Walt Disney Studios’ Mary Poppins Returns
by Mo Brady
Mary Poppins Returns achieves the impossible. Beyond the flying nannies, talking animals and bottomless handbags, the new film follows the trajectory of classic Disney film Mary Poppins scene-by-scene, but in a way that never feels stale.
It magically hits the emotional moments of the original film while making those moments feel fresh. These reinvented moments owe a significant debt to the stagecraft of the team that brought this new movie together.
The way in which the film’s composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have been guided the original film is masterful. Like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” this film opens with a solo for Mary’s male accomplice, “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky.” It follows with Ben Whishaw’s “A Conversation, which mimics the soloqulic style of “The Life I Lead.”
The comparisons go on and on. Shaiman and Wittman’s score also mimics of the stylings of the original film. By bringing the intelligent humor they showcased in the scores of Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can to the language created by the Sherman Brothers, they create songs that feel both classic and new.
Bringing Broadway expertise to the movies is no new terrain for the film’s director and choreographer, Rob Marshall. After all, this is the man who helmed the film adaptations of Nine and Disney’s most recent live-action holiday season musical, Into the Woods. But he also began his career on Broadway, performing as a Munkustrap replacement in Cats, working as dance captain on The Rink and choreographer of Victor/Victoria among numerous other credits.
In this new film, Marshall returns to many of the storytelling devices that made Chicago such a masterpiece. By doubling down on theatrical moments with an extra dose of flamboyance, Mary Poppins Returns floats from one musical sequence to another, high on candy floss and coated with a heavy serving of nostalgia.
The new delicious film’s answer to “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a sequence that also combines live action with 2-D animation. In the scene, Mary and Jack bring the Banks children to The Royal Doulton Music Hall. Once the kids are settled into front row seats, Jack and Mary perform an extended vaudeville-style number that brings down the house, both on screen and off.
“A Cover Is Not The Book” is a five-minute showstopper presented on the Music Hall’s stage for an eager audience of moose, whales and other unlikely creatures. The song’s lyrics chronicle the perils of judging others by first glance. But in typical Poppins fashion, it accomplishes this lesson with a spoonful of sugar (or four).
It is in this sequence that theatrical wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda shows his musical theatre chops. He warbles sweetly in an homage to Dick Van Dyke’s signature (if slightly questionable) accent. He dances assuredly, in a fashion we’ve never seen him do on the Mainstem. He even performs a spoken-word bridge, rapping Shaiman and Wittman’s words in a way reminiscent of Hamilton’s “Non-Stop.”
Mary Poppins Returns is unquestionably cinematic. But at its core is the work of theatre creators who’ve found a way to translate their stage expertise to film. Movie audiences will find themselves applauding time and again at the movie they’ve imbued with remarkable life.