“Practically perfect in every way” is how the eccentric, magical nanny Mary Poppins is described both the 1964 Disney classic that shares her name and in its sequel, 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns. In both cases, it’s meant to reflect how Mary Poppins is perceived by those around her as an unflappable, endlessly resourceful person who always has a solution to any problem. In the sequel, however, it takes on a new and probably unintended meaning; it conveys a sense that while what we’re seeing and experiencing has insurmountable flaws, the sum total of its parts is something akin to perfection in a very practical, applicable sense.
Set 25 years after the original, Returns sees Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt)…well, returning…to once again guide the now-adult Banks children Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Michael has three children of his own, is still grieving the death of his wife a year earlier, and is on the verge of losing the family home to the bank. Under Mary’s guidance, and with assistance from plucky lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) the family re-experiences the power of imagination and discovers what’s really important in life. (Hint: It involves a LOT of singing.)
Let’s get one thing out of the way right away: Mary Poppins Returns will in no way, shape, or form displace the original, which is universally regarded as a classic of family entertainment and one of Disney’s crowning live-action achievements. Nobody knows that better than the people making the movie, which might explain why director Rob Marshall and screenwriter David Magee decide not to reinvent the Poppins experience and choose instead to basically translate the original through modern cinema technology. It’s a proper sequel and not a reboot, but it often gives off that vibe if only because it hits virtually every beat of the original in ways that would have been completely impossible 55 years ago.
A perfect example is one of the film’s crowning moments, when Mary takes the children and Jack into the painted vistas of a porcelain bowl much like how she took Michael and Jane into a sidewalk painting in the original. The sequel version still contains a mix of live-action and delightfully two-dimensional animation, but the attention to detail and spectacle here is extraordinary, from the wild set design of the musical numbers to the fact that the physics of being inside a bowl become a major plot point. Even the costumes are designed to look as if they were drawn on the live-action characters.
Unfortunately, the bowl sequence is so stunning and so expertly-choreogrpahed in every possible way that it makes the rest of the film feel slightly anemic, especially since it’s placed before the narrative’s halfway mark. What’s clearly meant to be the film’s high point, a Miranda-led piece called “Trip A Little Light Fantastic”, comes off as horribly theatrical and overextended in comparison. It ends up being doubly disappointing, since the song is actually quite good. However, it gets drawn out so long that it becomes exhausting and truly feels like someone simply filmed a stage performance. (The same problem afflicts the film’s final number, as well.)
The film comes off as a very old-fashioned, classic Disney musical, for both good and bad in roughly equal measures. On one hand, it’s a little refreshing to experience something so sincerely innocent. Considering the film’s focus on embracing nostalgia and childhood imagination, this makes complete sense. On the other hand, it can be hard to digest some aspects of the film for modern audiences. The actual plot that happens in-between the songs — about Michael trying to save the Banks’ home — is so slight and predictable that its presence becomes nearly insulting. It’s the shakiest of frameworks upon which to hang the musical numbers, and the slightest examination of it causes it to crumble.
But that isn’t to say the film isn’t worth recommending on some level. Mary Poppins Returns is charming as can be, and in many cases effortlessly so. From the enthusiastic cast to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s sublime music, it’s both the medicine and the sugar all at once (if I may borrow one of Mary’s own catchphrases). It’s two hours of unashamed brightness in a dark time that still contains a timeless message about seeing the world through magical eyes. The technical expression of it definitely has issues, and there might be times when the film comes off as too desperate to please, but it’s very difficult to fault it for what it’s trying to.
A large part of the film’s success rests squarely on Emily Blunt’s prim, proper, posh shoulders. There is absolutely no substitute for Julie Andrews’ Mary (or for Julie Andrews period), and Blunt knows this more than anyone. She puts her own spin on Mary, hewing far closer to her original book incarnation than Andrews did. Her Mary is stricter, sterner, and less openly warm, but she nevertheless projects an air of genuine care and concern for her charges. Blunt is perfect in the role regardless, instantly endearing with her razor-sharp wit and her air of quiet superiority. Her Mary is in some ways slightly more complex and open to speculation about her true motivation and origins, feeling intentionally more grounded than Andrews even if it was Andrews’ fairy-like otherworldliness that made her Mary so enduring.
The supporting cast does pretty well, too, and this is often their show as much as it is Mary’s. Lin-Manuel Miranda is great as Jack, appealing and game even if his Cockney accent isn’t terribly improved over Dick Van Dyke’s infamously awful attempt at one from the original. Miranda is, however, just about the only person in the known universe who could make a rap work in a song as Vaudevillian as “A Cover Is Not The Book.” Another standout is Meryl Streep as Mary’s cousin Topsy, who’s showstopper “Turning Turtle” contains some of Wittman’s most amusing lyrics and an infectious, full-bodied vocal performance. Both Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer also give great, openly emotional performances, clearly both thrilled to be part of the film.
There are a number of other great moments in the film that are too good to spoil here, but suffice it to say that despite the film’s faults (which are very much on display), it’s almost impossible to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns without a smile. Much like Mary herself, who never explains anything and who’s mission is to turn the mundane into the magical, Mary Poppins Returns is a blissfully genuine two hours of emotional uplift that (almost) never raises questions as to why it exists. Or why it took 55 years to revisit the world’s most famous nanny. The film might not be practically perfect in every way, but it’s close enough to do the trick.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B