miranda’s triumphant “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” or Blunt’s saucy cabaret number worthy of Chicago. A few numbers are utterly overwhelmed by the grand visual effects, but those that find a balance between the razzle-dazzle and the music are a delight. The centrepiece of the film, naturally, comes when Meryl Streep steals the show in a triumphant cameo as Mary’s cousin Topsy, who leads the kids on a dazzling number of topsy-turvydom that feels like the wildest amusement park ride in Disneyland. Streep relishes the grand size of the role, playing up her ability to master accents of all kinds by giving Topsy a hilariously over-the-top twang of indiscernible origin.

Marshall and his casting directors pepper the film with memorable performers, including Colin Firth as a bitterly Scroogey banker (who, thankfully, doesn’t sing) and 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke in a tap dance worthy of a standing ovation. One of the most obvious improvements upon this Mary Poppins is the step towards a more inclusive cast—an effort made somewhat more successfully by this season’s other big release, Mary Queen of Scots, since most of the actors of colour in Mary Poppins Returns have one-note roles like “The nice banker,” which is awkward despite its very best intentions. The effort is nevertheless a step in the right direction.

Mary Poppins Returns also bests its predecessor with a smorgasbord of special effects that have been introduced to the movies since Mary Poppins first conjured flights of the imagination. Marshall uses an impressive range of dazzling animation as Mary Poppins transports the Banks children through hand drawn carriage rides and CGI bubble flights. These set pieces in particular show how ready the world is for a return to Mary Poppins, and the marvelous visual design extends to the costumes and production efforts, all of which ring with inspired imagination.

The film is bound to bring out the kid in everyone as Blunt guides the crowd through a magical and enchanting adventure. Mary Poppins Returns is escapism in its best and purest form. A spoonful of sugar helps 2018 go down…in the most delightful way!

Mary Poppins Returns opens in theatres Dec. 19