So, Mary Poppins returns, and I was, of course, primed to be spiteful, as is my nature. Not a patch on the original. Why did they bother? Why did they imagine it was necessary? Wasn’t the first film practically perfect in every way? Have someone play her who isn’t Julie Andrews? Are you right in the head? The original (1964) is one of the best-loved films ever. I love it, even though the fact that Mrs Banks was made to put away her suffragette nonsense to become a Proper Mother now makes me go: grrrr. So I had my spite at the ready. My spite was champing at the bit. But then I had to put most of it away, annoyingly, as this is not a travesty. It’s more a remake than a sequel, which was possibly the safest bet, but it does recapture some of the magic and — oh God, spite, look away — I was entertained.
The film is directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) with a screenplay by David McGee, and the first image you see is a flame flickering in an old-time street lamp, lit by Jack (played my the multi-multi-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote Hamilton). He is our new Bert, as Bert is no more. Bert was a pavement artist and a chimney sweep and a one-man band and a balloon-seller and a kite-seller, so Bert worked himself to death probably. Jack also has an appallingly unconvincing Cockney accent, which I’m personally choosing to take as a tribute to Dick Van Dyke (who later makes a cameo appearance, as does Angela Lansbury), but that’s up to you.
Bert cycles across London, passing the bird woman and the home of Admiral Boom, who is still firing cannons from his rooftop. (Christ, how many people has Admiral Boom killed down the years?) The film picks up 22 years later, in 1932. (Christ, how old is Admiral Boom now?) Sadly, Mr and Mrs Banks have left us, but Michael is still at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, while Jane lives in a flat across town. (You were a bit cheated there, Jane.) Ellen, the maid, is still going, played by Julie Walters, which is no stretch for Julie Walters. It’s as if she’s simply been airlifted in from the Paddington films, but that’s OK because if this role weren’t played by Julie Walters, you would wonder why.
Meanwhile, the plot has it that Michael’s wife has recently died, his three young children are without a mother, and an evil banker (Colin Firth) intends to repossess number 17. (We’ve hit the great slump, so jolly old London is not as jolly as it once was.) An intervention is required, but from whom — from whom? Ah, here she comes, floating down from the blustery skies, feet turned out, carpetbag in hand, and I confess, I tingled. Michael is flabbergasted to see her again and she says to him exactly what we would wish her to say to him, which is: ‘Close your mouth, Michael. We are still not a codfish.’
Mary is unchanged, except she’s now Emily Blunt, and better dressed. Blunt is the Mary we already know (pish-posh, spit-spot) and doesn’t bring anything new to the party. But if she had, it could have been ghastly, so perhaps we have been saved. The film doesn’t so much take its lead from the original as replicate it. Although Uncle Albert is absent, we now have Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep, having a blast), and while the children don’t disappear through a pavement drawing into an animated world, they do disappear into a Royal Doulton bowl, and instead of chimney sweeps dancing across rooftops, it’s lamplighters.
It’s all visually delightful, yet what it captures most is the original’s energy and also its fundamental insanity. For example, just as you might have asked who Uncle Albert was exactly you’ll be asking who Cousin Topsy is exactly. (What is this madness?) At first listen, it’s hard to tell if the songs are classics in the making. They sounded rather derivative, with nothing to match, for instance, the one about the word that, if you say it loud enough, you’ll always sounds precocious. But I was still entertained and this has enough stiff upper lip to cut through all the schmaltz about bereavement, although its ultimate life lesson — better to put tuppance in the bank than give it away charitably — does seem horribly misplaced and sour in the circumstances. Or is that just my spite talking? Probably.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.