Disney Magic and Why ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is So Special

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Years ago I read an article which said at Disney “magic is made by optimizing the mundane.” I can’t think of a more perfect description of what Walt Disney tried to do in his career. For example, if we look at Disneyland: at its core is Main Street USA but it is executed in such a charming and idyllic way that it feels magical. I can’t think of any other corporate experience where I would enjoy sitting and taking in the ambiance like I do at Disneyland. What’s fascinating is I didn’t realize how much I missed this experience in Disney films until I walked out of Mary Poppins Returns. To say I was swept away in an experience of pure joy would be an understatement. It was true Disney magic and I LOVED it!

This is not to say I haven’t loved many recent Disney films. I loved Moana, and Coco was my favorite film of last year, but there’s something different about Mary Poppins Returns. It truly does optimize the mundane by taking the trials and pressures of life and reminding the audience to ‘trip a little light fantastic’ and smile a little more through your struggles. It’s one of the most joyful and effervescent experiences I’ve had at the cinemas in a long time.

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Obviously trying to make a sequel to the masterpiece that is Mary Poppins is a tall order and already I’m seeing many who are claiming this film is either too close the original or too far away. I thought they nailed the perfect balance of homage and newness. Emily Blunt is phenomenal as Mary. She gets that mixture of rigidity and whimsy just right (taking the mundane nature of child care and making it magical). She can also sing, which with recent Disney offerings like Beauty and the Beast isn’t always the case (it takes away from the escapism if the singing is bad).

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a delight as Jack, a lamplighter that could be seen as similar to Bert but he only has one job and he has a little bit of a budding relationship with now grown Jane (Emily Mortimer who is delightful). He gets the best song of the movie with ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’, and brings his broadway skills to all the choreography and jubilant musical sequences.

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And speaking of music, the songs are such a delight. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for weeks and it never fails to make me smile. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman did such a great job paying homage to the original while writing new and catchy tunes for a new generation to love. ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ is sweet and touching. ‘Turning Turtle’ is a fun little number featuring Meryl Streep in her small role. ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’ gives us Angela Lansbury and the whole cast floating away in a whimsical melody. ‘Underneath the Lovely London Sky’ immediately welcomes the audience to this magical, charming take on London. I love it!

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The 2D animation sequences are also a complete delight. I don’t know what else to say about them except that I had a huge smile on my face while watching Emily, Lin and the kids dancing amongst 2D animated animals and flowers. It simply made me happy.

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There is also a different message in Mary Poppins Returns than the original film. It has certain trappings that are the same like both involving a bank and a father but the take-away is quite different. In the original Mr Banks thinks he has everything figured out. He even sings about it in the ‘The Life I Lead’. Then Mary teaches him all that stuff he had neatly arranged means nothing and doesn’t last. Without a true bond with his children his life has no meaning. Mr Banks comes to this conclusion after hearing Bert’s advice in ‘A Man Has Dreams’ and as he goes to fly a kite with his kids happiness is promised the Banks family. (Again the ordinary task of kite flying made magical).

In this story, it’s a little different. Michael (Ben Whishaw who is wonderful in the role) has experienced great loss. Unlike his father he doesn’t think he has it all figured out. In fact, he knows he doesn’t. His wife has died and the house is going to be repossessed if they can’t find a bank share certificate from his father. He is reaching his rock bottom and I can relate to this more than the confident Mr Banks of the original film. He is a man in need of rescue, and he knows it. (Again, his father had no idea he was missing out on so much). This is when Mary Poppins comes along to help Jane and Michael (and the children too!) once again. As so often is the case in life, Michael’s friends and family come to help him through his trials and find happiness again. What a beautiful message.

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But it is not a morose film. Quite the contrary. I can rarely recall a more joyous and optimistic film than Mary Poppins Returns. Sometimes life can get me down and it is Disney magic that often gives me that lift I need to try a little harder and keep dreaming. That’s what this movie reminded me of. It spoke to me of the joy of dreaming and how art can uplift even the most mundane of days.

I have not been a big fan of most of the Disney live action remakes. They feel cold and clinical and usually have bad singing. However, with Mary Poppins Returns I was transported in a triumph of music, dance, optimism and animation. I loved the costumes (Sandy Powell with another triumph), perfect production design, old fashioned score and pretty much everything else being great. I guess it could have been edited a bit more judiciously but I was fine with the length because I was enjoying myself so much. I’ve a feeling hard core Disney fans will appreciate this movie more than most, as it definitely feels like a movie Walt would have loved. It’s straight from the heart and pure Disney magic!

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