The problem that movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World face is the same problem that haunts Mary Poppins Returns. How do you take something that is so ingrained in pop culture and make a newer version fresh and exciting? How can that be accomplished without alienating some part of the audience? How can this film capture the magic of what made the previous properties so successful, but also spin it for a new generation? Well, somehow director Rob Marshall has figured it out. Mary Poppins Returns is pure magic from beginning to end.
A sequel, not a prequel, set some twenty or so years after the original, Mary Poppins Returns finds grown-up Michael and Jane Banks (Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer). Michael’s wife died a year ago, and his three children are still reeling from the loss of their mother. Due to an evil banker (Colin Firth), Michael and family are at risk of losing their home. Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) senses this disturbance and flies back in on a kite like she did the first time, and with the assistance of lamplighter Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda), she swoops in to save the day.
This movie is grand, sweeping, full of spectacle and totally charming. While Disney has found financial success in remaking old classics, none of them find the old-fashioned golden era Disney magic as successfully as this does. While it is easy to criticize it for being too familiar, or too similar to the original classic, I found that it did enough to feel contemporary. The musical numbers leap off the screen in a way that’s thrilling and completely alive. A particularly magical sequence blends live-action and 2D animation, a rarity nowadays, to captivating effectiveness. In this number, Blunt sings a number that kind of reminds you of Marshall’s first film, Chicago. And Miranda gets a chance to do his Hamilton bit. It feels contemporary, and yet exactly like something the Sherman Brothers would have written.
Lin Manuel Miranda is basically playing the Dick Van Dyke role from the original film, although 93-year-old Van Dyke himself also shows up late in the film. Miranda has a lot to live up to, and he’s giving a big, stirring performance that proves he’s as rapturously talented onscreen as he is onstage. One of the film’s biggest production numbers, involving all kinds of technical wizardry as well as thrilling choreography involving lots of bicyclists performing dance-stunts, is breathtakingly staged. I defy anyone to watch that number without smiling. Even more astounding, it doesn’t look CGI-heavy. I’m pretty sure most of this was done practically, and that makes me love it even more.
Rounding out the supporting cast is Meryl Streep as Mary Poppins’ eccentric cousin Topsy. As in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Streep is in one scene and her presence elevates everything around it. Julie Walters plays the Banks family’s live-in maid, and even though this is a role Walters has played many, many times at this point, I’m always glad to see her in a film. Julie Andrews does not have a cameo in this movie, but Angela Lansbury does. Andrews has said that she didn’t want to distract from the work Emily Blunt was doing, and if that’s the truth, it’s a lovely reason for her not to show up, although you still wish she had. The part Lansbury plays seems like it was written for a Julie Andrews cameo, but we’ll never know.
As much as I loved this movie, the most consistently incredible thing about it is Emily Blunt. She takes a role that is so iconic and makes it entirely her own. Her Mary Poppins is sassy and quick-witted, and less outwardly sweet than the Andrews version. It’s perhaps more in line with the version of the character from the original P.L. Travers books. Blunt has an extensive musical theatre background that she doesn’t get to use very often. The last time was in Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods, where I thought she was perfectly cast. But this is different. She’s having more fun here, and she’s practically perfect in every way.
Rob Marshall directs this with everything he’s learned from his wonderful Chicago and Into The Woods adaptations, and it looks stunning. The musical numbers are sharply and exquisitely staged, and while a great deal is done to make this feel like an old story for a new generation, it can’t help but feel delightfully old-fashioned. There are plenty of visual cues to the original movie, but it’s not too much. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote the songs, and there are several standout numbers that are totally irresistibly catchy.
In the end, Mary Poppins Returns is a spectacular time at the movies. It’s beautifully staged, it’s full of outstanding performances and musical numbers that will be stuck in your head for several days. It can’t help but feel familiar, but it gives a warm and cozy feeling that’s most welcome at the end of the year. While all popular movies from yesteryear certainly don’t need to make a resurgence, I’m certainly happy Mary Poppins came back when she did.