- Review by Kaya Savas - December 14, 2018
Mary Poppins Returns is the sequel to the 1964 Disney classic that has given us some of the most iconic music and lyrics in film history. The Sherman Brothers will never ever be able to be matched in what they did with Mary Poppins, but Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman give it their best shot. It’s a daunting task following lyrics and melodies such as “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” and “Let’s go fly a kite.” This sequel arriving 54 years after the original will definitely make you go back and revisit that original classic. And when you do, you will see ever more clearly some of the cracks and ultimately lackluster ways this 2018 film has tried to recapture the same magic instead of creating new magic of its own.
Mary Poppins Returns was pumped with enough money to bring the world of Mary Poppins back to life. Emily Blunt does a wonderful job echoing what the character is, and what Julie Andrews brought to the titular character. If anyone was the right musical fit to follow in The Sherman Brothers' footsteps, it was Marc Shaiman. Shaiman’s lyrical and musical sensibilities fit right in here. Shaiman brings onboard his lyricist partner from Hairspray, Scott Wittman. The musical duo do an admirable job of injecting Mary Poppins Returns with that old-school showmanship, but throughout the experience something feels inevitably missing. It’s hard to put your finger on it. All the performances, production design, costumes and music come together quite wonderfully. But in the end, we feel this emptiness.
Disney’s quest to recapture the magic of its past properties has worked rather well. But when you’re retelling a story in live-action vs animation, you will be bringing something new and unique that is wholly different than what came before. If you look at live-action remakes such as Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon, Beauty And The Beast and others, we’ve seen old stories re-told in new ways. Marry Poppins Returns feels like an old story re-told in old ways. Now, this isn’t a remake, it’s a sequel. But it really feels more like a remake more than anything.
The score is the strongest part of the film. Marc Shaiman’s score is absolutely lovely and filled with beautiful melodies including hints at some of those classic Sherman Brothers notes. When it comes to the songs, you might be more hard-pressed to find something that feels like it was born out of the characters. What made The Sherman Brothers stand out was that they were actors as much as they were songwriters. When they wrote a song, it was born from the character. Something I think Alan Menken does extremely well. And Shaiman has this ability as well, but when you’re trying to do it to a sequel coming 50 odd years later after the classic original, it feels forced. Another practice here in this film that deflates the power of the songs a bit is weaving dialogue into the songs. While the original Mary Poppins did do this, it felt built into the song. Here it almost feels like we lose momentum to break for these character moments when all we want to do is be lost in the song.
At the end of the day, this is a lovely film and the music behind it brings a lot of joy and life to it. And yes, it will make you smile. But it’s hard not to compare this sequel to the original, and in doing so, it can’t recapture all the brilliance of what made the original the classic that it is. The Sherman Brothers’ melodic sensibilities and talent to write lyrics from the characters’ point of view can’t be recaptured. Just go back and listen to “Feed The Birds” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and feel the hairs on your neck stand up. It’s a sensation you don’t get from Mary Poppins Returns no matter how bright and heartwarming it is.