Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Mary Poppins Redux (A Whole Not-So-New World)

 This past weekend, moviegoers could for the first time check out the live-action feature film version of Disney’s Aladdin. I didn’t rush to see it, and I doubt that I will. But I remember so vividly the day in 1992 when I took my kids (ages 14 and 10) to enjoy the animated Disney original, starring Robin Williams as a very mercurial—and very blue—genie. We were lucky enough to experience Aladdin in a grand old movie palace now used by the Disney company for major premieres. The El Capitan, built on Hollywood Boulevard in 1926, has been fully restored to all its Spanish Colonial Revival glory. Williams’ madcap humor, the Menken/Ashman/Rice songs, and above all the film’s brightly swirling animation made the three of us feel so happy that we didn’t much want to go home. Instead, we lingered under the neon-lit theatre marquee, singing and dancing.

We’re now in an era when Disney, trying to squeeze every last buck out of every last project, has taken to re-making its animation classics as live-action features, with CGI used to help the magic along. The live-action version of Beauty and the Beast was passable,, but I hardly saw the point of moving beyond the splendidly animated original. So why would I want to watch Aladdin and Jasmine pursue their courtship aboard a CGI-enhanced magic carpet?

I feel similarly about Mary Poppins. I read the books as a youngster, and then (as a high school senior) totally fell in love with the Disney musical film. Yes, I knew full well that Julie Andrews was a bit too pretty and too amiable to approximate P.L Travers’ spit-and-polish nanny, who performs acts of magic almost despite herself. Still, I was so taken with the film’s whole ensemble (despite Dick Van Dyke’s sad stab at a Cockney accent) that Mary Poppins felt enchanting to me, and to many of my classmates. Doubtless, much of our enthusiasm had to do with the fact that we were on the brink of leaving for college. At a point in our young lives when we were about to cross the threshold between childhood and the world of adult choices, it seemed very special to linger in a place built on sweet and solid family values.

Which made me very curious to see 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns.. I thoroughly approve of the sequel’s re-use of the charming home on Cherry Tree Lane, and have no problem with a script that features the now-grown-up Jane and Michael Banks  Emily Blunt is an inspired choice as the updated but mostly unchanged Mary Poppins: she can sing well enough, and conveys a nice tartness that tempers the sugary Disney approach. But here’s my problem: the new film appears determined to mimic the original, only more so. Every song and dance number seems required to replicate (in spades) what went before. If the original Mary and her charges jumped into a chalk picture that morphed into a cleverly animated sequence, Mary Poppins Returns must do something similar, played out at greater length. If the original had Uncle Albert (the incomparable Ed Wynn) floating on the ceiling, the sequel must feature Meryl Streep singing while upside down. Lin Manuel Miranda and a gaggle of lamplighters perform a lively rooftop dance number that’s clearly modeled on Van Dyke and his chimneysweeps. And the bank scenes are longer, fuller, scarier, and more determined than ever to show the evils of corporate capitalism: an ironic twist, given Disney’s reputation as a company that sweeps up everything in its path.   

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