Is the Mary Poppins sequel worth seeing?
MARY Poppins author, Australian P.L. Travers, famously hated Walt Disney's adaptation of her beloved book.
She regretted selling the rights to Disney, later claiming" "Oh god, what have they done?" She scathingly called it "all fantasy and no magic".
Travers felt so strongly about all the changes the studio made to her story and the Mary Poppins character, not to mention the animated sequences and the songs, that it's only now, 22 years after her death and 54 years since the original film, that the sequel is finally a reality.
If Travers thought Julie Andrews was too pretty to play Mary, what she must think of Emily Blunt's incandescent allure?
Mary Poppins Returns, directed by Chicago's Rob Marshall, both pays loving tribute to and is stifled by the 1964 classic.
A big-budget spectacle, the movie will please new generations of children with its elaborate song-and-dance sequences, but those with fond memories of Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and their ceiling-hovering, tuxedo-ed penguin adventures may be left wanting more - or less.
It's been 25 years since the Banks family skipped down Cherry Tree Lane to go fly a kite and Mary Poppins floats back into the clouds.
In that intervening time, both the Banks parents seem to have died and Michael (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower, lives in his childhood home with three kids of his own, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson).
Jane (Emily Mortimer), keeping the spirit of her suffragette mother's activism alive, is a unionist and labour organiser, and lives in a nearby flat.
After running into money problems during his wife's illness, Michael, an artist, was forced to take a part-time job at the bank his father once worked for, Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, now under the tutelage of current president William Wilkins (Colin Firth).
The mortgage Michael took out on the more dilapidated Cherry Tree Lane house (a development Travers would approve of) is overdue and unless he can find the full amount he owes in a week, the bank will repossess the family's home.
It's a dire state of affairs and exactly the kind of situation Mary Poppins (Blunt) specialises in.
So she comes back down from way on high, imposes her services on the Banks once again, and this time, her accomplice in her magical business is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a Cockney lamplighter who was once Bert's apprentice.
With the kids in tow, Mary Poppins takes them on fantastical adventures, hopping in and out of Royal Doulton china at her cousin Topsy's (Meryl Streep) shop and generally trying to re-centre a family in flux.
Mary Poppins Returns plays it exceedingly safe, aping the original film beat by beat and note by note. It follows the exact structure of the 1964 movie to the point it starts to feel more like a remake than a sequel.
For example, in Mary Poppins, Mr Banks yells at his kids for causing a ruckus at the bank, leading them to get lost on the way home until they're assisted by Bert and the chimney sweeps through a rousing song and dance.
In Mary Poppins Returns, Michael Banks yells at his kids for causing a ruckus at the bank, leading them to get lost on the way home until they're assisted by Jack and the lamplighters through a rousing song and dance.
There are lots of fan service moments, including the old admiral, a cameo from Dick Van Dyke and a song from Angela Lansbury, who, while not in the original Mary Poppins, was a staple of Disney movies including Beauty and the Beast and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
The original songs can be heard in snatches of the score, with Mary Poppins Returns hoping you'll toe-tap along to a whole new soundtrack of songs. Despite Miranda's involvement in the film, the famed Hamilton and Moana songwriter did not contribute any songs to the movie, though he did get to do his signature rap.
The new songs have a similar feel - some of them are quite catchy and performed with aplomb by the cast - but it doesn't have the same earworm effect as the 1964 version. You might walk out of the cinema humming the last ditty but by the time you wake up the next morning, the melody will have flitted away like a helium balloon.
Perhaps in 54 years they will be considered classics, but for now, they're forgettable.
The cast, especially Blunt who is irrepressibly charming, are all great and the colourful palette and hopeful energy make for merry, enjoyable viewing, but there is something ultimately unsatisfying about Mary Poppins Returns.
By hewing so closely to the original film, it squanders a chance for it to stand on its own.
And where it does pull away, it goes too big. The stakes feel too high in this movie, with the loss of the kids' mother and the impending loss of their home, versus Jane and Michael wanting to have a meaningful connection with their father.
It's as if Disney thought the only way to compete with the classic is to make it more of a spectacle. So now it's not just about clicking your fingers and your toy blocks assemble, instead there's a magical underwater world in your bathtub.
There's little of the restraint that made the first Mary Poppins, even with its pavement picture jumping, such a personal, enduring and relatable story. P.L. Travers would be aghast.
Mary Poppins Returns is in cinemas from Tuesday, January 1.
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