Saturday, December 29, 2018

Nonsense and Sensibility: Mary Poppins Returns

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Author P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins was tart, acerbic, dowdy and spindly, had a life of her own (her adventures with Bert in the chalk painting had no Banks children in tow), and thought a great deal of herself. Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins, in the 1964 Disney movie, was dowdy and pretty in a clean-scrubbed sort of way, looked in the mirror a lot, and didn’t seem to think of anything. It’s an Oscar-winning performance that really isn’t much of one. Time Magazine stated, “If she did nothing but stand there smiling for a few hours, she would cast her radiance. It would be enough.” Apparently, both Andrews and the Academy agreed. Her Oscar was also a reaction to her not getting on film a role she made famous on Broadway, which may be why the disheveled hat Andrews wears as Poppins bears more than passing resemblance to Eliza Doolittle’s flower girl get-up in My Fair Lady, and why the song David Tomlinson sings as Mr. Banks, "The Life I Lead," sounds suspiciously Henry Higgins-ish. To be fair, Andrews does seem to be having a lively time when she and Dick Van Dyke danced to “Supercalifragi . . . ” -- well, you know the rest. But in general, she's rather fuzzy where she needs to be crisp. There’s a lack of clear choices in her portrayal; she seems to be coasting. In contrast, Emily Blunt in the new sequel Mary Poppins Returns is witty, sharp-tongued, and game for anything. She adores nonsense, and loathes fools. Spectacularly dressed (by Sandy Powell), she looks great and knows it. With her ramrod posture, impeccable line readings, and great timing, as well as a wicked sense of fun, Blunt is sublime. She bridges the distance between Travers and Andrews with an interpretation all her own.

Blunt is not the only pleasure in Mary Poppins Returns. Director Rob Marshall has at last made a film on par with his spectacular 2002 debut, Chicago, and is able to shape his film to the performances of his stars the way he did with Catherine Zeta-Jones and RenĂ©e Zellweger. He more than atones for the dimness of his last effort, the limp and scattered Into the Woods, and has managed to create a big, old-fashioned movie musical that feels vibrant and fresh. Thanks to Marshall and screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi), Mary Poppins Returns has none of the plotting problems of the original movie, which made a too-obvious villain out of Mr. Banks and created a red herring in the character of the Bird Woman, who seems to be the beginning of another adventure for the children but isn’t.

The sequel is set in Depression-era London, more than two decades after the original. Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) are now adults who have dismissed their former magical adventures as childhood fancy. Jane follows in the activist footsteps of her suffragette mother as a labor organizer. (Mortimer also manages to channel some of the daffiness Glynis Johns possessed in the original.) Michael is a failed artist, recently widowed, with three young children, John, the eldest (Nathanael Saleh), Annabelle (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). They live in the Banks's childhood home at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. To make ends meet, Michael serves as a teller in the bank his father worked at, but a past-due loan threatens the family home with foreclosure by that same bank. Into this chaos floats a familiar figure, Mary Poppins, who descends out of the sky holding the very kite Michael flew as a boy. (Blunt’s feet are comically turned out when soaring aloft, as were Andrews’s, but she adds a comical upward flex that connects her to Mary Shepard’s original drawings.) The film’s twist is that this generation of Banks children play the too-competent caretakers to their frazzled, mourning father and their dizzy aunt. “I’ve come to look after the Banks children,” Mary announces to the stunned John, Annabelle, and Georgie. “And you as well,” she adds.

The movie opens with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamplighter nephew of Bert, the jack-of-all-trades played by Dick Van Dyke in the original. Miranda’s London accent is far more consistent than Van Dyke’s famously variable Cockney (a “fault” which only added to the pleasures of Van Dyke’s loose-limbed, joyous performance). Miranda opens the film with the first of the new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman (Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can on Broadway), “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky,” as he bicycles through scenes of Depression squalor and poverty that nevertheless do look lovely, courtesy of cinematographer Dion Beebe, Marshall’s usual lighting expert. The song is pleasant enough and serves to reintroduce us to Cherry Tree Lane, and its denizens, like Admiral Boom (a wonderfully bombastic David Warner) and his underling Binnacle (Jim Norton), who fires a cannon under Boom’s order to mark each hour. But the movie fully won me over with its second song, “A Conversation,” which Whishaw sings to his absent wife as he desperately searches among his childhood things in the attic for stock certificates he hopes will save the house. “These rooms were always full of magic,” he gently murmurs. “That’s vanished since you went away.” It’s heartbreaking, and we know we’re in for a Mary Poppins far deeper and richer than the original. Whishaw is stupendous. He doesn't just make the movie more evocative; he allows the performances of Blunt and the child actors to be more meaningful, richer. His sorrow is one of the things that has called Mary back, and the two times he snaps at his children in exasperation, his distraught apologies reveal both his flaws and his humanity. It’s a true supporting performance, and the movie would not be what it is without it.

Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw in Mary Poppins Returns. (Photo: Jay Maidment)

Which is not to say Mary Poppins Returns lacks a sense of fun. Upon talking her way into the job of nanny, despite Michael's having no way of paying her (money is one of those foolish things she looks askance at), Blunt's Mary sizes up the children, grubby from kite-chasing, and announces it’s bath time. After sending a toy ship, some gold doubloons, and the Banks children down the drain, she sits on the tub’s edge, says, “Off we go!” with a look of mischievous delight, and we’re off on an undersea adventure with dolphins, pirates, and treasure that’s infinitely more entertaining than anything promised in the Aquaman trailers. Later in the 2-D animation sequence that’s a reprise of the earlier film’s chalk-painting scene, Mary, Jack, and the children find themselves in a music hall where the animal audience (including an enormous whale in one of the box seats) clamors for a number from Mary. “No, I couldn’t possibly,” she demurs, and then in the same breath dictates to the orangutan conductor, “D-flat major.” Suddenly Blunt sports a bob similar to Zeta-Jones’s in Chicago and sings in a low-down Cockney accent, “A Cover Is Not the Book.” That Blunt is able to make this song-and-dance number of a piece with Mary’s forthright propriety is remarkable. Propriety for this Mary is in comporting oneself impeccably though things don't make sense. If that means singing a slightly bawdy song while kicking up your heels, well, that’s all right, then. What's important is to do it properly, as Blunt more than does with everything in this film.

With Marshall’s help, Blunt creates a classic musical leading-lady performance: She knows when to take over and when to let others shine, maintaining Poppins’s superiority even as she delights in the shenanigans of others. She dances in character, maintaining a sense of rectitude even when she gets down and dirty. The only thing this Mary is a snob about is the conventional – she has no use for it. Blunt seems to have had a lifetime of experience in the musical theater (which can’t be the case), her every instinct sure and true. Her work here deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Barbra Streisand’s in Hello, Dolly!, but unlike in that film, there’s a host of wonders surrounding the star. A hilarious sequence features an unusually vivacious Meryl Streep sporting an impenetrable Slavic accent. Describing the chaos that overtakes her every second Wednesday, in the marvelous “Turning Turtle,” she warbles, “I long for Thursdays when the world is drab. / When will it cease? / Now my life resembles War and Peace. / That Tolstoy certainly had the gift of gab,” then tosses out an aside: “(I couldn’t get through it.)” The amazing Julie Walters shows up as the Bankses’ harried domestic, Ellen, and Colin Firth is drolly evil as a villainous bank director. And as everyone knows by now, Dick Van Dyke returns in a delightful cameo, playing the son of a character he played in the original, astonishingly spry for his 93 years.

What's wondrous is there’s nothing purposeless about the adventures Magee and Marshall have concocted. They build the narrative so that each caper teaches the kids something they need to know in order to help their father. The three young actors playing the new generation of Bankses look nothing alike, but Marshall makes you absolutely believe in them as siblings. The elder two feel the weight of familial responsibilities, while Georgie has a sly smile that lets you know he’ll be the first to volunteer for any new escapade.

The film is not without its flaws. As Jack the Lamplighter, Lin-Manuel Miranda relies on his cheery smile a little too often, and a supposed romance between him and Jane never really takes off, largely because Mortimer’s Jane seems indifferent to him despite everybody’s pushy insistence that the two are becoming an item. And the film’s finale, featuring another cameo that will delight both Disney and musical theater fans, could use a little more wit and choreography. Although echoing the finale from the original, its (literal) buoyancy feels slightly forced. But otherwise Marshall’s choreography, concocted with John DeLuca, is as wonderful as his direction (in a dance the lamplighters perform, there’s a frozen tableau that recalls Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” number from Sweet Charity), Shaiman and Whitman’s songs are full of wit and melody, and the film is mostly a delight, a genuine holiday treat. At one point, as Mary and the Banks children are precariously balanced on Jack’s bicycle, Jane worriedly asks, “Are you sure this is quite safe?” “Not in the slightest,” Mary retorts. There’s nothing safe about Mary Poppins Returns, and thus it’s pretty much a triumph. Huzzah.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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