Certain films have the rare distinction of acquiring the label of “instant classic”; these movies go on to be so cherished, beloved and honored that even years after their release they can leave deep impressions on viewers and society. The original Mary Poppins from 1964 is one such film, and it is
This sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, is a loving tribute to its untouchable predecessor, and filled with most of the elements that made the original a hit, but still it remains largely in the shadow of its classic forebear. And really how could it not be? After all like the character Mary Poppins herself, the original film was “practically perfect in every way”; from its extraordinary song-score to its fine leads, including of course Julie Andrews in the role that won her an Oscar, the 1964 film was indeed a magical experience.
In the 2018 sequel the spirit of the Poppins universe is maintained and it is clear that the filmmakers hold a reverential love for their source material, yet in the end it’s just not as heartwarming as the original. This is not because director Rob Marshall or screenwriter David Magee have done anything “wrong” , it is simply that with the near perfection of Mary Poppins (1964) it is difficult to surpass it in any way. This sequel was doomed from the beginning not solely because of the fulfilment of expectations that could never be met, but because some works are so classic that no homage will ever be able to live up to it.
Thus here lies the biggest challenge for Mary Poppins Returns: it cannot exist on its own without thought of the superior first film. Films like Grease 2, Psycho II or Jaws 2, attempted to build off of the greatness of their first movies, but despite noble intentions could not escape their shadows. Now in fairness Mary Poppins Returns is a better film than most sequels and on its own holds up well enough, but it is however held back by its inability to compete with the original.
Nearly everything in this film can be directly compared to the original; in fact the filmmakers have fashioned the narrative and the musical numbers in such a similar way that it’s hard not to make comparisons even if you did not want to. The music for instance is but one inevitable comparison.
Richard and Robert Sherman (The Sherman Brothers) created such an iconic collection of songs in the 1964 film that not only won them two Academy Awards, but cemented their musical brilliance in movie history. Whether it was “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Feed The Birds”, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “A Spoonful of Sugar”, an essential component of why the film became a classic was in no small part because of these songs. In the sequel composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman have clearly learned much from the Sherman masters and have created a pleasant song-score in their own right.
Yet none of their songs are as melodically or lyrically memorable as the Sherman’s works, and it’s unlikely a person will be remembering these pieces long after the film’s release (let alone 54 years!). Put simply the musical bar was set too highly, and despite a respectable effort by Shaiman and Wittman it is ultimately not classic material. To borrow a line from George Costanza from the sitcom Seinfeld, ” It’s like asking Pavarotti, teach me to sing like you.” The essence of the Shermans are present in the new score, but at the end of the day it’s not the Shermans.
Beyond the score, the central performances are perhaps the most obvious comparison to immediately observe. Emily Blunt and Lin- Manuel Miranda are more than aware of the immense pressure they are under to step into the shoes of iconic characterizations (especially Blunt) and deliver in a delightful and respectable way.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is undoubtedly a great talent, but his character Jack (filling in for Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert, though not a chimney sweeper) does not have the same attractive qualities as Van Dyke’s despite the fact that they are largely similar.
In relation to the previously mentioned songs, Miranda and Blunt can carry a tune well enough but you just can’t help but want to hear the old classic songs instead. Overall the relationship between Jack and Mary makes us recall the song “Jolly Holiday”, and may have some viewers thinking, why don’t I just rewatch the original?
Featuring a number of imaginative sequences, colorful scenes and a compelling lead from Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns is a fine film, but not a great one. Unlike its predecessor it is most assuredly not classic and certainly is not a movie that will have a special place in popular culture like the 1964 version. It is unfortunate because one cannot judge this film without reference to the first; no matter how many good things this version has (Blunt’s performance, the dance routines, and the nostalgic storyline) it is not as good as the original and it’s evident that all that is seen on screen is indeed familiar.
Audiences didn’t need to wait 54 years to view re-created elements of Mary Poppins because that film has and always will exist for our enjoyment. This is the real problem of the remake ideology especially prevalent with Disney Studios (with Aladdin and The Lion King remakes both set for release in 2019) and that is basically that the original works can’t be surpassed. These remakes or sequels are created for nostalgia and are not necessarily bad movies, as is the case with Mary Poppins Returns, but upon viewing them a desire to return to the inaugural films is more than justified. With this latest excursion to 17 Cherry Tree Lane, there is no doubt that fun and charm will be encountered; but is it as memorable and iconic as the first time around? Not exactly, and so the biggest take away from Mary Poppins Returns is that classics are classics and that catching lightning in a bottle is indeed an appropriate cliche.