MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – Strangely Somber Sequel Doesn’t Measure Up

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I’ve always enjoyed Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), and so I was really excited to see its long-awaited sequel MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018). I had been looking forward to it for a while.

So, the fact that I didn’t really like this one, surprised me. A lot. Especially since I enjoyed Disney’s live action reworking of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) so much last year. But MARY POPPINS RETURNS didn’t work for me. Everything about it felt flat and uninspiring.

The Banks children from MARY POPPINS have grown up.  Michael (Ben Whishaw) still lives at his childhood home on Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, but sadness reigns these days, as his wife has recently passed away.  Jane (Emily Mortimer) is still single and seems to be helping Michael with his children as best she can, but it seems it’s not enough, and out from the skies returns Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) ostensibly to help the Banks children once again.

Although it’s difficult to know why she’s really there and who exactly is it she’s trying to help. Is it Michael, who seems to have forgotten what it’s like to be a child and is now a worrying grumpy adult? Is it Michael’s children who because of their mother’s death have had to grow up a little too quickly? Or is Jane who needs some pushing when it comes to relationships?  Or perhaps it’s all of the above? Either way, Mary Poppins has her work cut out for her.

And things get worse before they get better, as Michael learns the bank is about to repossess his home unless he can find a missing bank share from his father which he seems to have lost. The fact that Michael now works at the bank means little, because the head of the bank Wilkins (Colin Firth) is intent on obtaining Michael’s property and will do everything in his power to prevent Michael from paying off the loan.

There’s a lot that I did not like about MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Let’s start with the tone of this movie.  For a Disney musical, it’s filled with doom and gloom. From the photography to the subject matter, it’s a strangely dark piece.

Here we have a plot that deals with the death of a parent and with three very young children who are in a bind because their father is not emotionally equipped to take care of them once his wife has passed on.  Honestly, they need more than Mary Poppins to come swooping in singing to them about magic and the like.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t build a successful children’s story around death.  The recent Netflix’ Christmas movie THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES (2018) did it, and did it quite well. In that movie, the two children have lost their father, but thanks to a spirited and quite hilarious performance by Kurt Russell as Santa Claus, the film works. Russell and the script capture the magic needed to overcome a dreary tale of parental death.

The same is not true for MARY POPPINS RETURNS. The story never quite sheds the sadness associated with the death of a parent. The predominant emotion in the film is sorrow. This, in spite of the film’s best efforts to promote happiness and joy.

A big reason for this tone is the dark photography. I don’t think there’s a ray of sunshine to be found until the very end.  Director Rob Marshall made the curious choice to film this one as if he were making a movie based on a Charles Dickens novel.

The other reason I really struggled to like this movie was that Emily Blunt, an actress whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely, just never made Mary Poppins quite work for me. Like the rest of the movie, there’s just something off and harsh about her performance. She somehow misses the magic which Julie Andrews brought to the role. Blunt goes through the motions and tries her best to bring Mary Poppins to life, but there’s something missing.  That twinkle in the eye, that spark of nonsensical magic, that burst of giddy happiness, all emotions associated with Julie Andrews’ performance are somehow absent here.

I enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda more as Jack, a lamplighter who has taken over the Dick Van Dyke “Burt” role here. He’s the go-to guy when it comes to understanding Mary Poppins, and he gets some of the best song and dance numbers, but rather than chimney sweeps the sequel gives us lamplighters.

The rest of the cast falls flat. Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson, who play the Banks children Anabel, John, and Georgie probably fare the best. They do what they’re supposed to do, and they’re fun to watch.

But Ben Whishaw is all doom and gloom as grown up Michael Banks, so much so that he nearly gave me a headache whenever he was on-screen. Whishaw is a very good actor, and I’ve enjoyed him a lot as Q in the recent Daniel Craig James Bond movies, but here he’s stuck in a one note role.

Emily Mortimer fares a little bit better but not much as grown up Jane Banks. She’s not as dour as her brother, but she’s stuck in an unconvincing subplot that attempts to set her up with lamplighter Jack. The story never convinced me that Jane would even give Jack the time of day, and the two share no chemistry together on-screen.

