Here’s a sequel we were expecting half a century ago. Anyone who’s seen John Lee Hancock’s terrific Saving Mr. Banks will know why it‘s taken Disney so long to realise the dream of turning P. L. Travers’ practically perfect nanny into a franchise – the writer hated Walt’s adaptation in 1964 – but done it the studio finally has. If Mary Poppins Returns isn’t quite supercallifragilisticexpialidocious, it’s at least five letters there.
Though billed as a sequel, this new Poppins is essentially a time-shifted remake. It is set, as Travers’ books were but the first film was not, in 1930s London and follows the misdemeanours of the original Mr. Banks’ grandchildren: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaniel Saleh) and Georgie (newcomer Joel Dawson) – all three adorable. Although the characters are largely fresh – Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer play the aged Michael and Jane Banks – the arc they follow is just as before. The family at 17 Cherry Tree Lane are, once again, in disarray and in need of help from above. In flies Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and, once again, escapades include an animated adventure, diverting interlude with an upside down character and delightful dancing number by a troupe of dubiously East End men. This time they’re lamplighters, rather than chimney sweeps, led by Lin Manuel Miranda’s twinkly Jack.
It is, at times, unnerving just how rigidly Mary Poppins Returns sticks to the formula outlined by its predecessor but this is no bad thing as a one off: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Director Rob Marshall trades novelty for nostalgia and that’s a commodity very much in touch with the sensibilities of twenty-first century cinema. What helps is that Marc Shaiman’s music – with lyrics co-written by Scott Wittman – is every bit as triumphantly charming as Irwin Kostal’s original score and Richard and Robert Sherman’s classic songs. There are heartbreakers in the form of Blunt’s ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ and Whishaw’s ‘A Conversation’, and toe ticklers from ensemble pieces like ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ and music hall showstopper ‘A Cover is Not the Book’. An early underwater number, wholly reminiscent of ‘The Beautiful Briny’ of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, inspired me to weep with ecstatic joy. It is when the film dazzles with its spectacular song and dance routines that it unquestionably matches what came before. There is not a sole dud in the line up.
The same can be said of Marshall’s cast. This is not the first time the Into the Woods director has worked with Blunt but it is here that he teases from her a career highlight. Blunt’s Poppins is sterner than she as conjured by Julie Andrews and yet every bit as lovable and ambidextrous in unveiling surprising talents. Her singing is divine, tongue perfectly in cheek and attitude magical in every sense of the word; this is a performance so strong that the film around her suffers when she is not in it. That said, Whishaw, Mortimer and Manuel more than hold their own, whilst the three youngsters are well-directed stars in the making. At the other end of the scale, small parts for Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury bring vintage to proceedings.
Atop the cast, Marshall’s visuals fizz from open to close and are bolstered by upbeat cinematographic finishing from Dion Beebe. For the first time since Winnie-the-Pooh in 2011, Mary Poppins Returns also finds Disney returning to hand drawn animation, courtesy of at least seventy artists from across America. Allegedly, Marshall had to fight studio execs to reject computer animation in hand-drawn’s stead and it was a battle well fought. The sequence is beautiful and surprisingly bawdy, demonstrating better than any the care and enthusiasm that has gone into the recreation of what made the original tick. In doing so, they’ve crafted a jolly treat for the holiday season.