Mary Poppins Returns With A Vengeance
What is it about the woman’s name that causes Londoners to mangle their vowels and virtually decapitate themselves with their tongues? First we had Dick Van Dyke inventing a new language, and now we have Lin-Manuel Miranda strangling the life out of the OED in his role as cockney lamplighter. Only Don Cheadle ever attempted a more appalling British accent.
But for all that, MPR is a pretty sparkling entertainment, so much so that you forget it’s a note-for-note remake as much as a continuation of the original. The nanny is back, making a lump-in-the-throat arrival at the end of a kite string, and in place of Julie Andrews’ delicate English rose we have a more archly urban nanny, also with a peculiarly unplaceable accent.
Jane and Michael Banks have grown up and still live in the same Hampstead house with sprogs of their own. The threat this time is not father’s distance, but simple financial woes. Cue for MP to go to work anyway, whipping the kids off to an undersea world and into a china bowl. Dastardly Colin Firth plans to foreclose, Meryl Streep’s Cousin Topsy takes the place of Ed Wynn, who loved to laugh, and Angela Lansbury gamely revives memories of the lady who wants us to feed the birds. Dick Van Dyke pops in briefly and manages a (presumably CGI) high kick. Even Julie Walters crops up in the original’s housekeeper role, and in place of the chimneysweeps’ ‘Step In Time’ dance routine we now have the lamp-lighters’ ‘Trip A Little Light Fantastic’, during which the performers take a gatling gun to rhyming slang, making up words that never existed, except in the fevered brains of Hollywood executives who have only seen London from the windows of the Lanesborough Hotel.
Reviving memories is what this is all about; hardly a second of screen time passes without a loving, beautifully crafted homage. The original’s concept artwork is re-used, giving the London skyline a delightful patina reminiscent of childhood films. The songs, fewer this time, have the sound of authentic Sherman Brothers, and even provide a patter song to replicate ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, sung with a hint of rap by Miranda.
It’s practically perfect in every way, but to see what could be done with the story, you need to have seen ‘Mary Poppins’ on stage in London or in Australia (it was revised for Broadway), where a much darker tale unfolded, explaining the root of Mr Banks’s coldness. That version boasted some great new songs, although they were un-Sherman-like.
If one can find any fault with something this highly polished, it does feel like a slightly airless and vengefully manufactured piece of ‘product’, but when I came out of the screening I strolled home through Bloomsbury, and the gouaches were still in my head as I looked at the surrounding lamps and chimney pots.
It’s always a good sign when a film has you looking at the world differently, even if it means I’ve fallen for America’s fantasy-version of London.