In early September, I began this blog series looking at movies that involved Disney Animation Studios, but weren’t fully produced or released by the famed studio. Most of these movies combine live action with animation. Some of these movies only involve the studio for assistance on the animation front. One is a fully animated movie released by DisneyToons that used multiple other studios for help. Saving Mr. Banks really only uses footage from previous movies on this list, and a couple adapted Walt Disney videos starring Tom Hanks instead of the original. Of the movies on this list, the most profitable for its time, and by far the most famous, is Mary Poppins. What better way to conclude this series than by looking at last year’s sequel.
Mary Poppins Returns is set in 1930’s London, 25 years after the original took place, and during the great depression era. Released 54 years after the original, it’s one of the longest intervals between two films in the same series in history. It wasn’t a runaway success like the original, but it earned $349 million with a $130 million budget. It received generally positive reviews. It also received a number of award nominations, including four Academy Awards (Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. It didn’t win any of these awards, as Best Original Song went to “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, and the other three all went to Black Panther.
A sequel to Mary Poppins was sitting in development hell since the first film’s release back in 1964. Walt Disney wanted to begin producing a sequel one year later, but was rejected by author P.L. Travers, who initially hated the original. In the 80’s, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg approached Travers with a sequel idea, but Travers proved impossible to deal with, imposing a number of rules. In the meantime, Travers tried to work with fellow English writer and good friend Brian Sibley, who wrote the script for a sequel titled “Mary Poppins Comes Back”. After a few revisions on Sibley’s script, they actually tried to get into production. Casting difficulties emerged, most notably when Julie Andrews temporarily retired from acting and wasn’t interested in reprising her role. This planned sequel was eventually cancelled because of these casting difficulties, and because new executives took over the company.
Finally, in 2015, a sequel was greenlit with the approval of the Travers’ estate. Disney soon hired Rob Marshall (Chicago, Annie) to direct the film, with his fellow producers from the film version of Into The Woods helping out. Emily Blunt was soon cast to take over the Mary Poppins role. Lin-Manuel Miranda joined the cast as Jack, a lamplighter who plays a similar role as Bert in the original. Although Julie Andrews was offered a cameo role in the film, she turned it down, wishing the sequel to be “Emily’s show”. Two actors from the original did appear though, with Dick Van Dyke portraying one of the bankers, and Karen Dotrice (who played the young Jane Banks in the original) making a cameo.
The plot focuses on a grown up Michael Banks, who is a widower in financial difficulties, and his three children. Emily Mortimer plays Jane Banks, his older sister and a union organizer. Colin Firth plays the closest thing this movie has to an antagonist as the new chairman of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. And finally, Meryl Streep portrays Topsy, Mary Poppins’s eccentric cousin who runs a fix-it shop.
Most of the filming took place in Surrey, England, with sound stages used for Cherry Tree Lane, the tower of Big Ben, Topsy’s shop and the rebuilt inside of the Banks home. Other filming locations include sound stages in Hollywood, and outside the Bank of England and Buckingham Palace. Most of the animation is co-produced by Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, with a couple other studios assisting. The animation team took a lot of what Disney learned from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with a lot more direct interaction between the live-action actors and their animated environments. The result is visually impressive.
Marc Shaiman, best known for Hairspray, composed all of the music and co-wrote the song lyrics for the movie. Richard M. Sherman, the surviving member of the Sherman Brothers music team from the original, acted as a music consultant. Despite being in his 90’s he’s still fairly active in the film industry, also having written three songs for the 2018 film, Christopher Robin.
For the most part, Mary Poppins Returns is a good movie. It captures the general spirit of the original, with a number of sets matching the original look, while still giving us something a bit new. The music is in the same general style of the original, with its sense of energy and fun. Blunt is great in the role, capturing the balance of a kind yet tough nanny, who clearly loves her job even if she hides it well from the children. Jack is a fun character in his own right, while giving us a fake cockney accent similar to Bert’s in the original. It’s both wrong and right at the same time.
The story focuses on Michael Banks’s financial struggles and the looming threat of losing his home. The story often feels a bit over the top in that sense, especially the climax where it’s a race against time to get to the bank by midnight. That said, it is an appropriate plot point for a movie that takes place during the depression. The three children are likeable, and they contribute to the story more in this movie than the original. They’re clearly trying to help save the house, but every now and then they argue, bicker, or lose track of the youngest brother. You know, just like real kids.
As much as this movie is mostly good, I can’t help but feel that a couple things fell flat. I can’t quite figure out what it is, but I’m wondering if the movie tried a bit too hard to be like the original. The songs are mostly good, but I found myself tuning out during a couple of them. I never tuned out during the original, even if I found some of them a bit too long for my tastes. I did notice that some of the more negative reviews criticized the music and called it the weakest aspect of the movie, so maybe that’s what it is. But I also felt that the dramatic elements of the first movie’s story also worked better. The slightly darker tone is truer to the spirit of the original books though, I’ll give it that.
Whatever the case, this is at least worth a watch for fans of the original Mary Poppins. There’s nothing in this movie that ruins the original, in fact if feels quite respectful of Walt Disney’s greatest live-action accomplishment. That said, this movie isn’t as good as the 1964 classic. Maybe a second viewing will help me figure out exactly what this movie is missing, but considering I still haven’t rewatched some of the Disney Animation Studios movies in the two and a half years since I finished that blogathon, despite wanting to, that might be a while.
I’m planning on writing blog posts on the Indiana Jones movies for the rest of the month. Next month, I’ll watch a few Christmas movie classics I’ve never seen before. Which ones I watch and how many depends on how much time I find for it.