As fond as I am of the original Mary Poppins it’s not a film I’m crazily in love with and so unlike some I wasn’t offended by the idea of a sequel, especially as P.L. Travers herself wrote seven of them. But rather than adapting any of those books it liberally borrows a couple of elements and throws them together in something of a mixed effort, certain moments are effective and the performances are strong but some scenes feel frustratingly pointless or drawn out.
The plot sees an evil banker (Colin Firth) wanting to repossess the house of a now grown up Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw) and his three young children John, Georgie and Annabelle. Michael’s recently lost his wife and struggling to keep things together, he’s got a stiff upper lip and all that (so we know he’s going to get emotional at some point), and sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Ellen the maid (Julie Waters, sharp but sweet, yet like Mortimer a little underused) are on hand to help but it’s not quite enough and so Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) re-enters their lives.
The first hour is a fairly brisk and largely likeable affair, it begins with a fairly low key effort in the form of Underneath The Lovely London Sky which is okay but hardly the most exciting ever opening to a film, where Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) travels around the city extinguishing the lamps, though of course it’s the kind of London which only exists in movies where major landmarks are impossibly close to each other. But after a bit more scene setting (where it’s established Michael & Jane think they must have imagined the magical events of their youth) once Mary’s back in the house it becomes enormous fun, with a stand out sequence where Mary and the kids take a bath and end up swimming about in a massive ocean. There’s also a fantastic animated sequence which takes place in a broken porcelain bowl, which director Rob Marshall fought with Disney for it’s inclusion which is strange given how gorgeously charming it all is, and on the more dramatic side of things Ben Wishaw’s mournful song about missing his wife is rather affecting.
Alas all good things must come to an end and that unfortunately applies to the film halfway through the running time. About an hour in the narrative is mostly forgotten and though there’s some cute concepts it feels like filler, and not particularly entertaining filler at that, with an appearance from Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) being misjudged and slightly annoying, plus Streep is not a good singer in the slightest. Also poor is Lin Manuel’s second big song, Trip A Little Light Fantastic With Me which is surprisingly boring and contains a long dancing sequence which saw me zone out, I’m sure it took a lot of devising but it goes on for way too long. Also an issue is that Mary Poppins’ “Leary speak” makes no sense at all and is drearily charmless, and though it does it’s best to mirror the Chimney Sweep song and dance number from the original film it lacks it’s inventiveness and sense of spectacle.
The final half hour is an improvement though it’s still slightly messy, as the Banks family rush over to Colin Firth to prove that they are disgustingly rich after all, but as it looks like they’re not going to make it before the midnight deadline Mary Poppins helps them by turning back time. That’s far less fantastical than it sounds sadly as it only involves Jack and a bunch of his mates climbing Big Ben to push the clock hands backwards, and it doesn’t make sense as they risk life and limb and almost die in the process because as we all know Mary can fly and do all manner of magical things, so why she put their lives in danger seems heartless and cruel, especially as she does have to save the day by flying up there in the end anyway.
Bar the uneven quality of the various set pieces the biggest problem it has is that of Emily Blunt’s performance, when she’s being daft and silly (or egotistical, as she spends a fair amount of the movie staring in to a mirror) she’s perfect and it’s an amazing piece of acting, but while she has the prim properness of Julie Andrew’s take on the role at certain moments she’s too stern rather than firm. Julie Andrews could harshly tell the kids off but she always had enormous warmth lurking in the background, whereas Blunt only seems to become fun when she’s bursting in to song or doing something magical. If you’ve never seen the first movie it wouldn’t be an issue, but anyone who has will notice that this version of the character is slightly off at times.
Director Rob Marshall has made a career of making showy if vacuous movies like Nine, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Memoirs of a Geisha, and that’s annoyingly the case once again. It definitely does have some charm, it looks elegant and is efficiently made, but at times it feels a little hollow and lacking in magic, and that’s a major problem with a film that’s supposed to be full of it. It’s frustrating because there is a decent amount to like about the movie, but there’s only half a great film here and unfortunately half a very, very average one.