Mary Poppins Returns–doing Nostalgia right

Star Wars Episode 7.  The Day of the Doctor.  Ocean’s 8.  Live action Beauty and the Beast. All, on some level or another, movies that offer some fun in the viewing–some thrills, some warms feelings, some familiar taps of the toe to classic songs and musical themes.

In other words…nostalgia–that feeling of fondness and comfortability that comes from revisiting sights and sounds and situations that used to occupy happy places in our hearts in the past, especially from our childhood.  Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 Disney classic, definitely trades in on that nostalgic quality to earn some of its goodwill.  But it does so perhaps in the best way I have ever seen.

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The original movie, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, is quite the sumptuous feast of music and theatrical whimsy.  Naturalism is not the priority as the movie makes ample use of camera tricks, glitzy animation and emotions-on-your-sleeve musical numbers to tell its childlike fantasy of a story.

And the sequel does much the same thing.  (Spoilers ahead!) Things are updated a bit–there’s definitely some CGI being employed, and the locations look more realistic and less like a set, and there is a deeper authenticity to the emotions of the characters (especially with the grown up Michael Banks, who struggles with the loss of his wife in the months prior to the film’s story), but all the key elements and story beats are cut from the same cloth as the original.

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At the same time, you don’t feel like you’re just watching the same movie all over again.  A big part of that is because the movie wisely does not include any of the old classic songs (except as background musical motifs).  I know there are people who were disappointed by this but for them, you can always go back and watch the original movie.  Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel, not a remake, and so it’s thing is new big elaborate theatrical song and dance numbers, just done in a similar style. In this and in so many other ways,  it feels like the follow-up that we might have seen 3 or 4 years after the original, if such a film had ever been made.

The new songs and staging are just as affected as before, and might certainly tempt a more jaded audience to label them as “hokey” or “corny”.  But this actually feels kind of appropriate for a movie which is all about adults and children alike rediscovering the hope and optimism that’s found in imagination and every-day wonder.

Really, if you can just put on your 1964-groove, you’ll find there are a number of impressive sequences of this magical nanny and her charges, as they encounter elaborate animated environments, zany off-the-wall relatives, and a whole hidden subculture of lower-class London workers who sing and dance through the night.  And there is something absolutely transporting about Mary Poppins’ first appearance in the movie, as she floats down from high in the sky, holding onto a descending kite.

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The cast is very good, even if they lack the iconic status of the original.  Lin-Manuel Miranda does a great job playing Jack, the new film’s replacement Bert (a lamplighter rather than a chimney sweep).  Ben Whishaw plays the grown up Michael, who cuts a much more sympathetic figure than we saw in his character’s father from the original–I found his struggles and sadness to be quite moving, really.   Emily Mortimer is charming as the grown up Jane (Michael’s sister).  Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, and David Warner are also around, for good measure.

And there are some impressive cameos by both Angela Lansbury and the co-star of the original project, Dick Van Dyke, both of whom are solidly into their 90’s and still bring the goods.

But of course the star of the show is Emily Blunt.  It’s worth noting here that Emily Blunt is not playing Julie Andrews, but rather giving us another view on playing Mary Poppins, and again that is absolutely the correct creative choice by both the actress and director Rob Marshall.  Indeed, there’s a way in which she is far more subsumed into the role than Julie Andrews ever was, with her Mary Poppins being a more fully developed character.  I came away a fan, as you can tell, and really appreciated the mixture of her highly affected propriety with her quiet kindness and frequent bouts of irritability, all wrapped up in her evident musical talents.

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Overall, I was pretty swept up in this movie’s cornball charm.  It was a bit overlong, but really that’s just another trait it shares with its predecessor.  Probably both movies could have stood to lose about 20 minutes and might have been tighter films.  I’d have probably ditched the extended cameo with Mary’s cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep (structurally, it occupies the same space as the visit with Uncle Albert from the first movie).  But I suppose the purpose here is not to be tight, but rather more of a leisurely stroll through those warm childhood memories, getting to enjoy a fresh take on them from a modern storyteller.

But I should point out that Mary Poppins is not really all that big of a deal to me as a movie.  I appreciate the talents of everyone involved, especially Dick Van Dyke, and I don’t mind watching it, but it doesn’t actually mean that much to me as a movie.  Maybe the biggest compliment I can give Mary Poppins Returns is that it swept me along on its nostalgia-based fantasy ride and made me feel like the template that the original created was far more delightful to me than I ever thought before.

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