In the endless string off remakes and sequels that plagues Hollywood, Mary Poppins was not one I expected to see on the list. The 1964 classic has stood the test of time for more than half a century; it told a complete story with little prospect for continuation, and it wasn’t animated (mostly) to remake it in live action.
Nonetheless, Disney’s latest sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, set 25 years after the original, could have been an exciting new story of the adventures of Mary Poppins and the Banks children. After all, the material is already there. There were eight Mary Poppins books, and Mary Poppins Returns is loosely based on the second and third books. Unfortunately, Mary Poppins Returns is not that story. It’s entertaining for an afternoon, but that’s about it.
My rating: on the merits of the writing: 3 out of 5.
As a musical, and as a worthy sequel to the original: 1.5 out of 5.
I had several problems with this movie. I wouldn’t say it was bad per se, but it really didn’t retain the magic of the original, which is why I gave it that split rating. Maybe I’m being uncharitable, but this film had big shoes to fill, and Disney was definitely capable of pulling it off, but it just didn’t work well, and it felt more like a knockoff or a substandard remake than a true sequel.
The plot was…I won’t say derivative, but certainly formulaic. It followed all the same beats as the original, never really branching out except for the addition of an actual villain, which I feel sort of misses the point of the original. There were antagonists in Mary Poppins, but no true villains, and I think that’s important to character of the story. That’s just one of the facets they failed to capture in Mary Poppins Returns.
There were little things, too. The writing felt a tiny bit more moralistic in places where the original Mary Poppins got its message across in a more carefree way. The bit where Mary sings on stage felt out of character. I just can’t see Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins hamming it up like that. And even the dance number in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” didn’t hit all the right notes that “Chim Chim Cher-ee” did as it sprawled across the London rooftops. In fact, that might be a good way to describe the writing across the board: it hit too many “wrong notes” to really be Mary Poppins.
But the biggest problem with Mary Poppins Returns by far was that the music simply wasn’t very good. The songs were not catchy, pretty much at all—not the kind of thing you remember walking out of the theatre. (Incidentally, I noticed the same problem in Moana, but this was worse.) Compare that with Frozen or just about any Disney movie from the 90’s, and you can see how badly they dropped the ball (even if Frozen is overplayed). Compare “Can You Imagine That?” with “A Spoonful of Sugar.” “A Cover is Not the Book” with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Turning Turtle” with “I Love to Laugh.” “Nowhere to Go But Up” with “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” (I told you they hit every single beat the same.) Pretty much none of the songs in Mary Poppins Returns are as good as their counterparts in the original, and for a musical, that’s a very poor showing. That’s why even though it’s fun enough to watch, I can’t recommend Mary Poppins Returns as a sequel to one of the great classic films of the twentieth century.