Due Appreciations: “Mary Poppins Returns” and “The Force Awakens”

It is immensely difficult to meet expectations when continuing beloved film properties. In the case of Mary Poppins Returns, P.L. Travers, the author whose novels inspired the original 1964 Julie Andrews classic, was supportive of neither the original Disney effort nor any potential sequels. Her early rejection certainly complicated matters, but also the redolent magic captured by that first film made for a tough act to follow. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. It took 55 years, but finally a true sequel hit the screens to overall critical and audience approval.

(For a highly fictionalized version of the ill-fated P.L. Travers and Walt Disney courtship, see 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks with Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks.)

The Force Awakens faced arguably the more daunting task, following up the world’s most beloved cinematic franchise a decade after the last of the prequel trilogy that nearly killed it. Personally, I’m a big fan of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, while I pretty much loathed the preceding two prequels. Still, J.J. Abrams and crew, with the imperative assist of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back), successfully crafted the first chapter of a sequel trilogy that followed the beats of the original and remains to date the highest-grossing film ever at the domestic boxoffice, with a take of $936,662,225 unadjusted for inflation. Internationally, the film ranks third of all-time, with a final gross of $2.062 billion.

Though The Force Awakens received criticism for hewing too closely to the series’ 1977 first film, the balancing act of something new and something familiar was a critical and commercial smash. The reviews stand at 93% Fresh globally, per the aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes.

Mary Poppins Returns is by far the less successful of the two though still a sizable hit in both regards ($150,656,985 domestically at the time of this writing, just over $300 million globally, and 78% Fresh), however, as a filmmaking masterclass in remaining tonally respectful to an original classic while expanding its mythology, this high wire act is equally impressive.

For me, the finest compliment I can give Mary Poppins Returns is I did not think of Julie Andrews once while watching the film. Emily Blunt is magnificent in the role, as is the entirety of the cast. Most especially, a wonderfully warm and welcome cameo from the original’s Dick Van Dyke will likely cause the most hardened cynic to smile. Meryl Streep’s brief appearance made me laugh; Angela Landsbury brought a tear. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as Michael and Jane Banks — the children from the original film — are magnificent, the former especially in one of the year’s criminally under-recognized performances. The actors portraying the Banks’ children are adept and wholly believable in their roles.

And, I was a big fan of the original film.

Star Wars, though, to me is another beast entirely. I’ve been obsessed with the saga since the first film’s release. I enjoyed The Force Awakens a great deal, and believed it contained some truly iconic moments. I lost a bet that Daisy Ridley, who appeared to come out of nowhere, would be Oscar-nominated. Thankfully, the bet was not for money; regardless, she was a revelation. As was John Boyega as the embattled former stormtrooper Finn, and Oscar Isaac as this generation’s Han Solo, pilot Poe Dameron.

The script did exactly what it needed to do to return both devout and lapsed fans into the fold. Seeing our old friends Han, Leia and, all-too-briefly Luke, brought back memories of many childhoods. I’ll veer off-course with a vocal few and reiterate my belief that The Last Jedi was the better film. Still, J.J. — and Disney’s beleaguered Kathleen Kennedy — pulled off a small miracle. The canon is expanding into television, and the anticipated Episode 9 is a scant 11 months away.

We will see if the controversial one-two combo of The Last Jedi and Solo forever damaged the franchise, or if the lesser reception to those projects was a fluke.

I’d vote the latter.

Successfully returning cherished franchises to the mainstream is not new. 1993’s Harrison Ford-starrer The Fugitive, based on a 1960’s television series, was a tremendous, Best Picture Oscar-nominated success, and the new Halloween attained a lifetime domestic gross of nearly $160 million, the highest numbers of the series. Creed and Creed II have grossed more than all Rocky films, again not adjusted for inflation, save for Rocky III and Rocky IV.

The bottom line is there are no deeply-held secrets to rebooting or returning the classics. The only rule that appears to hold is simple: Stay faithful to the source material and respect your audience.

To that end, check out Mary Poppins Returns, now playing at a theater near you.

P.S. As an unabashed fan of The Last Jedi, the sequence below was not lost on me, and in truth this article just may not be that much of a coincidence …

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Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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