Colin Firth hams it up as a rather dull villain who has no depth whatsoever. Meryl Streep has one scene, as Cousin Topsy, in one of the movie’s livelier song and dance numbers, a bit that is supposed to hearken back to the “I Love to Laugh” sequence from the original.  It’s not as good, and again, like the entire production, there’s something grating about it.

Old friend David Warner plays Admiral Boom in scenes that add nothing to the film, and Angela Lansbury has one scene as the Balloon Lady. Of course, Dick Van Dyke does show up near the end, and while he alone can’t save this one, seeing him on-screen was one of the few memorable parts about the film.

I did not enjoy the script by David Magee. First of all, it is incredibly derivative of the original.  It pretty much tells the same exact plot of the first film.  The Banks family is in trouble, and Mary Poppins arrives to save the day. Now, I’m not arguing for a screenplay that is Mary Poppins vs. the Nazis, but something a little more refreshing and different would have gone a long way here. The plot itself bored me to tears, and offered few surprises.

I also did not enjoy the theme of the adult who supposedly forgot what it was like to be a child and needs help to be reminded. We just saw this theme in the equally flawed CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) where Pooh and friends had to save an adult Christopher Robin from himself by reminding him what it was like to be a kid. The theme didn’t work in that movie, and it doesn’t work here. There’s a reason Michael Banks is so upset, and it has nothing to do with forgetting to be a child. He’s lost his wife, and he’s about to lose his home, and he has three young children. Sorry, Disney, but Mary Poppins isn’t quite the answer to this man’s problems.

The screenplay also ignores two of the other central characters from MARY POPPINS, Jane and Michael’s parents, George and Winnifred Banks. They’re barely mentioned at all in this sequel, and if you’re a fan of the original, you kind of want to know what happened to them, since Mary Poppins didn’t arrive in that first movie only to save the children. She was there for the parents as well.

And since this sequel is so derivative of the original, at times you feel as if you are watching a remake rather than a sequel, except MARY POPPINS RETURNS has none of the memorable songs that the original had.  MARY POPPINS gave us “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Feed the Birds,” “Step in Time,” and “Chim-Chim-Cheree” to name just a few.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS does get better as it goes along, and it saves its best stuff, especially its song and dance numbers, for its second half.  The rousing “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” was probably my favorite dance number in the movie, but again, it’s highly derivative of the “Step In Time” number from the original.

The sequence involving Big Ben is also noteworthy, and the final number “Nowhere to Go But Up” is one of the better song and dance sequences in the film. Had this number occurred early on, and the rest of the film were to have gone on and explored uncharted territory, then perhaps MARY POPPINS RETURNS would have been something special.

As it stands, it’s not very special at all.

In fact, MARY POPPINS RETURNS isn’t much better than a standard by the numbers sequel, offering little to fans of the original other than a rehash of the same plot points but without the wonderful Sherman brothers’ songs.

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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) – Mild, Underwhelming Children’s Fare

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Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) talks with Pooh in CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed the Disney cartoons featuring Winnie the Pooh. My favorite was the short WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE (1966). So, I was eager to trek off to the theater to see CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018), a live action tale featuring a now adult Christopher Robin having one more adventure with his stuffed animal friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN opens nicely, with a montage chronicling the relationship between a young Christopher Robin and his “friends” Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo. The opening sequence ends with Christopher Robin telling his playmates that it’s time for him to leave, that he needs to go off to school and grow up, and while Christopher seems perfectly at ease about this, Pooh and company are a little less so and are very sad to see the boy leave them, not fully understanding why he has to go.

The action then switches to years later where an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) lives in London with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Things should be wonderful, but they’re not.  Christopher has a very demanding job which keeps him away from his family, and both his wife and daughter are letting him know about it.

Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh has had enough of missing Christopher Robin and decides to go looking for him in the outside world. When the two meet, it’s just in time for Pooh and his friends to help Christopher see the light and realize that his family  comes first.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN looks wonderful, with its late 1940s costumes and set design, and the CGI effects on Pooh and company are flawless.  The talking stuffed animals here are sufficiently cute and cuddly.

