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Mary Poppins Returns an old-school Technicolor delight
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-12-19

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Some will argue Mary Poppins Returns is boring. And maybe, to an extent, it's true—the movie has its slow moments, plus at least two songs and one cameo that could have been cut. The soundtrack recalls Golden Age musicals rather than modern pop. But at its core, with gay director Rob Marshall at the helm, Mary Poppins Returns is genuine in a way most modern films are not.

The sequel to the iconic Disney picture isn't a 90-minute romp of CGI characters making smart-aleck remarks meant to appeal more to parents than children. There are real stakes: Namely, the Banks home where Michael ( Ben Whishaw, who like Marshall is gay ), now a widowed father struggling to hold things together, lives with his three children and bumbling maid ( Julie Walters ). Now a labor activist with a big heart and tiny wallet, Jane ( Emily Mortimer ) isn't much help, and with foreclosure a few days away, Big Ben is ticking.

Enter the magical nanny ( a pert and impeccably coiffed Emily Blunt ), ever-ready with a bottomless travel bag and a talking umbrella used sparingly as comic relief. Same Banks house, but different London: The Troubles of the '30's have taken hold, and thanks to a greedy bank manager ( Colin Firth ), the family may soon be out on the streets. What's refreshing about Mary Poppins Returns is that the Banks must rely on their own problem-solving skills, and love for one another, to get themselves out of a life-changing mess. Though Mary injects some much-needed whimsy in the kids' lives and dispenses bite-size snacks of quotable wisdom — aided by wide-eyed lamplighter Jack ( Lin-Manuel Miranda ) — when it comes down to brass tacks, the nanny stays behind the scenes.

The real star of Mary Poppins Returns is its art direction, which is nothing short of stunning. The gray and rainy London backdrops and cluttered household are a sharp contrast to Mary's clean lines and vivid wardrobe, and the hand-drawn animation sequences that are a mainstay of the original film make a glorious return. As Mary, Jack and the children travel into the world of a china bowl, complete with a horse-drawn carriage and music hall, even the most jaded audience members will be swept away into a world of wonder.

Blunt is an intelligent choice for the title role, with crisp diction and a knowing smile reminiscent of Julie Andrews. Blunt's Mary maintains a perfect balance of efficiency and warmth, comforting the children about their lost mother and making sure they don't miss bath time. Miranda's signature quick wit and contagious smile are on full display, and his Jack gets to shine in a Newsies-esque production number.

But it's Whishaw who really tugs heartstrings. Rather than the stodgy and harsh Mr. Banks of the original, Michael wears a permanent expression of worry, a sensitive artist-turned-bank teller overwhelmed by the three small lives for which he is now solely responsible. When he finally cracks and shouts at the children, it's coming from a world of pain, and when he realizes what he almost lost—their trust—the moment is devastatingly moving.

Mary Poppins Returns is essentially an old-fashioned Broadway musical on the big screen, minus the usually-problematic content. In every music cue and camera angle, director Rob Marshall pays homage to the original film while creating memories for a new generation. Despite its occasionally lengthy pace, Mary Poppins Returns delivers the goods of peak Disney: substantial life lessons with a glittering chaser. It's the warm cup of tea you didn't know you needed.


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