Twenty-five years after Mary Poppins first appeared to save the Banks family, she returns to London just in time to save the day again.
It’s the middle of the Great Depression, or as the British called it, “the Great Slump.” Jack, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a working-class lamplighter and friend to Michael Bank’s children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies), and the youngest, Georgie (Joel Dawson). Michael (Ben Wishaw), now an artist, is still grieving the death of his wife several months before. To make ends meet, he has taken a part-time job as a teller at his father’s old bank and has taken out a mortgage on the family home. The children are struggling with the loss of their mother, too. Michael’s sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), is a labor activist and often visits the family.
Two lawyers from the bank post a repossession notice on the Bank’s front door and this sends Michael into a panic. He goes to the attic to find stock certificates that can pay off his debts, but instead finds the old kite he and Jane used to fly. He throws it away, but it takes off soaring, sending Georgie to run after it and John after him. Just then, Mary Poppins gently descends from the sky, to the utter amazement of the children.
Mary lets Michael know that she is there as the nanny, and he reluctantly agrees to let her stay. She first insists that the children take a bath because they are so dirty, but the scene quickly turns into an underwater dream, after she unloads all kinds of toys into the bathtub from her bottomless bag. This magical experience leads to a song about the imagination, followed by a fantastical visit to a music hall where animals delight the crowds after the children break a priceless bowl they had hoped to sell to help their father.
Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Georgie is kidnapped by a wolf. The bowl is broken again so Mary takes it to her cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep, who can fix anything. She amuses everyone by singing a song about how everything is “Turning Turtle” or upside down.
The sugary sweet fun and froth of the original Mary Poppins (1964) film turns into more serious fare in Mary Poppins Returns, based on the stories about the imaginary nanny created by Australian author PL Travers. Emily Blunt, as Mary Poppins, is wonderful, just as Julie Andrews was more than 50 years ago. The new songs by Mark Shaiman and Wittman, are fun but a little different and more mature than the original songs in the sense that they deal with heavier topics. I loved the lyrics “A Cover is not the Book” sung and danced by Blunt and Miranda. Especially moving, though, is “The Place Where Lost Things Go” that Mary sings to the children who wonder where their mother has gone. Through the song Mary is able to assure the children that their mother is with them just in another place.
Meryl Streep may very well get yet another Oscar nomination for her role as the eccentric Topsy, but everyone can identify with the song “Turning Turtle” because some days everything just turns upside down and seems like they won’t be right again, just like a turtle stuck on its back. Director and choreographer Rob Marshall does a splendid job especially with the dance of the lamplighters and Miranda’s solo, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Dick Van Dyke (Bert in the original film) plays Mr. Dawes, the retired president of the bank who helps save the day and dances a celebratory dance on a desk even though he is more than 90! Listen to the lyrics and musical “Easter Eggs” throughout the film that pay homage to the original film. Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” is excellent in his first film role.
Mary Poppins Returns, like the original, is dependably optimistic. The film is rather traditional in the sense that it feels like a musical. It deals with themes of family and financial insecurity but most of all, it deals with different dimensions of grief. Ultimately, this is what Mary Poppins’ task is–– to help heal broken hearts so Michael and the family can move on together. Oh, and there is a hint of romance, too.
A-1, PG • Fantasy peril.