In anticipation of seeing Mary Poppins Returns, I re-listened to the entire soundtrack from 1964’s Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Like many people, I absolutely loved that musical and have no idea how many times I saw it growing up — but it was a lot. And let me tell you, its songs hold up. I’m not just talking about the more well-known ones like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “A Spoonful of Sugar.” I actually still remembered all of the words to 11 out of its 17 songs.
So even though Mary Poppins Returns is a continuation of the same story and not a remake, I had high hopes for its music. Unfortunately, the new songs don’t hold a candle (an umbrella?) to the original’s, with the exception of “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” sung by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lamplighter Jack about halfway through the movie.
And I guess my take on the Returns soundtrack extends to how I felt about the whole film. I knew I was watching something that was certainly great family-friendly entertainment, but it just couldn’t capture the same magic as the original. So if you have never seen the 1964 film, that might be a good thing — I have a feeling that had I been able to just erase the Julie Andrews version from my mind (impossible), I would’ve enjoyed myself more. Because the fact is that Emily Blunt is excellent as Mary, and since I am a lunatic-level Hamilton fan, I of course thought Miranda was pretty great, too.
The premise of Mary Poppins Returns is that the Banks children from the first film are now all grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) had three kids of his own now, but is pretty much a disorganized mess after the death of his wife a year ago. His sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is trying to help him locate old stock certificates their father purchased, in the hopes of saving their childhood home from being repossessed by the bank. The very same bank where their father once worked and where Michael is now employed. Remember that bank? Fidelity Fiduciary Bank?There was a song about it in the original. (Sigh.)
Anyway, the bank’s president (played by a wonderfully smarmy Colin Firth) gives Michael a strict deadline by which he must pay up. This deadline kinda sorta drives a lot of the action in the film, with Poppins returning to the Banks household because the family is clearly in disarray. I think an entire subplot about a vase is related to the family’s financial situation, but if so, that point was fairly lost among the singing and dancing numbers.
During the first of those big numbers, “Can You Imagine That?”, in which Mary is just getting to know the children and trying to convince them to bathe by submerging them into a fantastical underwater world, I found myself thinking two things: 1) “the CGI could’ve been a lot better,” and 2) “I’m not sure my kids (3 and 6) would be engaged by this.”
Thankfully, I felt the paced picked up significantly after Miranda’s big number I mentioned earlier, and the second half is also when some of the “vase storyline” becomes more clearly connected to what’s happening at the bank. There is also a delightful cameo near the end that gives the film a boost of energy — but also made me once again wistful for the original.
Another highlight was a musical number involving Meryl Streep as Mary’s Eastern European cousin. (Huh?) It seemed kind of unnecessary, but was still fun, and you could tell the cast had a blast filming it. Another partially animated sequence where Mary got to literally let her hair down really stood out to me as well.
So I feel like your judgment of Mary Poppins Returns might be affected by whether or not you’ve seen or feel strongly about the original, as well as whether or not you have the ability to view a film like this on its own merits without constantly comparing, as I did. What’s certain is that the cast is excellent, there are countless nods to the 1964 film that will please anyone who’s looking for them, and since this is a Disney film, the story is a feel-good one that makes for a solid excuse for a family movie night. Not everything can be practically perfect in every way like Mary Poppins!