Over the last few years, Disney has been dipping into their vault with great regularity. They seem to have realized they have a ton of beloved properties they can exploit for remakes or sequels. Their latest attempt at taking advantage of built-in fan-bases is Mary Poppins Returns, a direct follow-up to the 1964 original. I am happy to report it is actually pretty enjoyable. It does a good job of recreating the spirit of Mary Poppins with a couple of fun performances and one tremendous sequence. The music is not as memorable and the story is not particularly engaging. But it still works as an inoffensive dose of nostalgia for adults and a sweet piece of entertainment for kids.
This time around, the now grown-up Banks children are struggling. Michael’s wife has died and his three young children are taking care of him as well as themselves. When he is on the verge of losing their home to the bank, Mary Poppins flies in to help the family put itself back together once again.
If it sounds similar to Mary Poppins, it feels a lot like it too. In this case, a sequel that sometimes plays as a remake is a fitting choice. It is very much an old-fashioned production, without the quick-cutting, fancy visuals or pop-culture references that make up many family movies these days. It is just pleasant, with likable characters. It is a satisfying way to spend 124 minutes (minus the end credits).
Emily Blunt stars in the title role. Her performance is a perfect continuation of the mannerisms Julie Andrews introduced 54 years ago. She is a fairy-tale deus ex machina who appears in a family’s life and magically fixes all of their problems. Somehow, both Andrews and Blunt make her whimsy charming and lovable instead of obnoxious and contrived. She is a delightful character; a supernanny who materializes out of the fog to save the day with singing and fantasy. Blunt never winks at the audience to show she knows this is silly. Goofy fun is serious business to Mary Poppins and Blunt delivers her lines with a matter-of-factness that is very amusing.
Lin-Manuel Miranda plays her sidekick of sorts, Jack the lamplighter (the lamplighters take the place of the chimney sweeps from the original). He is also good, singing with enthusiasm and cheer. His Jack is a happy guy whose positive outlook spreads to every scene he is in. As the Banks adults, Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer have the boring, straight roles. They are both fine, but it is certainly below their individual skill levels. The same goes for Colin Firth as Michael’s boss. The kids are cute and crucial to the story, though they are mainly asked to react to the fantastic sights around them. While the supporting cast has some talented actors, this is Blunt and Miranda’s show and they carry it well.
The sequel suffers the most in comparison to its predecessor when it comes to the musical numbers. The ones in Mary Poppins Returns are okay, but I do not think they will have the longevity of “A Spoonful of Sugar,” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” among others. However, several of them serve their purpose. My favorite occurs during the best section of the movie, a trip inside the animated world of a ceramic bowl.
While I am used to animation mixing with live-action, seeing old-school, 2D drawings interacting with the actors gave me a thrill combinations of that kind are generally unable to do. As impressive as modern animation can be, there is something about hand drawings that looks more natural, even if it is not nearly as realistic. Maybe it is because that is what I grew up with, which makes it the attempt at nostalgia that worked best on me. Anyway, it leads to Mary and Jack singing “A Cover is Not the Book” along with a bunch of cartoon animals. It is fun and high energy with good choreography and great performances from the stars. It fits perfectly in that stretch and represents the movie at its most purely entertaining.
Though I am getting tired of Disney’s constant revisiting of their own material, that does not mean it does not result in some successes. Where Christopher Robin was a disappointment that did not totally understand what it was reimagining, Mary Poppins Returns brings back a treasured character in a way that makes it clear the filmmakers understood her appeal. An argument could be made that it is too familiar, too reminiscent of the original. That being said, this was designed to be familiar, not to break new ground. I am unsure if this will jump-start a franchise or create a new generation of Mary Poppins fans, but it is a pretty good time.
3½ out of 5
Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins
Ben Whishaw as Michael Banks
Emily Mortimer as Jane Banks
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack
Joel Dawson as Georgie
Pixie Davies as Anabel
Nathanael Saleh as John
Julie Walters as Ellen
Colin Firth as Wilkins
Directed by Rob Marshall
Screenplay by David Magee