Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Mary Poppins Returns is one of several recent Disney nostalgia pieces; but instead of being an unnecessary live action remake of a classic animated film, it at least exists as a proper (if a bit too familiar) sequel.

So I guess I should be upfront about the fact that I honestly don’t care all that much about the original Mary Poppins. It’s a pleasant and charming experience, but it works like candy. Enjoyable in the moment, but little hangs around outside of a few classic musical numbers and Julie Andrews’ wonderful performance.

Mary Poppins Returns is a lot like that, but with less charm and artistry. It captures the general feeling of the original, but Disney seems all too aware that it didn’t have to do much to get an audience. Its pleasantness is purely mechanical; more than anything, this is the product of a mega-corporation that can’t be bothered to take risks. They know how to make a film work; but art should do more than just ‘work.’

How does Emily Blunt compare to Julie Andrews? That’s an unfair question to ask of most actresses; Blunt is going up against one of the all-time great performances. And, unfortunately, the film really doesn’t give her any moments to really shine. She does well enough, but there’s nothing particularly magical.

Which I feel is the perfect summary of the film itself; nothing particularly magical. The musical numbers are just fine; there’s no “Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to get stuck in your head for the rest of time, nor any dance numbers as mesmerizing as “Step in Time.” In fact, just a day later, I can’t remember the sound of any of the musical numbers in this sequel. The scenes are pretty in their moment, but that’s all they really have to offer; momentary pleasure.

Mary Poppins Returns is a film with a key and necessary sense of visual design; but a lot of it is lost through rudimentary cinematic technique. The cinematography and editing are as simplistic as they come. So many of the scenes are simple waist-up shots of whoever is currently speaking, the film cutting back and forth between frantic conversations. There never seems to be any effort in framing the scenes; it’s a simple string of shot-reverse shot for many sequences, and a lot of slight adjustments that could have been avoided. Instead of guiding us, the camera and editing seems to be in a perpetual state of trying to keep up. These issues tend to (but don’t entirely) fade away during the musical numbers, which suggests that even the filmmakers don’t particularly care for the bits between.

There are moments where I’m not sure what Mary Poppins Returns is trying to say. The narrative relies too much on conveniences, and when nothing else comes along to solve the problem, it has a magical nanny who can step in and fix everything. An entire sequence at the end is almost completely negated by Mary’s intervention.

As pleasant and charming as it can be, Mary Poppins Returns never escapes from feeling like a product designed to be as safe and accessible as possible. Admittedly, in a world where family films can tend toward the grating and stale, it can be nice to have a work that is at least all around pleasant, and Mary Poppins Returns delivers there. But this film allows itself to be overshadowed by the original in pretty much every way. And in the same year as Paddington 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we know family films can do so much more than be pleasant.

3 Stars Out of 5