Sequels can sometimes be such a letdown, and although I was aware that “Mary Poppins Returns” had come to our big screen, I took my time to actually go and see it.
I went to a matinee show and was thrilled to find just about eight of us in the whole cinema hall, so it was a much more intense experience, without any ringing or other noises from phones. The film was such a delight to the senses that I staggered out only after the last credits had rolled up and the last note of the soundtrack had faded away, and I impulsively bought tickets for the whole family for the evening show. And with our Parra cousins joining in, it became a family movie night out.
The ‘original’, first film, Mary Poppins (1964), starring Julie Andrews in the eponymous role made a huge impact in our childhood formative years for many of us. So you’ll know what a tough act it would be to follow. So many songs from that film have become classics, and ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ has now entered the popular lexicon to describe something ‘extraordinarily good and wonderful.’
The very idea of another Mary Poppins film after over half a century (fifty-four years, to be exact) was audacious. Whoever took up the challenge would have to be prepared to be judged by that very high benchmark.
But film director Rob Marshall quite creditably does pull it off in what is clearly a labour of much love and detail.
In an interview, Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins in this film) reveals how she found her cues and inspiration for the role from the eight books by Pamela Lyndon Travers, who created the character, rather than from the 1964 film. Consequently her portrayal tries to be “enigmatic and batty and funny and vain and rude, and all of these things that were so delightful to play”, rather than the clipped-accent prim-and-proper Julie Andrews version.
The star cast also includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury among many others. All of them appear to be thoroughly reveling in their screen roles. Firth’s character (no fault of his, as he’s merely following script and direction) is a little two-dimensional, a cardboard cut-out villain, heartless bank manager (William ‘Weatherall’ Wilkins) bent on ruining the Banks family and taking possession of their house, and in general profiting off the misfortunes that befall all the clients of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank during the dark years of the Great Depression (called “The Great Slump” in the film) of the 1930s.
If you’re familiar with the previous film and the P. L. Travers books, you’ll find this sequel in brimming, almost frame-by-frame, with cross-references, or little “easter eggs” that link back and forth all the time. But even if you don’t, this film is a “marvelous, mystical, rather sophistical, very top drawable, always encorable, simplest sensational, standing ovational” treat. It takes one back to the glory days of the brilliantly written musicals, where music and lyrics fit each other so perfectly.
The partnership of Marc Shaiman (song lyrics and music and film score) and Scott Wittman is truly magical. Maybe I’m lavishing too high praise, but if they follow through with more collaborations of such high calibre, they could well be remembered and mentioned in the same breath as Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even the Sherman brothers (who wrote music and lyrics to the first Mary Poppins film) and other legendary partnerships.
It was such a heartwarming experience, having such a glorious old-world-style lush orchestral sound envelope you in surround sound, da capo al fine.
And unlike our films, of course, there isn’t any ‘playback’ singing: the actors themselves sing their parts. Meryl Streep seems to be landing more and more singing roles after the runaway box office success of the Mamma Mia! franchise (the first Mamma Mia! Film is still Streep’s highest-grossing film to date, and the highest-grossing musical film ever), and she pulls out all the stops in the song ‘Turning Turtle’ in her cameo role of Topsy (short for Tatiana Antanasia Cositori Topotrepolovsky). Colin Firth, who also co-starred (and sang) with Streep in the Mamma Mia! films, was perhaps wisely not given any singing part.
Emily Blunt seems born to sing her part, and although comparisons will inevitably be made with Julie Andrews (who turned down a cameo role in the sequel as she wanted it to be “Emily’s show”), she has made the role her own. She watched a lot of 1930s films to get her distinctive accent and lilt to her spoken and sung voice.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was a real discovery for me. Looking him up on getting home, I learnt he was also composer, lyricist and playwright, with a really interesting back-story to his quirky name. He worked hard with a dialect coach, and like Blunt also watched period films to acquire a sufficiently Cockney accent.
The animation scenes in “Can You Imagine That?”, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover is Not the Book” were painstakingly done, to match those from the original film. Several animators were called out of retirement (and they gladly obliged!) to hand-paint the scenes frame-by-frame as it would have been done in the 1960s. For many, (although Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins was vehemently opposed when the first film was being shot), the juxtaposition of live and animation characters are the highlight of the film.
My son’s favourite song (although he loved them all) was the rather pensive, woeful soliloquy “A Conversation”, sung by Ben Whishaw (who plays Michael Banks, recently widowed father of the three children). The slow-waltz lullaby tempo and the soft, music-box-like accompaniment give the song an ethereal feel, and throw his voice into sharp relief, bringing out the pathos in the lyrics.
The film is a must-see for all ages. Our whole family had a blast. While in the cinema hall, I realized that my mother and her cousin Fr. Joaquim D’Souza SDB, were together at the movies again after easily over half-a-century. The last time was in the 1950s, at Aurora cinema, King’s Circle in what was then still called Bombay. One of the memorable films from that era that they saw together was the 1954 Danny Kaye comedy classic, “Knock on Wood.”
“Mary Poppins Returns” will be remembered just as fondly, as a classic, generations from now. To quote a line from the film, “As we’ve learnt, when the day is done, some stuff and nonsense can be fun. Can You Imagine That?”
(An edited version of this article was published on 03 February 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)