Saturday, December 22, 2018

Back with the Wind: MARY POPPINS RETURNS

What is there to say about Mary Poppins Returns? It’s been 54 years since we first met Julie Andrews’ practically perfect character. Now we have a long-unneeded sequel to Disney’s greatest live-action film. It is bright and well-intentioned. It’s expertly choreographed, handsomely adorned, sweetly designed, beautifully costumed, attractively photographed, nicely cast, suitably whimsical and filled with music. It’s also never more than half the movie Mary Poppins is. Copying its predecessor, the new film, directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) and scripted by David Magee (Finding Neverland), follows a family man tangled up in cruelties of the banking business while his adorable children are given magical advice by a supernanny who floats in on the London wind. Along the way, through much song and dance and episodic fantasy vignettes, the whole family learns a lesson. This time, the dad is Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), an all-grown-up version of the lad in the first film. His children are delighted by the appearance of this new nanny, and he’s happy to see she’s returned and hardly aged at all. (She’s now Emily Blunt, who is perfectly adequate in the role. If you saw a Mary Poppins like hers in Disney World you’d be impressed by the likeness.) After all these years, Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) have explained away their childhood time with her as the stuff of overactive imagination. They’re about to be reminded otherwise. It’s a charming enough foundation, and the bank problems (facilitated by a suitably villainous banker played by Colin Firth) make a decent clothesline for what little narrative thrust there is, if also a deal more manic and hurry scurry business than the more leisurely 1964 version. But there’s simply little memorable or magical about this new film. In every song (from Marc Shaiman) and sequence, there’s a clear analogue to the original and the new comes up far short each time. A song-and-dance in an animated world? It’s no “Jolly Holiday.” A dance with some city workers? Even with Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton himself) leading the lamplighters, it is no “Step in Time” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” A wistful song to comfort the children? It’s no “Feed the Birds.” And so on. I couldn’t help but compare as the movie by its very nature invites it. The whole endeavor is constantly threading instrumental versions of the original songs as underscore to tug on nostalgic heartstrings, a nice tribute but also a constant reminder those songs are better in every way: hummable, emotional, resonant. The new movie is merely, at best, a nearly passable facsimile in moments like a deep dive in the bath or a balloon flight over the park. Yet overall, it has fine notes, but doesn’t know the music. 

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