Back in 1964, it was something of a surprise that “Mary Poppins” became such a big hit, adored in equal measure by children and adults, and subsequently a movie that continues to resonate in the cinematic memory. Just about everyone can hum at least one of its songs, perhaps “Chim Chim Cheree,” which won the Best Original Song Oscar – or pronounce, and maybe even sing, the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Until “Mary Poppins,” Disney’s non-animated movies hadn’t garnered the acclaim his works of animation did: They were considered rather unsophisticated, folksy entertainment. The company that Walt Disney founded didn’t expect the arrival on the big screen of the amazing nanny created by P.L. Travers to be any different in this regard. The making of the film was entrusted to veteran director British-born Robert Stevenson, who came to Hollywood in the 1930s, and had already directed several of Disney’s comedies. Stevenson was never considered one of Tinsel Town’s top directors, but he was a dedicated professional, and his pre-“Mary Poppins” filmography contains at least one work worthy of distinction: his 1943 version of “Jane Eyre,” starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
To portray Mary Poppins, Disney chose Julie Andrews, then known to the theater-going public in America's big cities for her performance as Eliza Doolittle in the original stage production of “My Fair Lady,” and as Queen Guenevere in the Broadway musical “Camelot,” with Richard Burton as King Arthur. But to most Americans she was largely anonymous, although they may have caught her on television programs such as the “Ed Sullivan Show.” The same year “Mary Poppins” was released, Andrews also starred in Arthur Hiller’s brilliant satirical war film “The Americanization of Emily,” but the picture was a failure. Andrews also suffered another disappointment that year, when she was passed over for the role of Eliza Doolittle in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” because she wasn’t well known enough. (The role went to Audrey Hepburn, whose singing was voiced by Marnie Nixon.)
It seemed only right, then, that in the same year in which Rex Harrison won the Oscar for his performance as Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” Julie Andrews also won as Best Actress for “Mary Poppins.” The success of that movie transformed Andrews’ status, and she achieved super-stardom a year later, again in a governess role, as Maria in “The Sound of Music.” In “Mary Poppins” she was teamed with Dick Van Dyke, who was mostly known to television viewers. (The 93-year-old Van Dyke has a small role in the new film.)
As a result of the relatively low expectations from “Mary Poppins,” a certain degree of modesty and simplicity pervades the film, and those qualities enriched and imbued it with a certain captivating intimacy. It’s surprising that it took 54 years for the Disney company to make a sequel to the original – which cost around $6 million and earned more than $100 million in the United States – in 1964 terms.
Today Walt Disney Pictures, which perhaps reflects Hollywood-style capitalism more than any other company, if such a comparison can be made, is currently in an era of recycling, though not necessarily of the ecological variety. In the year ahead we can look forward to live versions of “Dumbo” and “The Lion King” – the latter is the biggest hit in Disney’s history – which are certain to become blockbusters. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a sequel whose plot differs from that of the original and is set a few decades later, during the Depression years in England, but there isn’t one scene or one song in it that doesn’t reference the 1964 version, only on a larger scale, in keeping with Disney’s far greater economic expectations from this movie.
So it’s not surprising that, if in the previous film Mary Poppins dropped down from the sky with her suitcase and umbrella in order to help Michael and Jane, the children of the Banks family, to get the attention and love of their father, the busy banker, and their mother, the Suffragette activist – in “Mary Poppins Returns” it’s money that plays a central role. Money drives the plot and money promises the tranquility – and happiness – of the family at the center of the film. This theme casts a certain chill over the film, in contrast to the warmth exuded by the earlier version.
Mary Poppins returns because Michael and Jane, now adults, are in trouble. Particularly Michael (Ben Whishaw), who has become a widower, is raising three children – the twins, John and Annabel, and little Georgie – and has debts that could cost him his house. He owes the money to the bank where he himself works, and can save his family and his home only if he finds a certificate attesting that his father bought shares in the bank, and presents it to the wily bank manager, who wants to repossess the house. But where is the certificate? I doubt that there will be any viewers who won’t guess from the first minute where it’s hidden.
Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a single, socially active woman, and the search for the document is joined by Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda, who is making his first important film debut here, though his resumé already includes a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony awards for writing the book, music and lyrics for the musical “Hamilton”), a lamplighter, whose role in the film is to take the place of Bert – the chimney sweep from the 1964 version, played by Dick Van Dyke. The new picture has a musical segment featuring the participation of all the lamplighters, echoing the number with the chimney sweeps in the original “Mary Poppins.”
The emphasis in “Mary Poppins Returns” on heft hurls the movie in too many directions, and even though there are likeable and even lovely moments, there’s nothing that generates a “Wow!” of the kind the filmmakers were after. Even the scene in which all the characters float through the air with the aid of miraculous balloons doesn't generate that feeling. It just looks like a scene in which all the characters fly through the air to the sounds of a song performed by the Balloon Lady, played by actress Angela Lansbury, who’s also 93 and is supposed to reprise the Bird Woman from the first movie, whose melancholy singing haunts the memory.
Too calculated to recreate the lightness of the 1964 version, the new film suffers from a certain absence of charm and, worst of all, an absence of soul. It lacks an emotional focus, which the director, Rob Marshall, has been unable to provide. Marshall represents a somewhat peculiar phenomenon in contemporary cinema. He gained well-earned esteem for directing the Oscar-winning “Chicago,” but his subsequent work in musicals for the silver screen – such as the deplorable “Nine” and the more successful “Into the Woods” – was less impressive. There are some good songs in "Mary Poppins Returns," written by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, like the one Lin-Manuel Miranda performs at the beginning, but Marshall lacks the finesse and sophistication that an accomplished maker of musicals requires for the songs to take off. His direction of the musical numbers, in terms of choreography and editing, is that of a genre technician.
The absence of a narrative and emotional focus alike in the picture is reflected, for example, in an embarrassing scene with Meryl Streep, who is costumed grotesquely and whose deliberately off-key singing leads to a number that takes place in a reverse reality. This scene in particular, which could have been thrilling but fails, exemplifies the uninspired nature of Marshall’s work. The scene recalls, but does not match, the scene in the original movie in which the eccentric uncle’s outbursts of laughter send him floating to the ceiling of the Banks family’s home for his afternoon tea.
All this leaves us with Emily Blunt, who plays Mary Poppins. Blunt is one of the finest actresses of our time. Possessed of both dramatic and comic skills, she does her work well, even if at times she seems to be obeying some kind of marching orders. The filmmakers were right to cast a level-headed actress in the part, completely different from the sui generis Julie Andrews – and from this perspective, too, her performance is satisfying. Of the other actors, Miranda proves that he possesses a winning screen presence, but the predictable relationship between him and Jane is vacuous.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is one of those contemporary films that attack us with weightiness instead of wrapping us in warmth. That’s unfortunate, because Mary Poppins, whose whole essence represents a traditional, decent British way of life, would have wished for a movie that personifies her more appropriately. But she’ll be back.