If Walt Disney’s head was unfrozen in 2018 and they could get it to direct a movie, something very close to Mary Poppins Returns would be the result. That is as pure a sentiment as we can devise to describe this film. If you love old-school, sincere-to-a-fault, heartwarming, cheery family fun – and dancing penguins – then you’re going to love this film. If, for some odd reason, you expected a more modern take on these characters or you expected the story to progress them in significant ways or even if you expected something – anything – new, you may very well be disappointed. The point to Mary Poppins Returns is right there in the title, which is not, you will note, Mary Poppins Progresses or Mary Poppins Has a Fresh New Start. No, the point is to make a return; to replay the old bits that made you feel warm inside and to add some new bits that rhyme so closely to the old bits that the entire film feels like the second stanza to the song started by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke in 1964.
And that’s its strength as well as its drawback, depending on your perspective. Mary Poppins Returns rhymes very closely with the original Mary Poppins film; in structure, in tone, in style and in aesthetic. When the story begins, you know exactly how it’s going to end. And without giving too many of the particulars away (any more than the film’s marketing did), if you know the original film well, then you’re going to recognize practically every scene and set piece in this one. Instead of introducing herself to her new charges by magically cleaning their room, Mary magically gives them a bath. Instead of jumping into a chalk painting and having semi-animated adventures, they jump into a Royal Doulton bowl and have same. Instead of a chimney sweep, we have a lamplighter. Instead of a visit with Mary’s laughing uncle, they visit her frantic cousin (Meryl Streep as Topsy, somewhat bringing the film to a halt so she can take the next five minutes to ingest every bit of scenery in view). Instead of a gruff, distant Mr. Banks learning a lesson, we have a sensitive, overwhelmed Mr. Banks learning one. Instead of a bird lady, we have a balloon lady. And boy, does this franchise love the British banking industry.
Aside from the gorgeous look of the film and the nostalgia buttons it pushes with such relish, the main draw is Emily Blunt in the title role. Taking over the iconic role from the universally beloved Julie Andrews really should be seen as the near-impossible undertaking it is, just so you can appreciate what a stunning job Blunt did with it. There is no attempt to impersonate Andrews. If anything, Blunt sounds more like Maggie Smith in certain scenes. But she nails the peculiarly Poppins combination of blunt efficiency, sinister secrecy, and unexpected warmth, leaning perhaps a bit more on the blunt and sinister parts than Andrews could have. Somehow, it works, and it feels like the same character seen from a different perspective, like a diamond being rotated so that a different set of facets catch the light. Much in the same way the original film leaned hard on Dick Van Dyke’s popularity and abilities as a song-and-dance man, so does MPR give co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda more than his share of the spotlight. Like Van Dyke, he’s more than up to the task the song-and-dance numbers lay out for him. Unlike DVD, he’s a bit better working his American mouth around a Cockney accent. But the surprising secret weapon of the film is Ben Whishaw, who gives the film its one bit of modernity: a sensitive, overwhelmed man who doesn’t suffer from a lack of emotions like his father, but rather an abundance of them, like the little kite-flying boy he once was.
The costumes by Sandy Powell are stunning. Like the songs on the soundtrack and the film itself, they rhyme; not just with the costumes of the original film, but with each other. The Banks family is routinely all dressed in the same color in each scene. All of the costumes have a charmingly twee take on Depression-era British fashion. The tweeds and woolens are correct, but the colors are absolutely dazzling onscreen. The animation is lush, but with a mid-20th century roughness. The musical numbers by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are charming, poignant or fun – sometimes all three. You don’t even realize the songs are in support of such wholesomely anodyne lessons as “reading is a thing you should do” and “imagination is magic” and “loved ones are never far away.” But then again, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” wasn’t exactly a ground-breaking sentiment either. There is no Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-esque number, although Meryl and company give it the old college try. It’s hard to say whether any of the songs will have a life beyond this one moment. That is to say, whether they’ll be as immortally beloved as “Feed the Birds” or “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Step in Time” eventually became. They serve the film well and were hummable enough in the moment, which is more than enough.
Just as the original film required the title character to recede into the background as the story progresses, MPR tends to suffer from the same problem. Mary is the most fascinating character in the film by far, but by necessity, the Banks family and their emotional journeys tend to dominate the screen in the third act. Similarly, much as we loved Dick Van Dyke in the original, the followup makes the same mistake in centering Lin-Manuel Miranda’s character a bit too often, taking the spotlight away from the title role. We can understand why this was done, since the man has a legion of fans and is adorably charming on film, but there were definitely times where it felt like a less-interesting man was yanking the spotlight away from a fascinating woman. Emily Mortimer does her best with what she’s given, but her poor character is a reciting of stock sentiments by the end. Julie Walters and Colin Firth give broad, cartoony performances which somehow wind up delightful, possibly because both actors long ago proved how subtle and nuanced they can be when they want. Meryl? Meryl’s a LOT.
We have a five-year-old niece who adores the original Mary Poppins and went slack-jawed when we showed her the trailer for MPR a few months back. She was all we could think of through the entire film and as soon as we exited the theater, we both blurted out “Charlotte’s going to LOVE this!” Honestly, that’s all that matters. We don’t tend to make these sorts of declarations in reviewing films (in fact, we tend to see them as the kind of thing one says when excusing a film’s flaws, which doesn’t quite apply here), but this film was definitely made with a specific audience in mind and that audience doesn’t write film reviews, mainly because most of them can barely read. This is so very much a film for children, filled with songs about the importance of taking baths, reading books, having an imagination, fixing wrongs and remembering loved ones, just as the original film sang songs about cleaning up your room, taking your medicine, and enjoying a good laugh. The pleasures in Mary Poppins Returns are simple, deliberately naive, and speak in a clear and direct manner to the hearts of children. Yes, it’s corny. Yes, it’s heartwarming. No, it’s not new. But if you’re the type of grownup person whose eyes go wide with awe and wonder when a film shows you something big, bold, and colorful and then go all watery when the same film sings to you about mothers and memories, then you are going to love Mary Poppins Returns.