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Practically Perfect “Mary Poppins Returns” (review) December 20, 2018

Posted by ronannarbor in Movies, Musicals.
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The greatly awaited Mary Poppins Returns has opened – and despite a few mis-steps, it is another instant Disney classic and one of the best pictures of the year.

Picking up a few decades after the original, Michael and Jane Banks are all grown up – he’s a bank teller but wannabe artist, and she’s a social reformer (its mentioned once and never referred to again). Michael’s wife has recently died, he’s finding it difficult to manage the house, the children, and the mortgage (gasp), and it’s high time Mary returns to help. Just like the original, Mary returns more to help the adults than the kids. But the kids are the ones that get to have a great time.

In a uniformly excellent cast, Emily Blunt is practically perfect as Mary, which should come as no surprise at all to those who have followed her career, including musicals. Lin-Manuel Miranda is terrific as lamplighter Jack (and emotion-lighter for Jane, who otherwise kinda has little do to in this movie) and his musical theater roots are on full display in both his lovely mellow singing voice (yes, singing, not hip-hop rapping – well, almost not rapping but I’ll get to that) and his hoofing! Tap, modern, jazz, Broadway, he gets to do it all here and he’s terrific. 

Ben Whishaw is outstanding as Michael. His sad eyes occasionally twinkle in recognition of his childhood adventures with Mary, and he has a lovely understated singing voice. When things take flight in the penultimate scene, he literally makes you believe his anxiety has been left earthbound while he soars skyward. Emily Mortimer is a solid and spunky Jane. 

There are several great cameo appearances, and while some have been publicized (Meryl Streep) others are a terrific surprise so I won’t spoil that here. Streep, for the record, gets to play a fun and zany character that is saddled with the absolutely worst song in the movie (oh, I’ll get to THAT as well). Colin Firth plays a dynamite bad guy. Julie Walters is fun as the maid.

Disney pulls out all the stops in Broadway director/choreographer Rob Marshall’s production. The sets and costumes look great, and there is nostalgic fun in mixing live-action with animation (and wow, has it come a long way since 1964) but also some true  movie magic once they start mixing live action, animation, AND CGI at the same time. It’s great work.

It makes you almost (almost) forget the dreadful hip hop segment that Miranda performs while books become magical stairsteps. I think people know my thoughts on hip hop, and it’s no different here. On the other hand, his show-stopping “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” gets it just right.

That brings me to the one downside of the affair – Marc Shaiman’s lackluster forgettable score. Shaiman is an expert at making things “sound” like the 60’s which fits the style of the movie completely – just like he did with Hairspray and Catch me If You Can. What he can’t do here is create a single hummable tune. So while the score “sounds” a bit like the original, it comes nowhere near to the powerhouse score that lifted Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke into musical heaven. In fact, I found myself humming Step in Time as I left the theater, not anything from this movie. And there are two horrendous mis-steps…the first, the aforementioned hip hop sequence in “A Cover is not the Book”, an otherwise perfectly serviceable, if forgetable, montage of music-hall songs. But that is nothing compared to the dreadful “Turning Turtle” that Streep is saddled with. I’m not even going to bore you with the details there – you’ll see for yourself and shake your head.

It’s not often that you get an audience of movie reviewers clapping midstream, and cheering along with the action, so on the general movie front, Mary Poppins Returns succeeds grandly.

I just wish it had a score that made it Best Picture worthy. As it is, it’s just Best Picture Nominee worthy. 

Very Highly Recommended.

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