Coming 54-years after the original, Mary Poppins Returns is the latest in a long line of films that's seen Disney revisit a number of its classics. The major focus of this has been its live-action remakes, which have included The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast. Next year is going to ramp this up further, with reimaginings of Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Lady and the Tramp on the way.
Outside of these remakes, Disney have also looked to breathe fresh life into older movies and franchises. That's what they'll be aiming for with Indiana Jones 5, and is what they achieved with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Mary Poppins Returns is the latest to go down this not-a-remake path. It follows the same template laid out by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but betters it in the process.
- This Page: Mary Poppins Returns Follows Force Awakens' Formula
- Page 2: Why Mary Poppins Returns is a Better Movie
Mary Poppins Returns Follows Force Awakens' Formula
Ever since The Force Awakens was released, one of the most common criticisms has been how closely it sticks to the original Star Wars. J.J. Abrams decided to heavily invoke the original not just in tone, but also by taking its narrative structure. The story he wrote with Lawrence Kasdan hits many of the same beats George Lucas' did in 1977.
So it is we have another would-be hero on a desert planet dreaming of bigger things. A masked, lightsaber-wielding villain. A hive that plays home to all kinds of alien creatures. A conflict between an evil enterprise and a ragtag group who stand up to them. And, of course, another planet-destroying superweapon. In some ways, you can almost feel the boxes being ticked to make it resemble A New Hope. However, it also brings back the characters (and actors) from the original, pushing them in fascinating new directions. Even better, it introduces a bunch of great new characters too, ensuring the future is bright.
Mary Poppins Returns does much the same when it comes to narrative and tone. We once again have the titular nanny arriving to save the Banks children. The father figure is disaffected, the kids bright and optimistic. There's an oddly-accented adult friend of Mary's to help guide the way. Even in the songs you can see the similarities: 'A Spoonful of Sugar' becomes 'Can You Imagine That?', 'I Love To Laugh' is 'Turning Turtle', and the closing number 'Let's Go Fly A Kite' finds its equivalent in 'There's Nowhere To Go But Up'.
Where Mary Poppins Returns deviates from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is with its cast. It cannot bring Julie Andrews et al back in the roles they played in the original, and so it had to recast. Emily Blunt takes on nanny duties, with Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer stepping into the shoes of Michael and Jane Banks (although there is a cameo for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice). While it can't tap into the nostalgia of these characters in quite the same way - save for Dick Van Dyke's brief return, albeit as a different character - it does give the Banks children (old and young) even bigger roles.
Page 2 of 2: Why Mary Poppins Returns is a Better Movie
Mary Poppins Returns Is A Worse Revival Than Force Awakens
Looking at the two movies as revivals of dormant franchises, The Force Awakens is definitely the more successful. That's obviously true commercially, but more so in how it brings Star Wars back. It evokes memories of the past and sets the table for the future. Most importantly, it feels like Star Wars.
In fact, Abrams doesn't really get enough credit for how he did that. Not with regards to his mystery box form of storytelling, which remains frustrating, but with his new characters. With Rey, Kylo Ren, BB-8, Poe Dameron, and Finn, there was a new band of characters to carry the franchise forward and delight fans old and new. It's in these that the freshest material in The Force Awakens is found, and those characters who carried the saga forward into Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and will do so again with Star Wars: Episode IX. It's a similar method followed by another 2015 legacy-quel, Creed, where it's similarly worked wonders. The Force Awakens isn't just a revival, but a passing of the lightsaber.
Mary Poppins Returns, on the other hand, hews a little closer to being a remake than it does reinvigorate a franchise. It relies heavily on reminding you of the original, whether that's in its songs, its themes, or its remarkable animated sequence. That's not a bad thing for the movie in isolation, but if Disney were hoping or planning for further Poppins adventures, this doesn't set them up.
Much like the original, everything is wrapped up neatly by the end. Mary has helped the Banks family find their way again and, job done, is off to wherever it is she comes from. There aren't any major unanswered questions or new characters to take things forward. The closing number may be 'There's Nowhere To Go But Up', but looking to the future, it's more simply a case of there's nowhere to go.
Mary Poppins Returns Is A Better Movie
As a revival, then, Mary Poppins Returns doesn't work as well as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It doesn't quite stick the formula, and the blend of old and new doesn't do much to lay the groundwork for the future. Despite all of that, though, Mary Poppins Returns is a better movie overall.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets a lot right, but it also has some big problems. Some of these are minor, like the Rathtars not being great, but others are much larger. The editing, in particular, leaves something to be desired as we approach the end of the second act, with issues arising once the movie gets to Maz Kanata's Castle. The movie gets in a rush to move things into place for the climax, and characters and plot details - such as Finn leaving then quickly backtracking - feel muddled. The overarching narrative struggles a little too, thanks to a late-in-the-day change of MacGuffin from the lightsaber to the map to Luke Skywalker. Also, for all the repeated elements that do work, the decision to have yet another Death Star (in all but name) is worthy of a few eye-rolls.
Mary Poppins Returns is a much more assured affair. The film knows exactly when it's time to slow things down and hit the emotional beats, like with 'A Conversation', and when to give you a big song-and-dance number. The new songs are superb, the cast is uniformly excellent, the script funny and charming, and Rob Marshall's direction is the best it's been since Chicago. Leading the way in all of this is Emily Blunt's Mary. Blunt ensures that the character retains the spirit of Julie Andrews' version, but puts her own brilliant spin on it too: her Mary is even sharper, weirder, vainer, and more enigmatic. The movie also finds room for a stunning new animated sequence, a gorgeous period setting, and, crucially, manages to give different emotional payoffs.
Above all, what Marshall, Blunt, Miranda, and everyone else have done is create not just a film that makes evocative use of Mary Poppins, but a modern musical that's worthy of a place among the greats of the 1960s. It's the kind of movie that has you grinning throughout, save for the moments it wrings a few tears, and you'll still be smiling and singing long after you've left the cinema.