Maybe it was just luck or maybe it was planned counter-programming but it seems rather funny that the same week that SUSPIRIA comes to our cinemas in Hong Kong so does MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The two female-led films couldn’t be more different.
Life has apparently only moved forward 25 years in this sequel to the beloved, 54-year-old Disney classic, MARY POPPINS. It’s now 1935 and the world is in the midst of the Great Depression. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, the PADDINGTON films; A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING; THE LOBSTER; SPECTRE; THE DANISH GIRL) has grown up and is living in his family’s home on London’s Cherry Tree Lane along with his three children, John, Annabel and Georgie, and their ever-faithful maid, Ellen (Julie Walters, the MAMMA MIA! films; the PADDINGTON films; BROOKLYN; ONE CHANCE). The times have been hard on Michael though, as we soon learn that he’s both a widower and a failed artist. To make ends meet, he’s taken a job as a bank teller at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, the very institution where his father worked years earlier. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has followed in their mother’s footsteps by becoming a labour organiser. Jack-of-all-trades Bert (Dick van Dyke in the original) has long retired from the chimney sweeping business and has been replaced by his apprentice, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Broadway’s HAMILTON), who is a lamplighter, or a “leerie”. As the film opens, trouble comes knocking on the Banks’ front door when two of Fidelity Fiduciary’s lawyers serve Michael with notice that his home will be repossessed by the end of the week unless he pays back in full a loan that he took out. What are the Bankses to do? For young Georgie, his solution is to take Michael’s old kite outside for a spin but when a gust of wind from the east threatens to carry it up to the highest heights, both the relic and the Bankses are saved in the nick of time by a woman carrying a carpet bag and an umbrella.
There is a lot that’s good about MARY POPPINS RETURNS and a few things that aren’t so good… or at least not as good as the original film. To start, Emily Blunt (A QUIET PLACE) as Mary is an absolute delight, though I don’t recall Julie Andrews’ Mary being as exasperated with Mr. Banks as this Mary is with Michael. Blunt doesn’t quite have the finesse that Andrews has but she’s got a lovely voice. Who knew? Well, I guess her husband, John Krasinski, did. Miranda puts in a solid performance too, though director Rob Marshall (INTO THE WOODS; CHICAGO) should have reminded him that this is a movie and not a stage play. With his hyper-exaggerated facial expressions, he was playing to the back of the theatre. But at least he put on a fairly reasonable Cockney accent, which is something Dick van Dyke wasn’t able to do at all… and that’s an understatement! Speaking of DvD, the 93-year-old appears in this film too (credited as Navckid Keyd, which is how he was billed in the first film) as Mr. Dawes Jr. In the ’64 film, the venerable actor also played Mr. Dawes Sr. Also appearing is his fellow nonagenarian, Angela Lansbury (TV’s MURDER, SHE WROTE), who plays the Balloon Lady, a role that is reminiscent of the Bird Woman in the first film. Instead of singing “Feed the Birds” (which Andrews sang) though, Lansbury’s number is “Nowhere to Go but Up”, a sweet tune that includes references to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “A Spoonful of Sugar”. And right there is where the film’s problems are most apparent. This story parallels the original story too much. This film’s Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep, the MAMMA MIA! films; FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) is not too different from the first film’s Uncle Albert right down to her number, “Turning Turtle”, which is reminiscent of “I Love To Laugh”. All the little winks and nods RETURNS gives to the original are nice, but the whole film seems like an inferior knock-off rather than being an exciting, new chapter in the adventures of the Bankses. The other problem is that while the songs are pleasant enough, they’re just not very memorable. Jack and the other leeries’ big production number, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, doesn’t hold a gas candle to “Step in Time” and Mary’s “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, as lovely as it is, is no “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”.
A sequel to MARY POPPINS had been planned since the first film came out in 1964 but the books’ author, P.L. Travers, was very much against doing another film if it was going to be like the first one. (If you’ve seen the film, SAVING MR. BANKS, you know she was not a fan!) Happily, her estate approved this sequel and they’re probably glad they did. The film’s box office has already taken in nearly three times its production budget and it’s only been on general release around the world since mid-December. In Hollywood, that means we can expect another sequel. If there is, I hope it will be more original while still retaining the magic of the first film. But what do I know? I’m not six years old anymore and I’m sure kids love RETURNS just the way it is.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 1st at 8:30 am HK time!
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