Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Poppins Watch: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Watched: 12/23/2018
Format:  Alamo Slaughter Lane
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2010's

As a bona fide fan of the original Mary Poppins, I was quite looking forward to this new installment, but unsure what to expect.  Trailers included familiar and new musical cues, and while the trailer *looked* gorgeous, splashy CGI sequences don't tell you much in this day and age.  Certainly the original made great use of the charm found the mixing and merging of animation and real-life characters, as well as employing plenty of practical FX, but the 1964 movie also had the advantage of a soundtrack composed by the Sherman Bros., a mix of perfect and oddball casting (Dick Van Dyke's accent is a running gag for fans of the film), and a blend of mystery and a surprising amount of heart - especially for a live action Disney film of the time.

Returning to the subject material more than fifty years later - one that has a multi-generational level of familiarity - is a dicey proposition.  Just a few years back, Disney had revisited the 1964 film's origins in their own, kind-of self-critical Saving Mister Banks, a nod to the fact that Walt and Co. drastically veered from author PL Travers's version, leaving neither entirely satisfied, even if the film went on to become cultural short hand.  Today people at least like to pretend to have read the source material to have that first-year-film-student snottiness about the adaptation.*  It's a live-action musical released upon a world that finds the movie musical a tough sell unless it's in cartoon form (which is an absurdity.  I mean, honestly.).  And

I'll argue up front that I think, somewhat like Superman as a character, that a good chunk of the population probably thinks they remember Mary Poppins better than they actually do.   After all, the music has become part of the American songbook, and the notion of really terrific, perky household staff draws immediate comparisons to Mary Poppins - which is wrong (You're thinking of Andrews as Maria in Sound of Music.).  I'm not claiming first and last authority on the topic, but a few reviews I glanced at before seeing the movie indicated "yeah, I'm not sure you remember the original as well as you think you do..."

What's perhaps most striking from a "why did they do that?" perspective regarding Mary Poppins Returns (2018), is that the movie isn't a remake, but - quite like how Star Wars: The Force Awakens echoes the events of Star Wars: A New Hope - Mary Poppins Returns doesn't try to break new ground when it comes to ideas and beats.  Instead the film swaps in a new dilemma for the Banks family a generation later, doubles down on some popular elements of the original, and provides all new music instead of relying on the elements of the original, except for a cue here or there.  But, if you've seen Mary Poppins of late, it's not at all difficult to say "oh, this is the stand-in for the side-walk art scene", or "this is the visit to Uncle Albert".

Providing a "sequel" decades after the original appeared hasn't worked out for, say, Superman Returns, and if Disney is hoping for a new run of Mary Poppins movies as a franchise (I mean, it's Disney, and that's what they do), I assume they need to lay the ground work by returning to the foundations and not assume everyone has seen the original fifteen times or in the last two decades.

This go-round, the stakes are higher, perhaps.  Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has inherited the Banks house and lives there with his three children (two boys and a girl), but we find the family on hard times.  Michael's wife has passed in the prior 12 months, and he's grieving.  Further, his career as an artist isn't flourishing, so he's taken a part-time gig at the bank where his father worked.  Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), a single, slacks-wearing labor organizer (carrying on her mother's political activism, it seems), visits frequently to assist.  And Ellen (now played by Dame Julie Walters) is still in service in a far more "part of the family" sort of manner.

Unlike Jane and Michael as children, Michael's kids - Anabel, John and Georgie - are mostly over-responsible, picking up the slack for their distraught father.  But we find them on the morning that the very bank Michael works for has come to put up a notice that they're taking the house.  The loan Michael took out to pay for his wife's medical bills is overdue and the house was his collateral.

In this moment of turmoil, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to Cherry Tree Lane.  Of course Jane and Michael can only vaguely remember the fantastic events of their childhood visit with Mary Poppins (adults forget), and have written it off as childhood flights of fancy.  No sooner has Mary Poppins arrived than she's launched these serious, responsibility-burdened kids into a transdimensional song and dance number under the ocean (via bathtub).

Like the original, and a lot of classical musicals, the plot is in service to the songs, but the songs do move the action and story forward as characters step out of the song having learned a lesson, embraced a new idea, or are now ready to move on in the story.

As good as the casting is all around in this edition, Blunt's Poppins is (and I'll at least side-eye those who would argue) an absolute joy to watch.  She is not Julie Andrews, and anyone looking to see her imitating Andrews will not get you... that (whatever that might have been).  Her Mary Poppins is the same faux-strict practically perfect nanny, but where Andrew's Poppins shows glimpses of vanity or a wicked delight in showing the children the world of mystery, Blunt almost sparks as they make each transition.  It's not a departure so much as a different modulation of the same chords, and so it never feels out of place.  If the original Mary wore formal black, the Mary of the 1930's dresses in royal blues and lovely crimson, popping off the screen. 

