Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Disney’s new movie musical is a gorgeous sequel to its cherished film Mary Poppins. If you are one of those that loves that 1964 movie, you’re likely to love this movie, too. Neither as sugary as the original nor as bleak, it is, under Rob Marshall’s direction, more purposeful.

Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Sicario, The Girl on the Train, Into the Woods) in the title role, is often inviting and entertaining. If you can stand another Christmastime depiction of a sinister capitalist (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) ala A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, you will enjoy this song and dance film.

Music by Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman shapes the movie. With Rob Marshall’s frequent cinematographer Dion Beebe (The Snowman, Into the Woods, Disney’s upcoming live action version of The Little Mermaid), the new Mary Poppins picture pops in every frame.

Like Robert Zemeckis, Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) excels at making marvelously, visually arresting motion pictures. In particular, Marshall is able to set the musical to a proper and compelling plot progression. Thus, Marshall makes something of a thin tale (which he co-wrote with others), blending the cast of characters with charming tunes.

Be mindful of what you think of Mary Poppins, however. I don’t consider it one of Walt Disney’s best pictures. Others, such as Bambi, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book, not to mention the forgotten So Dear to My Heart, are better. The sad, sappy qualities don’t age well.

If it wasn’t for Ben Whishaw (Paddington’s voice in Paddington 2 and Sonny in Suffragette) as Michael Banks and Blunt staying in step with the London nanny originated by Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins Returns would feel flat and lack vitality.

As it is, besides its grating anti-capitalism (the Banks sister played by Emily Mortimer is a labor activist), Mary Poppins Returns drags. Add another distracting appearance by overrated Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Mamma Mia!, Florence Foster Jenkins, Hope Springs, Into the Woods), who insists on singing in every other movie, and the film is practically puffy in every way. A lamplighter character played by Moana and Hamilton! composer Lin-Manuel Miranda could have easily been cut or reduced.

But Miranda’s laborer is part of the movie’s best dancing sequence. The lamplighters lead Poppins and the Banks children back from the horrid bank that’s repossessing their home. The street workers’ singing and dancing serves to align and seal the movie’s disparate themes, displayed with Impressionism, vibrant early 60s colors and animation and transitions.

Mary Poppins Returns is as traditional as the 54-year-old original and both are based on the P.L. Travers stories, so faith, poverty and altruism are treated as inherently virtuous. And Poppins’ line that thinking too much is bad for you fits this condescending narrative, so expect the joyful and childlike to be rooted in the 20th century’s lowest, most common slogans.

But there’s good casting of the three Banks children, wisdom in childlike wonder (with cameos by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury) and the best line — when Mary Poppins deadpans after someone asks if she’s sure a bike trip with the kids is quite safe: “not in the slightest” — make Mary Poppins Returns a welcome diversion for child and adult alike.