It’s a tall order to successfully revive a cherished icon who’s had more than 50 years to capture the hearts of generations of film-goers, especially one who was already “practically perfect in every way.” The ubiquity of Disney’s original 1964 adaptation of PL Travers’s book means that even the youngest modern-day visitor to the cinema will turn up brandishing a benchmark, but in many ways such familiarity is as useful a tool as an airborne umbrella.
As with Disney’s Christopher Robin released earlier this year, in which the grown-up title character reconnects with his stuffed toy pals in the Hundred Acre Wood, Mary Poppins Returns checks in on the progress of children in a more sobering adult world. Poppins charge Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is now a widower with three kids of his own, and still relying on big sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), but life isn’t exactly supercalifragi… etc, etc.
Grief has led to him neglecting his finances, to the point where the bank is on the verge of repossessing the family home, so his more pragmatic and plucky sister corrals the children into finding ways to save them all from ruin. And it just so happens the Banks’ plight has come to the attention of their erstwhile nanny who – naturally – drops in to lend a hand.
This is where, for all his good intentions, director Rob Marshall could have come unstuck, so ingrained in the cinema-goers’ psyche is Julie Andrews’ show-stopping portrayal of fiction’s most famed child minder. He needn’t worry, though, because Emily Blunt is superb from the very first swish of her petticoat, acknowledging her predecessor just enough to be credible but wisely steering clear of an out-and-out imitation.
Blunt’s Poppins seems a little more street savvy, with a sharper wit and much keener comic timing than Andrews ever had. It could be argued that the passage of time, during which the nanny has presumably witnessed substantial progress in the suffragette movement, makes the 1930s Mary a proto-feminist icon, a theory given added weight by Jane Banks’s own go-to attitude, although it’s hardly a manifesto that gets in the way of the mirth and magic.
Where Marshall scores is in his obvious affection for the first film, resisting the urge to parody what went before with knowing asides. Adhering to the unwritten rule that a star from the original must make an appearance in any reboot, Dick Van Dyke crops up as the relative of the bank boss he briefly played in 1964, and a more cynical film-maker might have been tempted to reference the half-century of jokes made at the expense of the American actor’s cockney accent back in the day.
In addition to Van Dyke’s predictable cameo, Marshall enlists a few other famous faces in small-ish roles, with Julie Walters, Angela Lansbury and – best of the bunch – Meryl Streep making their presence felt without overwhelming or derailing the narrative. It’s ultimately Blunt’s movie, though, and she displays a tidy pair of dancing shoes and a strong, serviceable (if unspectacular) singing voice to go along with the clipped vowels that are pure Poppins.
Plainly, technology has moved on leaps and bounds since any of us first tasted a spoonful of sugar, but it’s charming to see animation and special effects of comparative simplicity; slicker than what went before, of course, but retaining a warmth that realistically belongs to another age, further strengthening the film’s linksto the original. Where it pales against the earlier movie is in the songs of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, few of which suggest they have the staying power to become much-loved classics – and parachuting a line or two from “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” into the mix serves only to highlight the new material’s shortcomings.
A paucity of truly banging tunes and a plot that never even hints at surprises or twists aside, Mary Poppins Returns is solid, reliable family fare and only the hardest heart will leave the cinema bereft of a smile. It might not be another classic, but it’s brolly good fun.
Mary Poppins Returns is released in cinemas on Friday 21st December