But the plot point of a father being too busy to spend time with his family is hardly original, and since this story adds little that is new to the concept, it really works against this movie.

Plus, the story itself doesn’t hold up.

For starters, Christopher Robin is shown as a man who does love his family but unfortunately is stuck in a demanding job. It’s not as if he has the option of spending time with his family and chooses not to. He doesn’t.  If anyone needs a change of heart in this story, it’s his employer, not him.

Second, Pooh and friends don’t exactly rush to the rescue. They try to help by attempting to return to Christopher Robin the “important papers” he left behind, and when they meet Madeline they end up working together, but it’s a not a direct “rescue mission.” They do help Christopher Robin “see the light” but in a roundabout inadvertent way.

I was largely underwhelmed by CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. While I enjoyed its charm and the nostalgia of seeing Pooh and company back on-screen again, it simply wasn’t all that lively or memorable.

Director Marc Foster keeps the pace deliberate and slow, making for a rather dull movie. I’m also not quite sure who the film is marketed for. The family drama which takes up most of the movie is definitely geared more for adults, while Pooh’s story is seemingly aimed at the very young.  It’s not the kind of lively script that’s going to hold the interest of older children.

Foster also directed QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), the second Daniel Craig James Bond film, a movie a lot of people didn’t like, but it’s one of my favorite Craig Bonds, as well as the horror movie WORLD WAR Z (2013). CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a far cry from these two movies, and I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I did SOLACE and Z.

The screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder is pleasant but uninspiring. Pooh and his buddies enjoy plenty of little moments but few if any big ones. The family tale of Christopher Robin trying to make time for his family largely falls flat. The result is a mixed bag of a script which tends to gravitate to the mundane, even with the majority of the characters being CGI created fluffy stuffed animals that can talk.

Tom McCarthy was one of the writers who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015), while Allison Schroeder was one of the writers who worked on HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two phenomenal movies. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is not on the level of either one of these. Not even close.

Ewan McGregor is okay in the lead role as the adult Christopher Robin, but he certainly didn’t wow me. In fact, the character rather bored me, and so if Christopher Robin is guilty of anything in this movie, it’s that he’s become a dull unimaginative adult rather than an overworked one, yet the script doesn’t really play up this angle.

Likewise, Hayley Atwell is just okay as Evelyn, the wife who is clearly frustrated with her busy husband and can’t seem to get through to him. Atwell is known these days as Agent Peggy Carter in some of the Marvel superhero movies and the short-lived AGENT CARTER TV series (2015-16).

In the important role of young Madeline Robin, Bronte Carmichael acquits herself well, but the character struggles to rise above the cliché.

The voice actors don’t fare all that better, except for Jim Cummings, who provides the voices of both Pooh and Tigger. Cummings has been voicing these characters for quite a while now, since the 1980s, and he does a fine job here. Pooh and Tigger were probably my two favorite characters in the movie.

Brad Garrett voiced Eeyore, Nick Mohammed provided the voice for Piglet, Peter Capaldi lent his voice for Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo for Kanga, Sara Sheen voiced Roo, and veteran character actor Toby Jones provided the voice for Owl. All of these folks were okay but no one knocked it out of the park.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN taken as a whole was largely underwhelming. The adults in the story were dull, the main child a cliché, and the talking stuffed animals were oddly reserved and rather passive. Worse, its main story of a father who’s “lost his way” and needs to reconnect with his family doesn’t really resonate or have the desired impact. That’s because the adult Christopher Robin in this movie is not a man who now shuns his childhood imagination and replaces it with a love of work, but rather, he’s a man who’s simply too busy to recall the imagination he once had. And the realization that “hey, maybe I can be a bit less busy,” really isn’t all that dramatic or compelling.

As a result, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a mildly entertaining movie, best reserved for folks who enjoyed Pooh as a kid and are curious to see him on the big screen again. It should serve as a fair reunion.

I seriously doubt many new fans will emerge after watching this movie.

For me though, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN didn’t come close to satisfying my appetite for a new Pooh adventure.

Yep, there’s still a rumbly in my tumbly.

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