Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns: A Review


MARY POPPINS RETURNS

My memories of Mary Poppins are vague as I saw it only once. The reason I saw it only once is because I simply cannot stand Dick Van Dyke. His toothy grin and wide eyes just get on my nerves to the point I have to flee whenever I see him. Dick Van Dyke makes a cameo appearance in Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to a film made before most of the main cast was even born.

My memories of Mary Poppins, vague as they are, are not so dim as to not notice that Mary Poppins Returns veers dangerously close to being less a sequel and more a remake, determined to mimic the original to where it makes its follow-up film shockingly unoriginal.

Twenty years after the original events of Mary Poppins, the Banks children are now grown yet Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still lives at 17 Cherry Lane. He's a recent widower with three children: Anabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathaniel Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). George's sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a union labor activist and helps where she can.

Michael's big problem is that he is in danger of losing the family home as he is about to default on a loan despite working at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank as a part-time clerk. Michael's reminded he owns shares in the bank thanks to his late father, shares that will pay off the debt. His plot is spent trying to find said shares.

Image result for mary poppins returnsInto this major situation flies in Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). She's going to care for the Banks children during this crisis. With some help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary Poppins guides the children through many a magical adventure.

Among the journeys is a trip inside a china bowl where they meet an evil wolf and a visit to her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep).

Eventually, the evil banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is about to get his hands on the Banks home. A fortuitous turn of events has Michael find the shares and a race begins to get them before the stroke of midnight. After a couple of turns though all ends well, and with 'the door opened', Mary flies away.

It is my experience that sometimes films have what I called a 'forced frivolity'. This means that those involved are desperate to have you feel endless joy that it all but rams the false glee down your throat. Mary Poppins Returns is such a film.

It seems determined to be jolly and cheerful that it ends up looking very unnatural, like schoolchildren forced to put on silly costumes so that the adults can ooh and ah over them. Mary Poppins Returns wants to a 'jolly holiday' but to me it looked erratic, forced and worse, chaotic.

It is unfair to compare a sequel or an almost-remake to the original, but as has happened before, Mary Poppins Returns almost goads us into thinking of the 1964 film. The best case for how Mary Poppins Returns is almost a remake of Mary Poppins comes in its musical numbers.
Image result for mary poppins returns
It is not that the Marc Shaiman music and Shaiman/Scott Wittman lyrics come close to the Sherman Brothers' music. It's that in far too many occasions, Mary Poppins Returns has an equivalent musical number to Mary Poppins.

I figure a smart YouTube creator will make a video comparing a number from Returns that echos Mary Poppins, but here it mine:

1964: A Spoonful of Sugar/2018: Can You Imagine That?
1964: Jolly Holiday/2018: The Royal Daulton Music Hall 
1964: I Love to Laugh/2018: Turning Turtle
1964: Step In Time/2018: Trip A Little Light Fantastic
1964: Let's Go Fly A Kite/2018: Nowhere to Go But Up

Even more distressing is that Mary Poppins Returns has no real musical number that stands out except for the wrong reasons. A Cover is Not the Book for example has surprisingly racy lines for a children's film. Blunt as Mary is already a bit off-kilter, channeling a sugar-coated version of Sally Bowles, but she and Miranda sing the following lines in this ditty:
Lady Highest of Macaw
Brought all her treasures to a reef
Where she only wore a smile
Plus two feathers and a leaf

I confess to being a bit startled to hear lyrics about a practically naked woman sung as 'children's entertainment'. Not that in Can You Imagine That?, I did wonder how the Banks children would understand the reference to 'bathtub gin'.

Odd that while watching A Cover is Not the Book, the only thing I could think was that Blunt and Miranda were doing a candy-colored Cabaret. When you watch a family film and imagine that Lin-Manuel Miranda would make a good Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, I think you've got issues.

As a side note, given how Miranda had that little vibrato in his voice on many a final note, the comparison to Joel Grey is not too far off. 

Related image
Willkomen, Bienvenue, Welcome,
Im Mary Poppins, Au Mary Poppins, To Mary Poppins!
I noted at least twice that particular musical numbers felt very Broadway. By that I mean they felt far too large and bombastic for film, as if I were watching footage for a future Disney stage musical like Frozen or The Lion King. From the film's overture/opening credits to splashy numbers like Trip A Little Light Fantastic, the musical numbers felts not just far too big for the film but relentlessly faux-cheery.

As for Trip A Little Light Fantastic, director/co-choreographer Rob Marshall decided it wasn't big enough. Hence, you needed a group of BMX stunt drivers. At a certain point I held up my hands and said, "STOP!".

Probably the worst numbers were A Conversation and Turning Turtle. The first because Whishaw is not a good singer and because it was trying to move me emotionally and failing as Michael has a 'conversation' with his late wife. The second because it was superfluous. The china bowl is made to be important but neither it or Streep and her character were necessary. Once the bowl is left to Topsy to fix, we never hear about it again.

I hope it isn't to set up a sequel.

About the only number that might be worth something is The Place Where Lost Things Go, a subtle way to help the children deal with the grief of their mother's death. Maybe because it was about the only slow song and one that didn't rely on big splashy dance routines.

There is one element plot-wise that I didn't follow. In the animated sequence the children see a wolf that they later identify as Wilkins. However, they hadn't met or seen Wilkins until after the number, not before. Therefore, how could they have made that connection? Also, why exactly did Wilkins want the house on Cherry Lane? He has no real motivation other than that the plot demanded both an antagonist and a 'threat'. That threat was resolved both too easily and too bizarrely (why would Michael use the shares in the way he did).

Related imageIn the performances I think Blunt made Mary Poppins her own, at least far removed from what Julie Andrews did.  Her Mary Poppins was much more posh but also more cheery than what I remember of Andrews. She did well vocally and was on the whole a delight.

Miranda certainly has stage presence as Jack. He is an ideal musical star and it is nice to see someone of his caliber on film. However, it's clear he too was Bert's apprentice given how bad Miranda's Cockney accent was. Dick Van Dyke's is still the worst, but Miranda sure gave him a run for his money.

Whishaw seems far too meek to be a harried father and I think miscast. Mortimer had nothing much to do save prattle about unions and occasionally make googly-eyes as Jack (something else I hope we don't see in a sequel). Firth's character was just evil to be evil but of no interest.

Mary Poppins Returns is a disappointment. It's pleasant enough and I didn't dislike it. However, the songs are not really memorable: I am hard-pressed to remember how any of them go (save for lyrics about bathtub gin and women wearing nothing but two feathers and a leaf). There is no Chim-Chim-Cheree here.

The plot is weak. The musical numbers seem almost too large for the screen and better suited for a stage show at Disney World.

I'm glad Mary Poppins returned. I just wish she'd return to something better.

DECISION: C-

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