Film & Television

Extreme Childcare:
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ and ‘Roma’

When I was on maternity leave, twenty-one years ago, I struggled finding childcare (newborn babycare, really) that I was comfortable with. I considered daycare centers, family daycare, and in-home care. At one point, nervous, frustrated, and coping with a bit of post-partum, I confessed to a friend that there was only one solution that was going to satisfy me. Julie Andrews herself would have to arrive on my doorstop with her flowered hat and parrot-head umbrella.

Now, having just seen Mary Poppins Returns, I can add Emily Blunt to that short shortlist.

The much-promoted and long-anticipated Mary Poppins Returns may not quite live up to Disney’s 1964 classic. That movie, which won a Best Actress Oscar for Andrews, was made decades before audiences were inundated with computer-generated special effects. When Andrews, costar Dick Van Dyke, and the Banks children jumped into a sidewalk chalk drawing and rode a cartoon carousel, we were delighted. The songs were more than memorable; they ingrained themselves into our childhoods. And, if we were learning about important concepts like charity, responsibility, family unity, or even women’s suffrage, they were wrapped up in such a sweet spoonful of sugar that we happily swallowed them whole.

Mary Poppins Returns is not a remake. Director Rob Marshall’s new movie is a sequel—or rather, a continuation. Thirty years later, during England’s “Great Slump” (akin to our own Great Depression), the Banks children are all grown up. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a social activist. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a struggling artist and a widower with three young children. At risk is the Banks family manse on Cherry Tree Lane. Enter — or rather, re-enter — Mary Poppins to set things right once again.

Blunt chose not to watch the 1964 film as she prepared for the iconic role. Her Poppins is a bit sharper than the original (although many argue that it’s closer to P.L. Travers’s literary creation). Like her predecessor, though, Blunt is lovely to look at and to listen to. Her voice is stronger than it was in Marshall’s Into the Woods. (You can hear it at its most moving in “The Place Where Lost Things Go.” In fact, any comparison to her predecessor aside, she’s really quite marvelous. And she’s well-matched by costar (multi-award winner, and acknowledged MacArthur Foundation genius) Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays Jack, a character much like Van Dyke’s original Bert. Miranda’s transition from founding father Hamilton to cockney lamplighter is believable. In one of his adventures with the magical nanny, a trip inside a priceless but chipped Royal Doulton bowl, he even gets to rap a bit. And, if the younger stars aren’t charming enough (they are), there’s a spirited cameo by Van Dyke (age 93 and still dancing on desktops) and a lovely coda by another Disney legend, Angela Lansbury (also age 93). Meryl Streep and Colin Firth round out the top-notch cast.

Unlike the nanny herself, Mary Poppins Returns isn’t “practically perfect in every way.” Some effects are overdone; some plot twists unnecessary and rather confusing. Some sequences are so obviously an homage to similar scenes in the original that they distract. But if you’re looking for a reason to smile for two hours and ten minutes (which do fly by), you can’t do much better.

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