Saturday, December 22, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns (2019) Is Full of New and Familiar Tricks

Mary Poppins, the British superhero equipped with a talking umbrella and bewitched carpetbag, first debuted onto the big-screen nearly fifty-four years ago. Having become a childhood classic starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in the hotly contested adaptation between author P.L. Traver and Walt Disney, the beloved nanny makes a comeback in a familiar and fresh "remake-quel" of the original.

Set twenty-five years after the 1964's story, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to the Banks’s home where Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are all grown-up and have fallen on hard times at the height of the Great Depression. Michael, in particular, is struggling to overcome his wife's passing when he learns that the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank is about to repossess his family's home. While Michael and Jane race against an impossible deadline, Mary and an exuberant lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) take Michael's children with a series of bombastic and inspiring adventures.

With three major musicals under his belt, director Rob Marshall has become a visionary in rekindling old-school musical magic onto the big screen. Mary Poppins Returns is one heck of a show, primarily because of Marshall’s experience of making you leave your worries behind and focus on the magic unfolding on-screen. As settings change from real-life to ones of make-believe where characters sing and dance their troubles away, the film simply uplifts your spirits. In huge part, this is due to the extraordinary costume design as well as practical-special effects that mixes real actors with 2D and CGI. Every element of the production design fits together so seamlessly, it's next to impossible to question how these creations makes P.L. Travers's world come to life – you just sit back and enjoy the beautiful spectacle taking place.

Marshall’s expertise in adapting this musical, however, also left me a little baffled and jilted. Musicals aren't an easy genre to digest if you're not a die-hard fan. It's difficult to shift realistic storytelling into scenes where characters break out into song, and not feel like a barrier has been broken somewhere. Unlike his previous films – where Roxie and Velma expertly ranted and raved about their guilty-innocence in Chicago, director Guido Contini’s laments his tortured-artist syndrome in Nine, and fairytale characters' wishes are turned upside-down in Into The Woods – the musical aspects of Mary Poppins Returns isn’t as smooth as his previous work. Many of the songs struggle to shift from talking to singing mode (most potently Turning Turtle), it takes a few moments to adjust and realize you're watching a musical as much as you are a family-friendly drama. I hate to be nit-picky, but there’s even one instance where a prop lamp obscures Emily Blunt’s face during the bold and imaginative sequence Trip A Little Fantastic, an oversight that feels unexpected from someone like Marshall who has blocked enormous numbers time and time again. Otherwise, once passed the awkward beginnings between songs, the unbelievable escapism flows smoothly.

Similar to Marshall charging the musical forefront in Hollywood, this film and the effect it has emotionally simply wouldn’t work without its leading lady Emily Blunt. In one of her interviews during the film’s press release, Blunt relayed her friends saying she had a lot of guts to take on Mary Poppins. And honestly, she does. A classic role that landed the legendary Julie Andrews an Academy Award for Best Actress isn't something to take lightly. Though this film could've fared better with a stronger script, Blunt makes Poppins her own. Her performance is far beyond an actress trying her best to fulfill her predecessor’s shoes or feeling pressured to exude the talent of a Broadway star – Blunt is clearly having fun but also remains entirely in character. This updated Poppins has the same warm concerns over the Banks’ children as Andrews did, yet Blunt’s version is also precocious, protective, delivers one heck of a sassy side-eye, and so sure of herself. Alongside her, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a perfect counterpart to fill in for the 'Bert' role. He easily shines as the charming and helpful lamplighter who aids Mary on her adventures. Together and individually, they make every song-and-dance number a real gem - Lovely London Sky, Can You Imagine That?, The Royal Doulton Music Hall, A Cover Is Not A Book,  Where The Lost Things Go, and Trip A Little Fantastic.

As for the rest of the cast, the Banks children – Pixie Davis, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson – are delightful. They bring a great innocence and maturity to their roles and thoughtfully drive the story home about how hardships can make us lose our innocence. Though the charming Emily Mortimer’s Jane doesn’t necessarily reach her full potential, Ben Whishaw’s Michael easily mends and breaks hearts. His big number Nowhere to Go But Up, n the same vein of Let’s Go Fly A Kite, will be the positivity anthem for years to come. The minor roles from Colin Firth and Julie Waters are fine, while Meryl Streep’s Cousin Topsy feels the most out of place. To top it all off, Mary Poppins’s veteran Dick Van Dyke and legend Angela Lansbury are the biggest scene-stealers.

Behind the splendid production design and upbeat numbers is a heartwarming story that's also a little plot-less. Little Michael is all grown-up and lost as he grieves his wife's death, a heavy bereavement that buries him in debt and leaves him unfocused in keeping the household affairs running smoothly. Instead, his children have been taking care of him, shouldering more responsibilities like grocery shopping, knowing exactly what to do when sudden emergencies arise and even thinking about sacrificing one of their mother's priceless heirlooms to help dear old dad save their house. Mary ultimately enters the scene to take care of all the Banks’ children and bring back a sense of care-free imagination and hope, mostly achieved through the musical aspects. However, by the end of the film, as the story moves from one blissful song to another until all of their problems are solved, the answers to their problems are wrapped up so neatly, it’s difficult to wonder what Mary’s involvement in the grand scheme of things actually is. On one end of the spectrum, the plot weighs on your heartstrings – when Michael grieves, you grieve; when the kids are whisked away all over town and away with Mary's magic, you’re swept off your feet too. But by the same token, the story also feels a little thin and it misses out on doing more.

Mary Poppins Returns is an odd mixed bag of familiar and new tricks. Even though it derives more from Travers’s books, it’s not difficult to see why critics think it’s too much like the original. Personally, I expected more polished direction from Marshall, even if this is a product of Disney's reboot mode. However, there’s a splendid moment towards the end of the film when The Balloon Lady at a local fair inquires to Michael, “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child”, who then picks a balloon and is sent soaring into the sky with literally nowhere to go but up. His sense of childhood and hope is blissfully renewed as everyone alongside him follows him into the sky holding onto their own balloons. Everyone at Cherry Tree Lane glides together between the clouds without a care in the world. It’s here, that after tagging along with Mary and trying not to ask too many questions, I realized: Some films make your heart sing, and it's okay if they're not practically perfect in every way.

Rating: ★★1/2☆
Have you seen Mary Poppins Returns? What did you think?

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