This holiday season, Disney is continuing their rampage of exploiting audiences’ nostalgia by cranking out sequels and remakes of their beloved classics, and it’s 1964’s timeless Mary Poppins that’s currently up to bat. I’m a harsh judge of Disney’s current film slate, but for all its manipulative wickedness, they’ve somehow managed to release a genuinely charming update this time around. Fans of the original (and Disney fanatics in general) will be happy to know that Mary Poppins Returns is mostly a delight – it’s a warm, playful romp through London with the practically perfect Emily Blunt running the show, and turning in a terrific performance as the titular nanny.
It’s been decades since her original visit, and Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) have grown up with families of their own. Following the death of his wife, Michael is struggling to pay the bills and raise his three children on his own. On top of all this grief, the bank tells him that if he’s unable to pay back his loans by the end of the week, they’ll be forced to take his home (the same childhood house from the first film). With perfect timing, Mary Poppins (Blunt) flies down from above, returning to Cherry Tree Lane and, with the help of her friend, a lamp lighter named Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), helps the family rediscover wonder and joy in their darkest hour.
A sequel to Mary Poppins has actually been stuck in development since the release of the original, and the fact that this a continuation of the story rather than one of Disney’s usual remakes makes the whole thing a bit more inoffensive. Thankfully, Mary Poppins Returns is a pretty good film on top of that. It keeps things simple and light, even with the central conflict being a bit darker than the original’s was, and that simplicity is what helps the film stay fun. There’s not too much deeper meaning or ideas behind what you’re being presented with, and while that might normally hurt a movie, it’s exactly what this one needs to be.
Blunt is very good as Mary, setting herself apart from the legendary Julie Andrews while still paying homage to her. Blunt’s portrayal is familiar but also a bit more playful than Andrews’. She never hides the fact that she’s thoroughly enjoying herself while taking the children on all sorts of magical adventures, and she has a strong sense of motherly warmth radiating from her. She’s still no-nonsense and sharp when she needs to be though, of course, and what I enjoy most about Blunt’s portrayal is how much she tells the audience just through her eyes. There’s a strange sort of melancholy to her, as if she’s reminiscing on how much she loves taking care of children and how this is likely the last time she’ll be with the Banks family.
Mary Poppins Returns is just as colorful and bright as the original was, and thankfully, my fears of it overusing CGI proved unfounded. The CG in the film is used in small, subtle ways most of the time, and when it’s not, such as a song that takes place underwater or another that has everyone floating through the air with balloons, it has a purposeful antique charm to it, as if it’s supposed to not look too perfect and modern of an effect. The highlight of the film comes in the middle, where Mary, Jack, and the kids go inside the 2-D animated world of a porcelain bowl. It’s an elaborate and lengthy sequence, a callback to the “Jolly Holiday” scene of the first film, and a beautiful reminder of the breathtaking kind of animation that Disney became famous for. It’s also where the casting of Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda gets its money’s worth.
Director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Nine, Chicago) doesn’t bring anything particularly special to the table. The first 15 minutes are sort of a drag, and any scene that isn’t a musical number feels a bit flat. Those musical scenes are when the film is at its best and having the most fun, but the songs themselves are sadly a bit forgettable. They’re fun, especially “The Cover is Not the Book”, but you won’t exactly be leaving the theater with any stuck in your head. It’s a near impossible task to stack up to the songwriting talents of the Sherman Brothers, but it’s a bit odd to not have employed the writing skills of Lin-Manuel while he was there. Songwriting duties instead fell to Marc Shaiman (Smash, Hairspray), who’s songs are flashy but too uninteresting.
Thanks to its fun visuals and colors, fun performances, and heartwarming tone, Mary Poppins Returns rises to the challenge of following up a timeless classic. The sinister corporate energy of the House of Mouse doesn’t seem to be present in the film (if it’s there, it’s hidden pretty well), and its heartstring-tugging sense of nostalgia feels earned rather than forced upon you. Above all, what Mary Poppins Returns has is a truly whimsical feeling of that classic Disney magic – it unleashes a sense of wonder in the air that you can’t help but smile about. It’s a delight, and it wouldn’t be a bad choice to catch a viewing with your family this holiday season.
3.5 / 5 Stars
Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in theaters everywhere.