It’s fitting that Mary Poppins Returns features Meryl Streep as a character who flips things upside down to correct them, as things must genuinely be topsy-turvy for a legacy sequel to 1964’s Mary Poppin to not only be decent, but highly enjoyable. And it’s a Rob Marshall film, no less! While I can’t say I had much of a personal stake in whether or not this follow-up would work, I will say I was more than ecstatic by the end of this feature, thanks to the level of emotion I felt in what I saw, along with how impressed I was with the visuals. Sure, the film reworks a lot of the original’s signature moments for the sake a familiar story and themes, but that was just what was needed to have me so pleased with the results.
I’ll put this out there: as much as I recognize that Mary Poppins is regarded as a classic and how ingrained the songs are in the minds of many, it’s not quite a film I hold in such high esteem. I know it well enough and admire a lot about it, but it’s not a film I revisit all that much. Perhaps that’s the ideal way to view Mary Poppins Returns. Separated from the original, it is easy to see this 2018 take on the character created by P. L. Travers as a fun bit of fanciful Disney wonder wrapped up in a nice package. This film is a product of a company that knows there’s wealth to be gained from bringing Mary Poppins back, but there’s also enough wit and sentiment to be found in the writing, along with other quality aspects to admire.
Set in 1930s London, the story follows Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), who have now grown up. Michael has three children (Pixie Davis, Nathaneal Saleh, and Joel Dawson) who live with him in the house on Cherry Tree Lane. His wife has recently passed, but to keep things from heading too far out of order, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to help the Banks family once again.
Stepping into the role of Mary Poppins seems like a daunting task, but Blunt is undoubtedly up for the challenge. Riding a line between what Julie Andrews gave the part in her Oscar-winning performance and how Travers originally wrote the character, Blunt brings a more sardonic touch (along with plenty of whimsy). She is never mean, but the air of mystery is a bit more pronounced, helping distinguish the two performances, without moving too far away from how Disney made the role into a cinematic icon worth revisiting.
Mary Poppins may be the most important returning character to get right, but as far as new faces go, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a welcome presence as Jack, a cockney lamplighter, stepping in for Dick Van Dyke’s role as Bert in the original. Miranda and Blunt have a relaxed chemistry that works well for the movie, though neither of them overshadows what’s going on around them. Sure, they both have signature songs to perform and are often the center of attention, but the film understands how to share.
Knowing what they had to work with, Disney has spared no expense in providing a proper budget for Mary Poppins Returns to come to life. The film is a visual dream of imagery that is always delightful to watch. Costume design is bright and colorful. Various sets all look terrific. Even London’s sky doesn’t feel so oppressive, as it takes in the proper approach fit for the film. The visual effects never overwhelm, easily fitting with all we see. And a terrific hand-drawn animated segment that incorporates the live-action characters in a manner that amazes, while calling back to the original, tops it all off.
I suppose determining how much the sense of nostalgia feels like a way of distracting from whether or not this film is too derivative of the first will be one of the big talking points. The same sort of criticism was leveled at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the film this sequel feels surprisingly similar too (along with Paddington 2, down to some of the cast members involved in both). The takeaway I have is acknowledging what Mary Poppins Returns manages to get so right. It may be re-telling and remixing the previous film, but it’s smart enough to show signs of growth concerning the characters we meet. Not hurting is that I like all these performances.
Compared to Christopher Robin, a film that tried to force me into dislike its lead character because of his choice to be a responsible adult, there are real reasons to be concerned for Michael Banks. He’s facing real challenges, after suffering a tragic loss that comes standard with these types of stories, but still has weight. And he’s not even the lead character. Mary Poppins Returns knows the ensemble is important, but keeps much of the action centered around what the kids see.
As a musical, I’ll be curious to see if this film’s soundtrack takes off. All of the actors can sing, so there’s no real issue in that realm. Still, will “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” or “Nowhere to Go but Up” become hits to be celebrated in the years to come? It’s an impossible thing to say, but it’s not as if I walked into a Mary Poppins sequel with expectations that it needed to be another classic. As it stands, there’s a large variety of musical numbers, all cleverly staged, and different from one another. Some stop the narrative in its tracks, but the original film was not exactly expertly paced (or short).
There is a lot to admire here. Mary Poppins Returns makes good use of the property. No film necessarily requires a sequel, but given the fondness out there for this character, I’m happy to see a successful attempt to relaunch the famed nanny into a cinematic event that ended up being so very charming. The film looks great, features strong performances, and even got to me on a poignant level in a manner I didn’t expect. For all the spectacle Disney was able to fit into their Star Wars and superhero movies this year, I’m glad that same effort was able to go into this marvelous feature as well.