Review: ‘MARY POPPINS RETURNS’ Gets the Job Done

Emily Blunt shines as the magical nanny, in a retread with more hits than misses.

It has been said, and said again, that mine is a nostalgic generation. We obsess over repackaging and rebranding media significant to our childhoods. Anything that can be rebooted or remade, will be — but to what purpose? So our own children can experience those moments like we did, just with a modern patina, or so we can relive them for ourselves in the social media age? Look no further than 2019’s seemingly shot-for-shot CGI Lion King remake, and the overwhelming response to it from twenty- and thirty-somethings; why have the old thing when you can have a newer version of the same thing, plus Beyoncé?

Mary Poppins Returns, however, is an interesting case: Though it marches in lockstep with the structure of the 1961 Disney classic, it is a true sequel, wholly original from the stories penned by P.L. Travers — albeit with her characters in new roles. Twenty years after the winds carried Julie Andrews away from the Banks children, a kite brings her back, as Emily Blunt, to care for grown-up Michael’s progeny: Anabel, John, and little Georgie, who have recently lost their mother to an undisclosed illness. Unbeknownst to sister Jane, Michael put the family home up as collateral for a bank loan to cover medical bills – and payment is now due in full. As the children attempt to be as grown-up as possible in the wake of a difficult year, Mary Poppins injects a world of fascination and silliness into their dull existence just in the nick of time.

Tony award-winner turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rob Marshall imbues Poppins with all the grandiosity we’ve come to expect from the Chicago director, while saturating the frame with eye-popping Disney color. To his credit, it serves the canon well, and the quintessential English nanny’s world feels as welcoming as it did decades ago. Marshall is aptly suited for Disney musicals (give or take an Into the Woods), and he presents Poppins as a play: framing each shot like it’s on a stage, with minimal camera movement. His performers exude a freedom that belies the intricate choreography. The animated sequences are tremendous – whimsical and multi-layered. This is a highly accessible movie, formulaic as a rule, so young audiences with very little cinema knowledge can find comfort in its intrinsic familiarity. Fortunately, that formula also serves as a showcase for the actors’ tremendous skill.

Emily Blunt is a marvel, fantastic and bold; she never retreats into the territory of mimicry or parody, instead marching head-on and taking Mary Poppins for her own. There is something foundationally moodier about her Mary, hinting that this version has seen things, an allegory for the whole Banks family struggle (if not Britain as a whole, mired in the “Great Slump” of the 1930s) and a sign that this won’t just be a romp with cartoon penguins. The stakes are higher, and Mary’s mission is more urgent.

The ideal fairytale to be released during the holiday season, with its glitter and treacle and carols, Poppins is weaponized sentimentality. It is in those lovely moments that the tale truly shines: the familial bonds, a budding romance, the ebullient presentation by Blunt – all presented with a magnificent sense of wonder. This is what Mary Poppins engenders in everyone she touches: hope in the face of outrageous odds, holding tight to the important things, belief in magic.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, as lamplighter Jack, does his best to match her stride, but he never quite exudes the charm he thinks he does. Best as a simple song-and-dance man, Miranda is brilliant when allowed to showcase his strengths, like in the show-stopping “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Emily Mortimer as grown-up Jane has much less to do than brother Michael (Ben Whishaw) and her arc is rather just “there,” a callback of Mrs. Banks in the first film. But Whishaw’s heartbreak is palpable and lovely in quiet moments – and it could almost have been brilliant with an understanding of what this film is really about. More on that in a moment. 

But magical interludes does not a film make, and screenwriter David Magee sticks close to the Disney formula: one part contented family, sprinkle a little maternal fatality, shake with evil villain, and serve on a plate of happy ending. In its devotion to the original film, some of the tropes it borrows are too tired to even be nostalgic, chief among them the pitiless bank chairman played by Colin Firth. I wouldn’t lay that failure at Firth’s feet, whose performance is fine enough in its proper Englishman-ness, but it’s the kind of warmed-over conflict that serves as a placeholder in a first draft before you think of something better, and it seems the filmmakers never did, or bothered to try.

Then again, maybe that’s the point. Mary Poppins Returns – like its predecessor – is not about the plight of the Banks family. It’s not about loss or failure or bankruptcy. No, it’s simply about a father re-connecting with his children. And because that idea alone is so mild yet difficult to express in its subtlety, you need a villain, a MacGuffin that propels the story forward, that entices Mr. Banks to embrace his childhood, and is the catalyst for family unity. When you’re committed to a certain spoiler-proof cameo from Dick Van Dyke, who cares how worn the road is to get there?

The songbook by Marc Shaiman is worthy of both the original’s classics and the cast’s formidable talents. The two sour notes – pardon the pun – are the awful atrocity that is the Meryl Streep cameo (we’ll get there) and the final tune “Nowhere to Go But Up,” which is less a denouement than a direct rewrite of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” But the others succeed in propelling the story forward (often on a sugar high) and developing the characters, and will make pretty good karaoke standbys. Particular highlights are Blunt’s performance of “The Place Where Lost Things Go;” the “A Cover is Not the Book” duet (in which Miranda raps, because he’s got to somewhere); and Whishaw’s revealing “A Conversation.” My favorite – and truly the indisputable champion tune – is “Can You Imagine That,” which perfectly presents Mary’s special set of skills to her new charges.

The cameos abound in this sequel, as one would expect: Van Dyke is Ev. Re. Thing; Angela Landsbury as the Balloon Lady, playing on the Disney nostalgia, is both a callback to a time when she sang of a tale as old as time and an easter egg for anyone who has read the books. However, I don’t know if Meryl Streep won a bet against Marshall or if she is just here to provide a bathroom break at the film’s midpoint, but her egregious interpretation of Topsy – Mary Poppins’s cousin (in the book, she was the cousin-in-law) – is teeth-grindingly broad, a huge, gaping hole of despair in an otherwise delightful 132 minutes. Streep’s faux German-Russian-Swedish accent boggles the mind, and her song “Turning Turtle” – just as idiotic as it sounds – is such a tonal difference from the rest of the soundtrack, it feels like it was repurposed from another show. As it ultimately adds nothing to the overall story, it could have easily been cut — if it wasn’t Meryl. Who would tell her she was relegated to the cutting room floor?

Although it would have served the film better to inform Whishaw of his character’s importance, and I wish I could unsee Streep’s Topsy, I altogether enjoyed Mary Poppins’s visit, particularly due to Emily Blunt’s (forgive me) perfection in every way.

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