As a child, I was obsessed with Mary Poppins. I mean, I was a fiend. I watched our video cassette copy so many times that the part where the chimney sweeps invade the Banks family home started to go distinctly iffy. Aged five, I got into serious trouble for tricking my grandfather and uncle, who were babysitting me, into thinking that the film was about to end when there was about another half left – they ended up missing their football match. So when I heard that a sequel was in the pipeline, the child in me whooping for joy. However, the release date was after I was due to give birth and so I resigned myself to just having to wait a while and maybe catching it on DVD or Netflix. Luckily for me though, I live in an area which runs Baby Cinema. This week saw myself and my Astronaut sidekick heading over to witness the return of Mary Poppins. Reader, it was sensational.
The feel of this film plays constant and conscious homage to the original. Some may label this as a pastiche or (worse) derivative, but I felt it more as fan service. The London skylines, the set design, even the font used for the titles all felt gloriously familiar. Cherry Tree Lane is much as it ever was except for being twenty years later. Admiral Boom is still firing the hour but now from a wheelchair, Jane and Michael are now all grown up with troubles of their own and children running after kites will get themselves into trouble. Fortunately, Mary Poppins is back to save the day.
After a performance quite so iconic as that of Julie Andrews in the original, it feels like a brave effort for another actress to take on the Poppins umbrella. Emily Blunt does an admirable job though, managing to make the part her own while still retaining many of the mannerisms that made the character so distinctive in the first place. She wisely avoids any attempt to imitate Andrews’ delivery, opting instead for a diction so clipped that it might seem a caricature of an English accent from a non-native speaker. I think that Andrews will always be the true Poppins for me but Blunt more than passed herself. Indeed, as one of the probably small percentage of the audience who had actually read all six of the book series (yes, it was a book first), I could even see how Blunt was possibly slightly closer to P L Travers’ vision for the character.
It was interesting to see how Mary Poppins had gathered up references from the book series. The grown-up Michael has three children, named John, Annabel and Georgie. In the book series, Jane and Michael had three younger siblings, the twins John and Barbara and then baby Annabel. Michael’s children visit Mary Poppins’ Cousin Topsy (played in a fabulous cameo by Meryl Streep) who I remembered from one of the book adventures. The balloon adventure which closes out the film was also familiar. Even the fact that Mary Poppins promises the children that she will stay until the door opens nods to the title of the third book, Mary Poppins Opens the Door.
It was almost distracting about how star-studded the film was, with a whole galaxy of talent who were clearly enjoying themselves hugely. Look one way and there’s Colin Firth as the moustache-twirling villain, glance in another and we have Julie Walters reprising her Paddington role as comedy housekeeper. Then the next minute, there is Meryl Streep as the Eastern-European eccentric. Angela Lansbury makes a fleeting appearance as the Balloon Lady in a role that seems very likely to have been originally offered to Julie Andrews herself, but who reportedly politely declined a cameo out of a desire to not upstage Emily Blunt. We even gained a fleeting glimpse of Karen Dotrice, the original Jane, but I did think it was sad that no mention was made of Matthew Garber, the original Michael, who died so tragically young. Lin-Manuel Miranda does rather steal the show as charismatic lamplighter Jack; he injects a real additional energy into the production and carries a lot of the musical numbers. Still, most memorable appearance of all is without a doubt the surprise turn by Dick Van Dyke, showing that even at ninety-two, he has most definitely still got it. And that he actually can do an English accent, he must be just not very good at Cockney.
Strangely, the strongest performance in the film is the one put in by Ben Whishaw as grown-up Michael, now a heartbroken widower. His portrayal of a man fraying round the edges and increasingly desperate added an emotional core to a film that might otherwise have teetered into saccharine sentimentality. While many remember Poppins for her spoonful of sugar philosophy, those of us who grew up with the 1964 film and really watched it (repeatedly, ad finiteum) recognised the bittersweet truth behind it. When Mary Poppins watches the Banks family go off to fly their kite together, her umbrella tells her that she is sad to have been abandoned and she denies it but we know the umbrella is right. The Balloon Lady in Mary Poppins Returns observes here that the grown ups will have forgotten all of the magic by morning, to which Mary replies in agreement that they always do. Jane and Michael look at their old kite and wonder why they kept it. They agree that they must have imagined their childhood adventures with their erstwhile nanny. Mary Poppins always leaves the Banks family in a better state than she found them, but yet when she goes, the magic goes with her.
People who did not enjoy the original film are no more likely to appreciate this one but for me, the spell remains unbroken and I loved every minute. It is intensely nostalgic both towards its inspiring work and to the period in which it is set but there is a genuine warmth to the story that leaves the audience with a tremendous feeling of well-being. Watching it all these years after I saw the first film, but this time with my infant son on my knee – I felt like one of the Banks children myself, overjoyed to see Mary Poppins again but puzzled at how she could be so unchanged while I am all grown up. I have been humming the tunes ever since and look forward to watching the film again with the Astronaut when he is old enough to sing along with me.
Further reading: The Guardian: Why we need a spoonful of sugar more than ever