Not that The Walt Disney Company ever did have an equivalent of Thunderbirds characters operated by strings, or the sets used in early episodes of the BBC’s Doctor Who, but Mary Poppins Returns demonstrates the sort of technology that can enhance a motion picture. Set in the interwar period, when pigeons had a home in Trafalgar Square, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now all grown up, could still just about justify having housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) on the books, though there are (spoiler alert) no other ‘servants’ or domestic workers left.
That is not, alas, why the return of Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) is justified. Michael now has three children of his own, John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), but for reasons explained in the narrative, he has been without a partner for a while, and over time the household affairs have deteriorated to the point where the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, of which Michael is an employee, is threatening repossession. As neither Michael nor his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) have yet to grasp the concept of having confidential conversations, um, confidentially (they leave the door to the front room left open, such that the children need not cup their ears to the said door to eavesdrop), the children are on the receiving end of information that most dutiful parents would probably have preferred was kept from them.
The casting in this movie is quite magnificent. Whatever one’s views on Dick Van Dyke’s supposedly British accent in the 1964 movie, his return in a cameo role here works well – and the accent is noticeably better (still not quite perfect, but I’m being picky). Dame Angela Lansbury, who, like Van Dyke, is 93 years young at the time of writing, is also in the show, one of those acting legends that really could just read out a telephone directory (if we even still have those anymore) and steal the show. Lin-Manuel Miranda, better known amongst theatregoers than cinemagoers, is excellent as Jack, a ‘lamplighter’, someone who goes around with a bicycle and a ladder, lighting gas street lamps as dusk falls, and goes around again at dawn putting them out.
Almost needless to say, Mary Poppins and the children get up to numerous adventures. Poppins invariably denies that X or Y really happened, often leaving the children a tad confused and leaving me wondering whether Poppins would be better suited to be a politician rather than a nanny. (Then again, considering recent goings on in Parliament, perhaps the House of Commons could do with a nanny, or several.)
None of the songs are particularly memorable – the song titles, as they tend to be in movies, are listed amongst the many credits that roll at the end. But I can’t recall a single one off the top of my head – well, okay, there’s one about an old person with lots of helium balloons that go up (hasn’t that been done before? The 2009 film Up, anyone?). Poppins doesn’t do much, except when she absolutely has to, which in one sequence, therefore, involves a lot of human effort being made by a lot of people before she finally steps in and uses her ability to fly to save the day. Ordinarily, there would be nothing wrong with ‘magic’ only coming along when all other options have been
exhausted, but time was very much of the essence in the scene in question.
Perhaps this reviewer doth protest too much, and thus deprives himself of the opportunity to claim this film is practically perfect in every way. But it very nearly is, and fans of adorable Disney films will find that it is very much business as usual. An imaginative and spirited movie.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mary Poppins tickets booking now for the Prince Edward Theatre.