Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Mary Poppins makes a fine return

Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda lead the way in this very belated sequel.
The original Mary Poppins movie — the one starring Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews — is so old I hadn’t even graduated from college when it first reached the nation's screens. The year: 1964.

Look, I'd be lying if I told you that I have especially fond memories of the original, which many have come to regard as a classic of their childhoods. I remember taking my then young kids to see it during one of its revivals, considering it a task -- shall we say? -- of obligation and endurance.

Turns out the original had a tipsy spirit and some memorable musical moments. In short, a good time was had by all, even me. I never gave it a second thought nor did I inscribe Mary Poppins in my book of movie memories.

What I'm trying to say is that had no one thought to make a new Mary Poppins movie, you would not have found me rending any garments on gnashing any teeth. I say all this by way of an admission that I'm not an aficionado of all things Poppins.

With all that in mind, on to the new movie, Mary Poppins Returns, which stars Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and has been directed Rob Marshall, still best known for the movie version of the musical, Chicago (2002), which won a best-picture Oscar.

I'd have to say that Return is fine for what it is; i.e., a family-oriented fantasy designed to make its audience feel good or at least better about whatever woes they brought to the theater.

Ben Whishaw plays the now-grown Michael, a widowed artist who's trying to take care of his three kids. He has help from his housekeeper (Julie Walters) and from his sister (Emily Mortimer), a woman with a social conscience. She protests on behalf of downtrodden workers, a category that I presume does not include film critics.

Movies such as Return thrive on melodrama and Mary Poppins Returns digs up one of the hoariest bits of melodrama available. The family is about to lose its believed home to a bank run by a smooth-talking official (Colin Firth) whose behavior ultimately proves (pardon the use of a mildly archaic word) "dastardly."

Meanwhile, the clock ticks. Poor Michael has five days to pay off a loan he's taken on his house. Devastation looms.

Devotees of the first movie will want to know that Van Dyke makes a brief appearance and that the new cast seems largely up to snuff.

Not everyone agrees that Emily Blunt makes a great Mary Poppins, but I found little reason to fault a performance that finds Mary, open umbrella in hand, descending from the sky to help solve the problems of a troubled English family.

In Blunt's hands, Mary dispenses magic with the unadorned simplicity of a cop directing traffic. She has no interest in having anyone question her abilities. She's a kind-hearted drill sergeant of enchantment.

And for my money, Blunt sells what might be the movie's most touching song, The Place Where Lost Things Go.

Miranda's performance as lamp-lighter hinges on his ingratiating and ever-present smile. Miranda, of Hamilton fame, begins the musical parade with a number called Underneath the Lovely London Sky, a sigh of a song and a tone-setter for what's to follow. He also performs one of the movie's more elaborate production numbers, Trip a Little Light Fantastic. It involves multiple bicycles.

Whishaw plays a father mired in undigested grief, the kids are appropriately cute and the musical numbers may make you smile even if they don't prove as memorable as the songs from the original; i.e., tunes such as Chim Chim Cher-ee or A Spoonful of Sugar. The songs for Return were written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray).

Marshall knows how to stage production numbers and also makes use of animation in a sequence in which kids take a bath and are transported to the ocean for another musical number. Marshall even includes a show-stopping moment from Meryl Streep, who plays Mary's cousin and who turns her musical number (Turning Turtle) into a memorable comic cameo.

Few of the youngsters who are taken to Returns aren't going to spend much time making comparisons to the original, but they should be able to get lost in the movie's carefully considered production design and an abundantly clear desire to entertain.

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