The casting of Lin-Manuel Miranda as "Jack" is no small coup.  It's an interesting relationship he seems to have formed with Disney, from his stunning work on Moana to his role on Duck Tales, all of which I'm sure seems at odds with what theatrical purists expect.  And while I'm sure a lot of folks could have stepped in as Jack - a former apprentice to Bert (Van Dyke in the first movie) - Miranda's enthusiasm and energy gives the part exactly what it needs, and does a great job tying the real world to the shadow world, breaking down the barriers.  If Miranda wants to carve a path for himself that includes film, every indication is that shouldn't be a problem, but it'd be a shame if he chased Hollywood at the expense of continuing what he's done for Broadway.

Our Michael and Jane are obviously both name actors, as are many others, from David Warner (the Admiral) to a joyful performance by Meryl Streep and a pretty good turn as the baddie by Colin Firth.  And, of course, a small bit with Angela Lansbury that made me exceedingly happy.  And, of course, Dick Van Dyke.

The children in the movie are, frankly, terrifically talented young actors.  I'm not sure how they managed to find kids who could sing and be in the moment as well as these three, but they hold their own so well, it wasn't til after the film that I even considered their performances because they just simply were doing their parts without anything overly precious or distracting going on - one more bit in the big machine that was an FX-laden spectacle that must have been a chore to shoot (the bathtub sequence alone).

Because, holy smokes, is this a stunning recreation in many ways, of the original sets, look, etc... of the 1964 film.  If you told me they'd just pulled sets out of storage and somewhat redressed them, I'd have zero problem believing that to be the case.  While it's weird to see them shot with a better lens, better color, deeper focus, etc... the stairs are the same upon which we saw Julie Andrews slide up the banister, and and nursery looks barely touched.  Cherry Tree Lane, complete with the Admiral's house (that of the booming cannon marking the hour) is recreated, masts and rigging intact, seems to even have the same curve to the street and the same stone walk entry to the park.

While Disney's famous archives may have provided blueprints and guided color selection, what couldn't be recreated from notes was the music of the Sherman Bros.  Marc Shaiman, who has a list of credits as long as your arm, stepped in - and while all of the songs are new and none sound exactly like a retread of anything you've heard before - if you told me Richard and Robert Sherman were in the room as Shaiman kicked ideas around and provided ideas, I wouldn't at all be surprised.  It's not an imitation, nor even an "updating" (whatever that would mean), but a continuation of the style of post-1950 music in Disney films.  And while we may not have walked out knowing every song by heart (after all, I've had four decades of "Let's Go Fly a Kite" drilled into my head), and it may not have the immediate Broadway-friendly post-Andrew Lloyd Webber show stoppers in the mix - there's a lot to like here.  I particularly dug the Lin-Manuel Miranda-ready "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" substitute "A Cover is Not a Book".

The mysterious, shadow world of the first movie remains intact - the chimney sweeps (those seemingly in the know about the world beneath the world) now also appearing as "Leeries"/ aka lamplighters - the people you see moving around you but don't pay that much mind.**  "Step in Time" is swapped with "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" in a number that stays more earthbound, and while it's a terrific number, maybe suffers the most by comparison if you've seen the original film lately - at least until Blunt as Poppins gets involved.

The bank subplot is perhaps more mean-spirited/ understandable than in the original film, which just seemed a bit more like benign self-interest on the part of old, rich dopes - as we learn the bank may have fallen into conniving hands.  And, again, a parallel lesson points our kids in the right direction.  And the stakes are indeed higher than in the prior movie (it is a sequel, after all), to maybe give the kid's a bit of something extra to hang on for to see how it plays out.

I've seen a lot of folks here and there saying "oh, it's not as good as the original" - and maybe it's not.  It's not better than the original, and it's not significantly different from the original.  But I try to tread carefully regarding these sorts of things when I am not five years old and seeing the movie for the first time.  As Disney has also learned via Star Wars - it's impossible to know what *next* storyline will work for your audience based on that beloved thing from childhood.   Where else was the Banks' storyline to go?  Mileage seems to vary for folks around the sincerity of the movie, whether it's calculated beats, etc... (of course it is - all narratives are), but I never felt a hollowness to the works - so much as an occasionally distracting echo of the prior film from time to time.

Mary Poppins is a curiously tragic figure, and maybe that's where to go next if they see fit to do a follow up.  After all, she can clearly only stay so long among us less perfect folk who think we've got a handle on what is and is not nonsense.  After solving our dilemmas, she goes back into the sky, I guess.  As we've learned from any number of franchises, sometimes its best to not over-explain, but she obviously has an interesting extended family we could meet.   And one assumes there's material to mine in the original novels.  So long as Mary Poppins remains inexplicable, sure, I'd love to see Emily Blunt get another go at this.

All in all - the movie was what I needed on December 23rd - some parts far better than I'd imagined (the bathtub and porcelain 2D animation segments), some not quite what I'd hoped for.  But I laughed out loud any number of times, got a bit teary here and there.  There is no "what movies are for" definition that fits every bit of film. but for what Disney and director Rob Marshall set out to do, this hit all the check boxes for me and provided some new ones I didn't know I had.

*whoa!  Disney changed something from the source material?  knock me over with a feather, man!
**I don't think Rowling lifted anything for Diagon Alley and her world of hidden wizards - this seems part and parcel to a lot of writing going on in England the past few decades about wizards and whatnot - but I did feel like this movie at least put the stake back in the ground and said "look, we've been doing this a while..."

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