Mary Poppins does shade, but she doesn’t really do irony. That’s why it’s disconcerting, in the first minutes of Mary Poppins Returns, to see Lin-Manuel Miranda singing an ode to the “Lovely London Sky” as smokestacks belch into the dawn. It soon becomes clear, though, that this movie will pay elaborate fan service; if anything, the opening number starts to look like a missed opportunity to acknowledge the half-century’s passing since Disney first brought the supernanny to the screen.
Why a new Mary Poppins, now? You’ve just supplied the answer by clicking on this review. The iconic stature of Julie Andrews’s peerlessly poised performance grows by the year, burnished this century by the lavish Mary Poppins stage musical. Perhaps thanks to the success of that show, Mary Poppins Returns is very much a movie musical, ready to leap onto the stage at a moment’s notice.
Beyond Miranda, the film has ties to the stage in the form of composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman (collaborators on Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Director Rob Marshall helmed 2002’s Chicago and 2014’s Into the Woods; he’ll also direct Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid. The fact that original Mary Poppins co-composer Richard M. Sherman gets an opening credit as music consultant is the first of many assurances this team isn’t out to reinvent any wheels.
Of course, there’s only one Julie Andrews. New nanny Emily Blunt is fascinating to watch, in part because her signature note as an actor is suppressed melancholy. She spends the whole film looking like someone’s died and she’s trying to figure out when to tell the children. She pairs well with Miranda, whose lamplighter Jack is more tender and less antic than Dick Van Dyke’s Bert.
David Magee (Finding Neverland) wrote the screenplay from a story conceived with John DeLuca and Marshall; the plot once again turns on a disillusioned dad. In that case, that means the grown Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw), a reluctant banker whose family’s financial situation has become precarious since the recent death of his wife — leaving Michael alone at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with the couple’s kids (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, John Dawson).
Unless Michael can raise the equivalent of a year’s salary in a week, he’ll lose the house. In the event, that turns into a search for the certificate that will prove the late Mr. Banks Sr. bought shares in the bank. While Michael and Jane (Emily Mortimer) turn the house upside down, their former nanny returns to keep the kids occupied with all manner of strange adventures.
Obviously those journeys are going to have to involve magical changes of clothing, a sequence featuring animated co-stars, and an updated “Step In Time”; this one, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” involves lamplighters stunting on bikes. Marshall showed in Chicago that he’s able to create exciting dance sequences (Joey Pizzi, his choreographic collaborator from that film, worked on this one as well), and here Marshall makes better use of special effects than with the overproduced Into the Woods.
The production saves its biggest spoonsful of sugar until the final act — and that does mean a bit of a wait, since the new film runs less than ten minutes shy of the original’s 139-minute length. Regarding the cameos you know are coming, even if you don’t know exactly what they are, suffice it to say they’re genuinely heartwarming, buoyed by songs that feel precisely judged without nodding too explicitly to the first movie’s material.
The film’s final moments are so buoyant, in fact, that you’re left wondering whether it would have cut too close to the bone to make mortality the movie’s emotional linchpin. It feels odd that the plot turns on a lost mother we never met, when Disney legends’ indomitable spirits and frail frames are right there before us.
There’s also the tableau established in the opening song: a nation amidst economic depression, furiously burning fossil fuels. Stepping into that world doesn’t exactly feel like escapism, but nor does the movie dare nod at any particular resonance the setting might have for 21st century moviegoers. Mary remains, then, as she’s always been: exciting, enigmatic, elusive. How does she do it?