Mary Poppins Returns is a fun, family-friendly breath of nostalgia filled with great songs, memorable performances, and just the right amount of sugar to make the holidays go down.
The original Mary Poppins is the cornerstone of Disney’s greatness – it has everything: magic, music, comedy, and a resonant message about the meaning of family, so trying to recapture that particular bottled lightning seems, to me, an unenviable, insurmountable task. However, Rob Marshall (director of Best Picture Winner Chicago) and lyricist-composers Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman seem largely up to the task, bringing some sure bets along with them, to general success. With musical stars like Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda supported by brilliant actors like Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, and David Warner, Mary Poppins Returns seems a sure thing.
Mary Poppins returns to Cherry Tree Lane after Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) are all grown-up with troubles of their own. Michael, who now has three children, is about to lose his house (he’s fighting that nagging grown-up affliction of having your head in the clouds while needing your feet on the ground). His three children, Annabel, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) do a bit more of the taking care of him than he does of them, so they’re determined to do their part. Because of this, they need help from Mary Poppins more than ever before. She arrives on the wind, as she did before so long ago, bringing magic along with her.
Emily Blunt is delightfully pitch-perfect as the titular nanny, playing the role as coyly matter of fact, lovingly direct while still mysterious. She brings her own magic to the character, not attempting to imitate the unparalleled Dame Julie Andrews (who had a bit of a return to film on the same day with Aquaman), but making the character hers. Her best song, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is Returns‘ answer to “Feed the Birds,” and it’s genuinely moving.
Similarly, Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack (basically Bert), and he’s in his element here, playing the audience’s point of connection to the story. He gets three numbers tailor-made for him: “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky,” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” and “A Cover is not the Book” (which feels as though composers Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman wrote specifically for Miranda, the Hamilton creator). He’s completely engaging as Jack, charismatic and fun, the wide-eyed guy who knows he’s in a Mary Poppins story and how magical that can be.
My main criticism comes in a few small ways. One, there are two numbers whose excellent music and lyrics are undone by the distractingly bad visual execution. On its own, “Can You Imagine That?” is an excellent song, but its visuals are truly awful, but the entire animated sequence containing “A Cover is not the Book” is stellar, a contender for some of the best animation of the year. It’s hard to believe they’re featured in the same film because one clearly doesn’t belong. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep’s scene is similarly terrible in its execution. Nothing about it is good, at all. She’s neither charming nor memorable, except in that she added about ten minutes to a two-hour long film, and I was thoroughly irritated by her addition. All in all, that’s only two scenes in an otherwise excellent film, but they’re really bad scenes.
In the end, Mary Poppins Returns is just not going to rival the original in its lasting-power; the charm is there, but it’s nothing in comparison to the 1964 film, through absolutely no real fault of either Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Rob Marshall. It’s just hard to recapture something so phenomenal. Mary Poppins Returns has some real moments of family-friendly magic alongside some deeply uneven sequences. Emily Blunt is enchanting, the kids are adorable, Lin-Manuel Miranda is funny, and the side characters are engaging. However, one of the two major animation sequences seems perplexedly half-conceived while the other is superb, and most of the songs are nicely catchy.