Mary Poppins Returns: Not practically perfect, still magical

by Kristen Lopez

Emily Blunt sails as Mary Poppins in this long-awaited sequel, holding up the cumbersome follow-up that doesn’t know when to quit.

In 1964 audiences were introduced to the “practically perfect” nanny, Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews’ Oscar-winning performance was utterly enchanting and saw a string of imitations in its wake. 54 years later, Disney is trying to rekindle the magic with the sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt’s performance is as tip-top as we’re likely to see and ends up elevating the film above its many flaws.

Mary Poppins Returns may be set during the time of the “Great Slump” — the British equivalent of the Great Depression — but it’s hard to see when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gregarious lamplighter, Jack, is singing a jaunty, carousel-tinged song about being under the “lovely London sky.” This sets the town for the next two hours, presenting a sweetly tempered tale about positivity during troubling times without actually showing them.

Jane (Emily Mortimer), Michael (Ben Whishaw), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) greet Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) upon her return to the Banks’ home in Disney’s original musical MARY POPPINS RETURNS, a sequel to the 1964 MARY POPPINS which takes audiences on an entirely new adventure with the practically perfect nanny and the Banks family..

There is a problem to be solved, yes. Grown-up Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is about to lose number 17 Cherry Tree Lane to the Federal Fiduciary Bank unless he can find a stock certificate once held by his father. His three precocious children are eager to help, so when Mary Poppins (Blunt) flies in on a kite during a blustery day, the children learn how to be kids again and attempt to save the day.

To give Mary Poppins Returns anything less than adulation makes one a Grinch, but it seems that’s what the film is coasting on. There are certainly things to applaud about this sequel, but there’s a been-there, done-that feeling to everything. The beleaguered father plotline, drawn straight from the original Poppins, certainly has a unique sheen to it. Ben Whishaw’s Michael Banks is quiet and sensitive. There’s no denying the character’s adoration for his deceased wife and his children. Whishaw’s performance of “A Conversation” is lovely and there’s no need to hide his emotion. Hearing a parent say they actually don’t know what to do is terrifying to hear as a child and it’s wonderful to see Michael show his emotion without it being perceived as unmasculine. But it is hard not to compare it to David Tomlinson’s role in the original Poppins –which also had a better story — or even Colin Farrell in the P.L. Travers biopic (also by Disney), Saving Mr. Banks.

Many of the beats will feel familiar, right down to a conclusion that seems ripped directly from the end of Christopher Robin, and the overall story feels very slapdash. The missing stock certificate is what holds the film together and creates a tangible problem to what was, in the original film, more of a feeling. The original Mary Poppins was all about showing the children their father was an individual. Here there’s a McGuffin to search for in a Great Depression that seems pretty buoyant. Even the lamplighters are happy just to chat with other people. (It is funny that Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks is a union organizer… who never actually does any unionizing or rallying.)

Jack (lin-Manuel Miranda), Annabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Disney’s original musical MARY POPPINS RETURNS, a sequel to the 1964 MARY POPPINS which takes audiences on an entirely new adventure with the practically perfect nanny and the Banks family.

Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins brings in a necessary shot to the arm to the film, offering desperately needed liveliness. Perfectly mimicking Julie Andrews’ vocal cadences, Blunt doesn’t imitate the original iteration but is an extension of the original. Blunt’s Poppins comes off as more curt and clipped, not so much reliant on one-liners but a general feeling of sarcasm. When the kids immediately start showing their lack of imagination, Poppins calls them out, lightly mocking them for their seriousness. Her performance “A Cover is Not a Book” is a high-stepping moment of fun and childish bawdiness that’s perfectly suited to Blunt’s expressiveness, while her singing “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is beautifully reminiscent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s “Hushabye Mountain.”

Surprisingly, Mary Poppins Returns is more reminiscent to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, both stories about single fathers trying to do right by their kids. There’s also more in common between this and Disney’s own Mary Poppins imitator, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Both films were released in light of Poppins‘ success in the late ’60s, each with an added emphasis on whimsy and silliness. Compared to the original Poppins, there’s an overabundance of hijinks masquerading for story. Occasionally serious moments will happen — the performance of “Lost Things” for example — that come right after overly extended moments of humor.

Unlike the original Poppins, wherein the children engaged with a slew of memorable, but real, characters in their neighborhood, this movie emphasizes metaphor (a wolf being representative of the villain). These changes are useful, but lead to an overly elongated runtime with several front-loaded animation sequences that just seem there to remind you how great 2-D animation used to look.

Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack in Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS, a sequel to the 1964 MARY POPPINS, which takes audiences on an entirely new adventure with the practically perfect nanny and the Banks family.

Blunt and Whishaw are the MVPs of the film, while the three child actors are cute but aren’t nearly as memorable as the original Jane and Michael Banks. (Bonus points if you can spot the original Jane, Karen Dotrice, in the movie.) Emily Mortimer is just as flat as Glynis Johns’ original mother, albeit they give Mortimer a hackneyed romance plot that’s sweetly simplistic. Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly charming and effervescent as Jack, the lamplighter. The script tries to tie him into the original story but it’s clunky and unnecessary. Miranda’s accent is on par with Dick Van Dyke’s. Colin Firth is… Colin Firth. Really, Firth is just becoming a stock villain at this point. If you looked at the character on the page you’d expect to see him cast.

Much of what doesn’t work about Mary Poppins can be laid at director Rob Marshall’s feet. Marshall has more than proven his skill at filming dance sequences and choreography. Watching the lamplighters dance to “Tripping the Light Fantastic” is breathtaking and ripped straight from the world of Broadway. But the songs, penned by Marc Shaiman, seem more akin to the songs from Nine, another Marshall adaptation, than Mary Poppins. You won’t be humming many of these tunes, if you can remember them. It’s where the distinctions between modern-day musicals and classic, studio-era musicals, becomes painfully obvious.

Mary Poppins Returns is fun, but it’s an unnecessarily bloated, slim tale. The whimsy is there but ultimately feels hollow, especially if you’ve watched the original recently. It’s the sequel to Bedknobs and Broomsticks I always wanted, but misses the mark being a Mary Poppins feature.

Kristen Lopez has a Masters from CSUS and spends her time watching movies and reading books. She's worked as a TCM Social Producer and has contributed articles to Flavorwire, The Playlist, Pacific Standard and Film School Rejects.