It’s been over 50 years since audiences last experienced the magic of Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins, but in the world of Mary Poppins Returns, only a couple of decades have passed. Michael and Jane Banks are all grown up, and the former has three lovely children of his own. But with the death of Michael’s wife and the bank seeking to foreclose on his home, the Banks children are in need of a little help. And so, as the title suggests, Mary Poppins returns once more — this time in the form of a delightful Emily Blunt, who is indeed practically perfect in every way.
Blunt gives a fantastic performance as the eponymous magical nanny, a no-nonsense caretaker with a proclivity for indulging in the sort of whimsy adults might consider to be, well, nonsense. She’s shrewd and clever, and, depending on what’s required, she can be tender or quite firm. This is the Mary Poppins we remember, and she’s exactly the sort of help that’s needed when Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw, looking like a 12-year-old playing dress up in that mustache, bless his heart) finds himself struggling under the strain of widowed life. Being an artist doesn’t exactly pay the bills, and after the passing of his wife, Michael took a job in the bank where his father once owned shares — which is now run by a cartoonishly evil (and also mustachioed) Colin Firth, determined to oust the Banks family from their beloved home. Enter Mary Poppins, who hasn’t aged a day and has come to care for Michael’s three children — Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) — while he and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) set about trying to save their home.
While Blunt is certainly the main attraction, Lin-Manuel Miranda is equally wonderful as Jack, a lamplighter who also happens to be the former apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert from the original film. Despite the occasionally shaky cockney accent, Miranda’s Jack is insanely charming and sweet, and the film gives the Hamilton creator plenty of space to show off those famous song-and-dance skills. Both Blunt and Miranda shine brightest during an extended sequence in which Mary, Jack, and the kids are transported into an antique porcelain bowl that pays tribute to the first film with a blend of live-action and classic Disney animation. Even the costumes pay homage to the style, with hand-drawn details and vibrant tones evocative of watercolor. There, Mary and Jack deliver a total show-stopper: A bawdy musical number called “A Cover Is Not the Book.” It’s a high-energy and evidently demanding piece that beautifully shows off Blunt and Miranda’s skills. In a pleasantly surprising moment (for a Disney feature otherwise set in foggy 1930s London), Miranda delivers a riveting rap verse.
The rest of the musical numbers somewhat pale in comparison, though there are a few highlights: There’s “Can You Imagine That?” in which the Banks children are first introduced to Mary’s nannying “style,” and take a wild trip through the bathtub into a colorful ocean world; and the emotional “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” in which Mary tenderly reminds the children that their mother may be dearly departed, but her presence lives on in their hearts and minds; and finally, the dizzying “Turning Turtle,” featuring Meryl Streep as Mary’s eccentric cousin Topsy, a woman of vague Eastern European descent whose outlandish style could be described as Clara Bow by way of Betsy Johnson.
These engaging sequences punctuate a film that is otherwise overly long and occasionally plodding. Director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) could have easily cut one or two songs, like “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “Lost in a Fog” – both of which are led by Miranda. And while he’s obviously talented and consistently charming, even he can’t justify the redundancy of these pieces, whose absence wouldn’t be missed had they been cut. As is, they stretch the runtime to the point of tedium.
Mary Poppins Returns is a fitting sequel, one that pays equal respect to adults and children alike – as well as the respective struggles faced by both. In this case, it’s the death of Michael’s wife, which neither he nor his children have been able to properly grieve. While Michael spreads himself woefully thin to care for his kids and keep food in the pantry (when he can remember to do so), the children have been forced to grow up and parent themselves. Mary’s presence is as much about letting these kids be kids as it is about restoring order to this disorderly home. Mary Poppins Returns is a timely movie that finds hope in the darkest and foggiest of times, even if it’s not exactly perfect in every way.