It’s hard to tear one’s eyes away from Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns. From the second she descends from the sky, holding little Georgie Banks’ (Joel Dawson) kite, she owns every second of her screen time as the magical nanny. Her dazzling performance, which has earned her Golden Globe and SAG nominations, as well as Oscar buzz, is reason enough to check out the sequel to the 1964 Disney classic, even the rest of the film doesn’t quite match up.
Set in the midst of “The Great Slump” (which is British for The Great Depression), the film opens with lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) singing about the “lovely London sky.” It’s one of the many callbacks to the original film, which began with Jack-of-all-trades Bert (Dick van Dyke, who also cameos in this film) giving the audience a tour of Cherry Tree Lane, where the Banks family lives.
The years have not been kind to the Banks. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is all grown up and a failed artist working part time at Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (yup, same bank as last time), struggling to keep his family together after his wife Kate’s death. His three kids, Annabelle, John, and Georgie (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Dawson — all fantastic), have to pick up the slack where they can, which doesn’t leave them much time to be, you know, kids. Meanwhile, Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) has somewhat followed in her early feminist mother’s footsteps by becoming a labor organiser, which in Disney speak makes her a spinster. Rounding out the Cherry Tree Lane household is dear old Ellen (Julie Walters), the family cook who spends more time breaking dishes than cleaning them.
To make matters worse, Michael took out a loan on the house that he can’t possibly pay back in full, which means that the family could soon be homeless. All in all, Mary Poppins’ sudden arrival, decades after she first came to look after the Banks children, is welcome.
Director Rob Marshall does his best to make his film feel consistent with the original, but the constant callbacks to the good old days of Disney have the downside of reminding us that this isn’t quite that. The old-school animation sequence, for example, in which Mary Poppins, Jack, and the children jump into the painted world of a ceramic bowl, is lovely, vibrant, and imaginative — a great example of what once made films like Mary Poppins magical. Now, it feels like a nostalgic relic designed to pull at our heart-strings without offering anything new to deserve it. And really, that’s the film’s greatest problem. It nails the retro vibe, both in the set design and costumes evoking 1930s London, and in the overall feeling of a 1950s musical, but without any real innovation to warrant its existence.
Still, if you don’t think too, too hard about all that, it’s a fun ride, one that kids who might otherwise never sit through the entirety of classic will likely love. (I never could make it through the whole thing. There is a whole sequence about banking!) Sandy Powell’s gorgeous — hand-painted! — costumes (she also designed for The Favourite) are just the right amount of sugar to make it all go down smoothly.
Blunt’s singing voice is lovely — particularly in one very catchy lullaby, courtesy of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, who composed the film’s many, many songs. (Too many! I know that’s what musicals are all about, but still.) But it’s her curt, plummy delivery of words like “really,” elongated and exhaled into a mouthful of contempt (“Rhhheaally, Michael.”) that really seal the deal. Miranda, on the other hand, feels extra. His signature rap is a little cringey in this context, and he is more uncomfortable on a bicycle than someone who is required to ride one for nearly two hours should be. (Oh, and there’s a BMX stunt sequence. Be prepared.) Whishaw’s wistful renditions of songs are a quiet but delightful surprise, and he is well-cast as the dreamer-who-is-forced-into-capitalism Michael. There’s a cool dad buried in that slight frame, but he’s been crushed by The Man.
And speaking of The Man, he looks an awful lot like Colin Firth with a moustache. The villainous Mr. Wilkins, head of the bank that wants to call in Michael’s loan, is a hard sell, mainly because Firth feels like stunt casting here. You never really believe that he is actively trying to ruin this nice family’s life, so the stakes feel pretty low — especially since we all know it’ll all work out in the end.
The film does give us some terrific cameos, though — for the most part. How can you watch 92-year-old van Dyke tap dance on a desk and not smile? Or, for that matter, Angela Lansbury as a park balloon lady? That’s the kind of joy Mary Poppins should inspire. Not so Meryl Streep as Topsy, the nanny’s vaguely Eastern European cousin, who does so much in her brief appearance that she’s as dizzying as her upside-down apartment.
All in all, Mary Poppins Returns is fine — and sometimes more than that. But it’s also a good reminder that sometimes, good things are best left undisturbed.
Mary Poppins Returns is out in cinemas on December 21