3.5 out of 5 stars.
Walt Disney’s 1964 film “Mary Poppins” is hugely beloved and widely regarded as the studio’s greatest live-action movie. So despite the fact that author P.L. Travers wrote multiple stories about the magical nanny, it’s still a tall order for Disney to make a sequel to the classic film over 50 years later.
Lining up top tier talent for the cast and crew, Rob Marshall directs “Mary Poppins Returns,” which is still set on Cherry Tree Lane in London, and which still revolves around the Banks children. Only this time, Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up. Jane (Emily Mortimer) is an activist like her mother, working on behalf of the laborers, while Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three young children who just learned that he has only a few days to pay off a loan from the bank or he will lose his home. It’s just as things seem at their bleakest that their childhood nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns, and uses her trademark combination of sternness and imagination to help remind not only Michael what it’s like to be a kid again, but also his children, who have been forced to grow up in the time since their mother’s passing.
There’s a rather unnecessary subplot here involving Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), the president of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank who wants to prevent Jane and Michael from finding the shares their father had in the bank so he can close on their house. The film works best when it adheres to a little less structure, allowing instead the relationships and feelings among the characters to take charge. With “Mary Poppins Returns,” the filmmakers have successfully crafted a film that looks and feels not of this time, and that truly exists in the same universe as its predecessor. That’s a blessing and a curse, however, as the film follows much the same structure and has many scenes that adhere closely to scenes from the first movie, relying more on nostalgia than originality and losing some of that sense of wonder in the process. The lamplighters, led by Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) are comparable to Bert and his chimney-sweeps; there’s a number in which Mary, Jack, and the kids visit her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and turn upside-down, similar to a scene in the first in which they float up to the ceiling; and the finale, in which the ensemble performs the song “Nowhere to Go But Up,” is as exuberantly joyous as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
But that doesn’t mean that this film isn’t still a delight to watch on its own. It’s an old school musical in every sense, from the big dance numbers, sweet ballads, and colorful costumes and set pieces. The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman may not be as immediately memorable as the original music by the Sherman brothers, but it’s hard to replicate perfection. There are still many gems among the new music, including the opening song “Lovely London Sky,” the ballad “The Place Where Lost Things Go” that serves as the emotional heart of the score, the exuberant “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” and the aforementioned closing number. The lyrics for such songs as “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover is Not the Book” trip delightfully over the tongue and fit in well with their imaginative surroundings (even if the latter is a tad out of character for Mary). Cherry Tree Lane and that old London look are rendered remarkably well, while one of the biggest scenes in the film involves a hybrid of live-action and hand drawn 2D animation in the same vein as the first movie, only more extensive—this is where the film’s creativity, despite being obviously inspired by the previous movie, is really lets loose, and it’s joyous to see old school Disney animation on the big screen again.
The cast is also great, from the fun new characters to the new actors playing familiar characters. Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson all play Michael’s children, and they do a fine job, while Julie Walters plays the Banks’ longtime housekeeper Ellen. Whishaw brings raw, heart-breaking emotion to every scene he’s in as the scatter-brained Michael struggles to keep himself together. You can also look for some delightful little cameos from Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury that just about make the movie. Like Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, what he lacks in a convincing Cockney accent Miranda makes up for in enthusiasm as he sings and dances his heart out throughout the film. And it’s hard to imagine anyone more worthy of taking on the role of Mary Poppins from Julie Andrews than Emily Blunt. Blunt’s Mary is stern and proper but can also let loose and have fun. She keeps the spirit of the character intact while also setting her portrayal apart from that of Andrews’.
While in many ways “Mary Poppins Returns” feels more like a homage to the first movie as opposed to its own film, it’s still a marvelous movie. It may have been made for the sole purpose of turning a profit, but at least it was made with respect. And it’s hard to deny that these days, we could use more films as innocent and happy as this one. It looks and feels like no other movie being made today; it looks and at least the majority of the time feels like a classic Disney movie made in the vein of Walt Disney himself, and it’s hard not to be swept away by the joy in that.
Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG.