Mary Poppins returns, we’re told, but only Baby Boomers will care. Roma offers the nanny Millennials can relate to. Who is this white British twit with a cinched overcoat and bumbershoot who goes about ordering around her betters and consorting with working-class inferiors? No one asked for Mary Poppins’s return to modern consciousness, but her reappearance unmistakably proves that Hollywood Boomers are desperate to justify their own mediocrity through nostalgic sentiment.
Also unmistakable is the nasty political undercurrent that prevents this reboot from being escapist fun. Take the new politically instructive songs in Mary Poppins Returns. Sure, they’re the usual Marc Shaiman pastiche — cliché Broadway compositions (from the composer of the lame musical Hairspray) that lack the memorable delight of Richard and Robert Sherman’s songs for the original Mary Poppins in 1964.
Incapable of a charming tongue twister, or relatable lyrics about medicine in sugary spoonfuls, Shaiman assimilates the #Resistance mood that has overtaken Broadway and Hollywood. Though pretending to be innocuous family entertainment, the knock-off tunes have a faintly repressive, pedantic note, especially in Shaiman’s balloon-song finale “Nowhere to Go but Up.” To careful listeners, it sounds like showbiz Stalinism: “The past is the past / It lives on as history / Let the past take a bow / Forever is now.” Why should a family-movie ditty recall the essence of Soviet erasure of history?
That erasure also reeducates memories of the first Mary Poppins film in which a subservient female nanny, who shows up weirdly out of nowhere, supports the bumbling male head of a stuffy British banking household. She sustained England’s class system almost supernaturally — or supercalifragilisticexpialidociously. Now Mary returns for no better purpose than commercial repackaging. (Meanwhile, minor characters play out a Socialist subtext, campaigning for underpaid workers.)
MPReturns rectifies dated gender notions by making the nanny inhumanly asexual — but enlightened. Actress Emily Blunt’s Mary charmlessly embodies inauthentic emotions. (A British accent works wonders on the inferiority complex of Americans.) Lacking Julie Andrews’s enigmatic blue-eyed calm and genuinely lovely soprano as the original Mary, Blunt (named after a truncheon?) seems little more than a schoolmarm martinet. She submits her prepubescent household charges to a bubble-bath fantasia — the film’s video-game visual peak — that neither individualizes them nor enchants us. She even trots up on the stage when the filmmakers can think of no forthright way she can rescue her employers.
Andrews, for the only time in her career, conveyed magical strangeness as Mary, suggesting a maternal Peter Pan — a weird imp, encouraging helpful idiosyncrasy to a new generation. Blunt never rises above the diligence of an out-of-town try-out; she fits director Rob Marshall’s Chicago specialty casting of non-singers and non-dancers.
MPReturns hits rock bottom when Mary visits her cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep doing upside-down acrobatics and a fake Russian accent (to suggest some kind of unholy collusion?). The political overtones of Streep’s show-offy turn (everything is supposedly upside down in the era of Orange Man Bad) suggest that Trump Derangement Syndrome has damaged liberal showbiz. Like Blunt, Streep is a no-fun performer.
Dick Van Dyke’s appearance is a welcome surprise and reminder of the first film, just as Julie Andrews’s absence is not. (It’s easy to imagine Andrews telling Disney Corp.: “The only Return I care about is taxes.”) Sure, Van Dyke still shows talent, though not enough of it here to make Millennial viewers care about who this un-Scrooge-like stranger is. But more important, Van Dyke has warmth, unlike the rest of the spiritless cast doing happy-eunuch grimaces. In the original, Van Dyke played a chimney sweep — the role Lin-Manuel Miranda takes on here as street-lamp-lighter Jack. He’s one of the film’s many blatantly diverse ethnic Londoners (the change in occupation, from Van Dyke’s chimney sweep in the original, means that Miranda safely avoids any smudge of blackface).
Nothing in MPReturns matches the profound compassion of the original film’s ballad “Feed the Birds.” Everyone I know responds deeply to that song — even people I don’t know, such as the pop stars behind “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the 1984 Band Aid telethon for the Ethiopian famine; their “Feed the World” refrain owes a debt to the Sherman brothers’ original Mary Poppins composition. The Shermans’ lullaby awakened listeners to charity, not PC self-righteousness.
It’s too bad the song “Nowhere to Go but Up” is not camp self-parody. Only take kids to Mary Poppins Returns if you want them to grow up aloof, uncharitable, and tone-deaf Antifa thugs.