Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 2018. Lucamar Productions, Marc Platt Productions, Walt Disney Pictures. Screen story by David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Screenplay by David Magee, based on the Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers. Cinematography by Dion Beebe. Produced by John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt. Music by Marc Shaiman. Production Design by John Myhre. Costume Design by Sandy Powell. Film Editing by Wyatt Smith. Golden Globe Awards 2018. Las Vegas Film Critics Awards 2018. National Board of Review Awards 2018. Washington Film Critics Awards 2018.
It’s been a couple of decades since that magical nanny helped a capitalist and his feminist wife pay more attention to their kids, but things haven’t quite worked out so great: Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a broke widower with three kids, Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a labour activist and–sigh–single, while England is suffering economically under “the Great Slump”. Michael’s kids fly a kite in the park one day, however, and it catches on something wonderful: the clouds part and a lady holding a carpetbag flies down and immediately lavishes upon them the velvet-fist-in-iron-glove treatment with which she enchanted us fifty-five years ago. Michael and Jane are overjoyed to have their beloved Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) back, laughing at the silly things they think they once “imagined” about her superpowers, while she takes their children on magical sea adventures through the bathtub and on visits to kooky cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) in her upside-down house. The crisis around which all this stuff and nonsense revolves is Michael’s need to find proof that his father was a shareholder in his employing bank, where Michael has now become an employee after abandoning his artistic dreams, to prevent the bank’s soulless manager (Colin Firth) foreclosing on a loan and taking their house. A few carefully raised eyebrows and sassily delivered words of wisdom from our magical heroine are all the family needs, as always showing the families she takes care of how to solve their own problems by correcting their narrow perspective. Having this character and her world back is probably the most welcome reboot to come out of an era obsessed with them, particularly since that pesky P.L. Travers has passed on and her estate holders are willing to cut through her wishes for the cash and let Disney make another film based on her stories. It’s unfair to make a comparison between this and its predecessor, as it pits a film benefiting from modern technology and a built-in audience against a decades-old classic whose quality was an absolute game-changer for the industry and took the box-office by storm, nor is it necessary to point out that Blunt is a wonderful choice despite the fact that the kind of background that prepared Julie Andrews for the role (an inhuman singing range and years spent honing her skills in music halls to really make her the perfect choice for all that wonderful Sherman Brothers patter) simply doesn’t exist anymore. The tone is a bit closer to Travers’ original books here, set in the 1930s and treating the magic with a bit of sly doubt, while Blunt’s portrayal of the iconic character created by Andrews in her Oscar-winning role is a warmer Poppins than we had before; her singing is only passable and she doesn’t have that cutting way with dialogue that made Andrews so funny (“Sacked?“), but women with superpowers in movies almost never get to enjoy them and there’s no resisting Blunt’s “Leerie speak” or the delicious grin on her face as she utters an “Off we go!” before plunging into an enchanted bathtub. Suffice it to say that this film is blessed with good cheer and warmth, fully dedicated to being good old-fashioned entertainment which will either win or lose the individual audience member. A flat performance from Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamp-lighter in place of Dick Van Dyke‘s Bert, who has less screen charisma than the lamps he lights and spends the whole film with a vacant smile on his face, is easily bearable thanks to a wonderful musical score that helps smooth over the film’s main flaw, its disappointing screenplay. Likely a result of its wanting to stick to the tales in Travers’ books (and help her inheritors feel a bit better about cutting through her, admittedly ambivalent, desire to never deal with Disney again), the unimaginative script (one which has bank interest as the ultimate hero) is a series of alternate versions of everything that happened the first time around: Streep’s delightful “Turning Turtle” number is a counterpart to Ed Wynn’s Uncle Albert, the jump into a Royal Doulton bowl is in place of a chalk drawing and Miranda’s Lamplighting chums replace the chimney sweeps (and their number on a rooftop, sorry in the park, is also the best in this version too). Maintaining some of the original film’s elements (the hand-drawn animation and those lovelorn penguins) while rehabilitating others (the woman’s political activism now brings people together instead of keeping them apart), this film wins at the end of the day thanks to the tuneful songs that will have you humming all the way out the door. Look for cameos by Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury and Karen Dotrice, who played Jane in the original.