With pastel/primary colours of headspinning prettiness and all-new showtunes polished to a gleam, this sequel to the 1964 Disney standard Mary Poppins is an almost scarily accomplished clone-pastiche of the original, a spoonful of state-of-the-art genetically modified sweetener. It is written by David Magee, with music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman – with supervising input from legendary original songwriter Richard Sherman – and directed by Rob Marshall. The first film was all about the magical nanny who flies in to help a family in Edwardian London – a celebrated movie debut for Julie Andrews. This one takes place 20 or so years later; everyone else is older but Mary remains the same. In place of Andrews’ guileless demeanour and serene self-belief, there is a subtly more worldly and droll-looking Emily Blunt, more clenched and ramrod in her bearing, who exaggerates and caricatures her natural English voice into the kind of poshness portrayed by American actors pretending to be a Brit: the sort of delivery that converts “very” into “veddy”.
Mary Poppins: why we need a spoonful of sugar more than ever
This is absolutely not an ironic or postmodern slant on the story – which has in any case already been achieved in the 2013 biopic Saving Mr Banks, with Emma Thompson as cantankerous Poppins creator PL Travers being wooed by Tom Hanks’s Walt Disney, and remembering how her unhappy, chaotic family back in Australia finally had to be helped out. The only contemporary hint is some ethnic diversity in the supporting cast; otherwise this movie offers faithful variations on the existing theme: songs, characters and plot moments are new versions of the old. The songs aren’t bad, and the film is a technical triumph, especially the mix of live-action work with animated inserts, just as in the 1960s. Meryl Streep gets a colossal cameo as a cousin of Mary called Topsy with an outrageous eastern European accent. There are some lovely early moments, especially the bathtime setpiece that becomes an underwater adventure, and the music hall number in which Blunt breaks out some serious singing and hoofing.
But at the risk of annoying the faithful, I have to admit I was never a massive fan of the original, which starts terrifically and ends cloyingly (just like this new one), especially its final number, for which this film finds a faithful equivalent. Even as a kid I found it anticlimactic and somehow depressing, especially compared with the sensational ending of Julie Andrews’ other great film. Let’s all fly a kite? In The Sound of Music, it was: let’s all defy the Nazis, escape to freedom and have an exciting grownup career in showbusiness.
Anyway, the situation now is that Britain is in the middle of the interwar depression. The Dawes children, Michael and Jane, are now grown up, played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer and reunited here as a kind of platonic adult couple. Michael is a financially embattled widower with three children who is on the verge of losing the family house in Cherry Tree Lane because he has rashly borrowed from the bank. Jane (evidently living elsewhere) has inherited her suffragette mother’s love of picturesque radical politics and is now campaigning for workers’ rights – off camera. The little moppets are on the brink of running amok in the park with their kite when Mary descends from the clouds. Her ability to fly, incidentally, renders slightly baffling a later sequence when she stands by and just watches her friends having to make a dangerous and laborious climb, with no time to lose.
Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep Bert is no longer about – “off on his travels”, apparently – but Bert 2.0 is Jack, a young lamplighter, who in keeping with tradition is played by an American: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, who can at least do a decentish Cockney accent. Michael’s creditor is none other than the Fidelity Fiduciary, the bank that once employed his father and now employs him as a humble clerk. Yet there is a genial new manager, in the form of William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), who promises to help out. Julie Walters is called upon to reproduce her housekeeper turn from Paddington, and there is another giant cameo, incidentally, that is also the most authentically heartwarming moment in the film.
Diehard fans of the first film will very probably love this sequel, for the undoubted detail and fervour with which it reproduces the template, though with a little more of a Broadway feel than it had in 1964. I admire it for its craftsmanship and technique, like a machine for creating nostalgia.