If you squint (or even if you don’t), Mary Poppins Returns plays like someone’s hazy recollections of the 1964 Mary Poppins, with tweaks here and there on account of a faulty memory. A chore song, an animated-world song, a weird relative song, a midlife crisis song — Mary Poppins Returns has the formula down beat for beat.
That’s not a bad thing per se, but it’s not the makings of a modern classic, either — the film is charming as far as Disney’s “the same, but different” spate of reboots and remakes goes, but the kite never soars.
As implied by the title, Mary Poppins Returns is a direct sequel to the original, with the magical nanny (played by Julie Andrews in the first film, and now by A Quiet Place actress Emily Blunt) swooping back into Cherry Tree Lane. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) have grown up, but are a little worse for the wear as they deal with the loss of Michael’s wife, as well as the threat of foreclosure. Though Mary is ostensibly in charge of looking after Michael’s three children (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, all terrific), she’s there — as always — just as much for the adults as she is for the kids.
Like David Tomlinson’s Mr. Banks, Michael struggles with balancing work and family; like Glynis John’s Mrs. Banks, Jane is an activist; like Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a blue-collar worker with a thick cockney accent (though his accent is even worse, distractingly so).
The divergences from 1964’s Poppins are so few and far between — a carriage chase, some truly bizarre BMX bike stunts, a shoehorned romance that only works because Mortimer and Miranda both project such an earnest energy, a rap (if it didn’t work for something as cheesy as Cats, it won’t work for you, Mary Poppins Returns!) — that, for better or worse, they’re the most memorable things about Mary Poppins Returns.
The rest is mostly remarkable for how closely it hews to its predecessor, with each number aping a previous song; one even goes so far as to bring back the animated penguins. Though the songs, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who previously collaborated on the Broadway iterations of Hairspray and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, are lovely, they don’t stick. Whenever the score samples the cues from the Sherman brothers’ old score, we’re reminded just how singular the music of Mary Poppins was — and remains to this day.
Given the flimsy bearings of the film, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods) is lucky to have Blunt as his star. She’s easily the best thing about the film, and though her Poppins performance can’t not be called an imitation of Andrews’ (whose absence from the film is particularly conspicuous when Dame Angela Lansbury shows up in a scene clearly meant to act as a passing of the torch), her overall energy is a little edgier, as is her wardrobe, to the degree that she is the only element of the film that doesn’t beg a comparison to Mary Poppins.
The adventures she takes the Banks family on may be bigger and more bombastic than anything that could be accomplished in 1964 (and, to Marshall’s credit, avoid becoming an incomprehensible muddle of CGI), but bigger is not always better, nor is it guaranteed to make an impression.
Whishaw, whose role is perhaps the least magical of the bunch, stands out. The tremulousness and fragility he projects as a family man under pressure is the tenderest facet of the story; it’s tempting to say that the film might have fared better if Mary Poppins Returns had gone full Christopher Robin and pared its focus down to Michael rather than trying to keep all of Cherry Tree Lane and its romanticized version of London within its sights.
As far as such “adults in crisis” movies go, Mary Poppins Returns sticks to the classic “if you embrace your inner child, everything will be fine” mantra, which feels speaks to the bare minimum of imagination needed to create a facsimile of an earlier success. To be clear, the changes Mary Poppins Returns makes aren’t good ones — rather, they seem to be made to fit into conventions of what modern movies are perceived to need. The era-appropriate equivalent of a car chase, for instance, or the creation of an outright villain — a greedy bank manager played by Colin Firth — both of which feel relatively superfluous, and which the original did perfectly well without.
With Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King all on the horizon, the question that looms larger and larger over Disney’s new movies is: What’s the goal? Remakes and reboots are interesting only when they have something new to say, which isn’t the case with Mary Poppins Returns. The film only reflects the modern age with massive amounts of CGI that allow characters to dance underwater.
The argument that these new films are updating old material for a contemporary audience doesn’t work when so little is changed, or so little thought is put into them. In the new Beauty and the Beast, Belle was supposedly made more independent and feminist, but the changes only manifested in the shorthand of having her do a little unexplained mechanical tinkering and being more vocal about loving books.
It’s that same surface-level thinking that seems to have gone into Mary Poppins Returns, and makes it so frustrating despite endless explosions of color and a cartoon big top; its most memorable sequence is its simplest one, involving a buoyant bevy of balloons and very little else. The formula doesn’t need fixing — nor does it need remaking. What’s to improve or rehash when something is practically perfect in every way?