Add More Mouse saw Mary Poppins Returns!

Our previous post was all about the questions we had about Mary Poppins Returns as we approached its official release. I’ll start my review by saying this: any doubts I may have expressed were for most part relieved. I found this new interpretation of the Mary Poppins character to be totally worth the ticket price, and I left the theater excited for the making-of featurettes that will be on the eventual dvd/blu-ray release. I’m not going to say it was a perfect film but I definitely hope it makes enough at the box office to justify more Mary Poppins films. It may be cheesy to say, but the world needs movies like this right now. Good-natured, well-intentioned, expertly made stories that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Most importantly, we need children’s entertainment that doesn’t talk down to them.

Sidebar. It was quite fun to see some other Disney enthusiasts at my local theater catching a weekday showing at 10:45am. Shout-out to the gentleman wearing the Peter Pan jean jacket and the woman with the Mickey Mouse skirt who seemed to both come solo. Your freak flags were flying high, and I salute them.

This is a film that is acutely aware of the original while also working hard to introduce the audience to a feeling and spirit that seem pretty strange in 2018. It honestly felt a lot like Mary Poppins via The Force Awakens.  

Just as The Force Awakens mirrored the original Star Wars to ease the audience into the story’s new universe, Mary Poppins Returns checks off and updates the main set pieces from the original in fairly direct fashion. In the first film, there’s a huge dance scene with chimney sweeps, and this time you get a huge dance scene with lamplighters. In the first film they enter an animated adventure through chalk drawings in the park, and this time they have one on the surface of a ceramic bowl (!?). It’s pretty obvious when they hit these story points so hard, but the whole thing is so pleasant and fun to experience that I don’t care much about the lack of originality in the storytelling. I’m tickled just to see this kind of filmmaking on the big screen in 2018.

Speaking of that animated scene that takes place on/in a ceramic bowl: wow.  It’s everything I had hoped for in my previous article. The 2-D animation looked great on the 2018 big screen. It was augmented with CGI in the way CGI should always be used in my opinion: as a garnish and not the main course (when possible).  It was terrific, and it made me wish the entire movie was that kind of Roger Rabbit-style visual experience that mixed live action and animation so well. I can’t say enough about the composition of that scene, and if it isn’t nominated for visual effects at the Academy Awards then I’ll shave my cat (I won’t).  

Emily Blunt was great. Based on what I’ve read about the director, Rob Marshall (who also does a great job), I’m guessing that Blunt’s take on the Poppins character may be closer to the way she is portrayed in the original books by P.L. Travers (unread by me).  Marshall has mentioned that he and his team read all the original books before writing the screenplay, and I liked this slightly exasperated and sarcastic version of the title character a lot.

Lin-Manual Miranda, playing Jack the lamplighter, is also predictably good. I never got to see him star in Hamilton but I do love his appearances on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (NOT suitable for children of all ages). He even gets to do some of his trademark drama-kid musical rapping, for those of you into that sort of thing.  He isn’t given a ton of character arc to work with but he gets some really great song and dance sequences, and isn’t that what we’re buying tickets for anyway?

Oh, and Dick Van Dyke’s appearance?  I won’t spoil it here, but I’m desperate to know if they used CGI in his scene. If not, that dude can still move at 93 years old. Seeing him getting a chance to call back to the original film was the moment I’ll confess to getting a little misty-eyed. How often does a 93-year-old Hollywood legend get to revisit material he started his career with?

I went out of my way not to read any reviews ahead of seeing this myself, though from skimming some of the headlines it seems that some professional critics have taken issue with the quality of the songs on the soundtrack. On the contrary, I thought that most of the songs were perfectly fine, with a few rising nearly to the level of the first film.. I’m planning on giving the soundtrack a few listens over the weekend to see if they stick with me a bit more, but asking any of them to hit you like “Supercalifragilistic…” or “Spoonful of Sugar” after one viewing is pretty unrealistic. The original film had 50 years to get those stuck in our heads!  I was honestly just thrilled that there was a musical aimed at kids that had these kinds of complex and well-done melodies and arrangements.

There has also apparently been some criticism aimed at the idea that the Mary Poppins character is simply a “nanny ex machina,” meaning she exists solely to solve problems without any real logic. This in turn implies lazy or weak screenwriting.

And well…that part is kind of true for both films. There is no logic behind Mary Poppins’ helping of the Banks family.  The entire set-up of both Poppins storylines is: 1) Banks family is in trouble, 2) Mary Poppins comes to help, 3) she is apparently magical for unknown reasons, and 4) they go on adventures and everything works out in the end (spoiler alert).  If you watch these films and can’t get over the fact that Mary’s magic powers are never explained, I get it – but I also think it’s completely ok to watch a movie and accept the story beats on the basis of their ability to entertain and show us things we wouldn’t see otherwise.  As my favorite film reviewer Roger Ebert once said in one of my favorite quotes (I’m paraphrasing): “What’s important is not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.”

Or, as Jack the lamplighter says at one point: “Don’t ask Mary to explain anything to you – she never does.”

I try not to snort the pixie dust too hard before watching a Disney thing for the first time. They’ve made plenty of stuff I don’t like. If there’s one thing I wasn’t thrilled by in this film it was the scene featuring Meryl Streep as Mary’s second cousin. I think I disliked it simply because I just didn’t dig the song during that set piece at all (Turning Turtle).  Obviously if Meryl Streep wants to be in your movie, you find a way to put her in your movie.  I just wish they would have given her a better tune.

So in summary: I think Mary Poppins Returns is well worth seeing in the theater, and I think being surrounded by fellow movie goers is an optimal environment to see it in. The kids in my audience seemed absolutely awestruck during a few scenes. Kudos to Rob Marshall, the director, for pulling off a difficult task, and I’m optimistic that they could pull it off again. And I hope they try.

-Dave

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