In the midst of Disney’s IP regeneration bonanza, as the studio proceeds to unearth its hallowed classics and reformat them as modern-day mega-blockbusters, Mary Poppins Returns takes a sort of refreshing turn for the nostalgic. Make no mistake, this 54-years-later sequel to one of Disney’s most celebrated films is obviously a bottom-line cash-in move for the studio itself, yet another billion-dollar return to the well. But that doesn’t preclude these stars and filmmakers from delivering something lovely, and indeed they have – this is a film of boundless energy and joy, made with a respect for not only the original film but for the old-school classic Disney mold.
As opposed to the upcoming onslaught of reboots at the House of Mouse, whereby the hand-drawn animated classics are basically put through the CG ringer and then churned out as shot-by-shot remakes, Mary Poppins Returns is a jubilant throwback to not only the spirit but also the methods of classical Disney creations. Its charm lies in the way it fuses the new to the old, merging CG with hand-drawn animation, blending current choreography with classic melodies, and using modern tools to deliver a film that isn’t merely retro but has traditional DNA coursing through its veins.
Emily Blunt takes up the mantle from Julie Andrews, assuming the role of the classic titular character, who flies in on an umbrella, conjures all sorts of magic from her carpet bag, and makes all sorts of mischief in spite of her casually aloof demeanor. It’s 20 years after the events of the original film, in Depression-era London. The Banks children, now all grown up, are once again in dire need of a little enchantment in their lives. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a widower raising three young children of his own, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), in his childhood home on 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The loss of his wife has left Michael in shambles, so much so that he is on the verge of losing his house as well, unless he can repay his loan in full to the mustache-twirling bank manager (Colin Firth, who, as a Mamma Mia! refugee, surely included a contract rider stipulating he not sing at all in this film).
Enter Mary Poppins, returning just in time to avert a Banks family meltdown. Blunt somehow conjures a different version of the character than Andrews’ Oscar-winning creation while still feeling like a natural extension of it – wry and aloof but always with a knowing wink, full of quick quips, always advocating for logic and common sense while taking the young Banks siblings on increasingly imaginative adventures. Mary and the children are joined by London lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the musical odyssey, bouncing from one elaborately-choreographed sequence to the next, each with its own life-affirming message buried in the lyrics. While no selection rises to the level of the original’s classics, the songbook is suitably hummable, and the brightly-colored bombast is often dazzling; director Rob Marshall always wisely teams with impeccable craftsmen like Cinematographer Dion Beebe and Production Designer John Myhre, and Marshall himself has become defter at translating brash musical choreography into a cinematic context. His work here is as good as it’s ever been, and the key to its success is its firm footing in classical Disney lore. The effects in Mary Poppins Returns are not seamless, and that’s by design – the integration of classical hand-drawn animation is an enthralling throwback that is the film’s defining success. The only thing missing is a bouncy-ball sing-a-long sequence, which, in all seriousness, would’ve been amazing.
Mary Poppins the character remains something of a uniquely inscrutable figment, and most certainly the object of these stories rather than the subject. Mystery is her deepest trait, obviously, but it denies her any opportunity for a legitimate character arc in this or any story that bears her name. Apparently, no one knows where she goes after the Banks’ acute issues are resolved, nor if she bothers to float down to assist any other families in crisis, but she sure is a fascinating creation, and Blunt is nothing short of beguiling every second she’s on screen. Those seconds start to dwindle as the film moves closer to its conclusion, as the musical numbers shift towards the larger ensemble and center on the characters who, ya know, have actual stakes in this story. I suppose that’s purposeful – Mary’s purpose is to jolt the Banks family from their entrenched rut, and the more they emerge from it, the less she is ultimately needed. Even so, the film suffers whenever Blunt isn’t onscreen to anchor the action with her charming magnetism. Nevertheless, Mary Poppins Returns is still a wonderful experience, an immersive time capsule to origins of Disney magic that feels like a legitimate sequel rather than a cynical reboot.