Can lightning strike the same kite twice? It was the obvious question when Walt Disney Pictures announced it was making a sequel to what Walt himself considered their crowning achievement: Mary Poppins. It appeared even more daunting since someone would have to step into Julie Andrews’ shoes. And yet, against all potential snarky adult cynicism, Mary Poppins Returns does indeed surge with an electricity of yesteryear, gleefully recalling with equal parts nostalgia and genuine love of craft a different, classical handful of Disney magic.
Led by a luminous Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns is obviously engineered to revisit, and frankly remake, the 1964 classic where every child learned the words to “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” but the end result nevertheless feels handcrafted and miraculously sincere. Presented with glamorous pedigree and a lavish production design, Mary Poppins Returns in many ways more closely resembles Jack Warner’s sumptuous adaptation of My Fair Lady, also from ’64, than it does the comparatively economical Mary Poppins. But this is in turn fitting as that film also famously did not star Julie Andrews, and like it and Hollywood’s other 1960s musical epics, there is something endearing about extravagant attention being paid to a story where epiphanies occur in drawing room parlors, and enchanted heroes can be simply an Austrian captain or cockney chimney sweeper (or in this case, a lamplighter). So long as the nanny chaperoning the adventure has a song in her heart, everything else seems wondrous by juxtaposition.
Set several decades after the original film, Mary Poppins Returns comes back to the Banks children on Cherry Tree Lane. Now an adult, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) has children of his own, although he never has time to fly a kite with them. In the height of the Great Depression, Michael is a grieving widower who demands his three kids (Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, and Nathanael Saleh) grow up this minute, particularly with their house in danger of being repossessed by the very bank he works at. Like his father and grandfather before him, he’s a slave to capital. Sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is meanwhile trying to lend a hand, but as a union organizer she too is often away from their childhood home.
Fortunately, a blast from the past flies back into their lives. Literally so, as one of the youngest Banks kids snags Mary Poppins (Blunt) on his father’s old kite during a storm. Returned to Cherry Tree Lane, the ageless Mary immediately gets to work on helping Michael’s children relearn what it is like to be a child, while also teaching the same lesson much more patiently to their dad. Who knows, perhaps in her bag of tricks is even a solution to save the house, especially if her new song-and-dance man sidekick, a lamplighter called Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), can lend a hand between catchy musical revues.
Mary Poppins Returns is a film meant to be charming by design. Told with an old-fashioned understanding of entertainment that has been out of fashion, even at Disney, for almost as long as the 52 years since Walt’s death, the movie unabashedly walks to the edge of saccharine and then balances there to delightful effect. By refusing to apologize for its exuberance and cheerfulness, Mary Poppins basks in its own wholesomeness, which in turn can be contagious.
While the Banks’ familial drama is less likely to concern older viewers, the effervescence of Blunt whenever she’s onscreen, and especially when she’s partnered with Miranda, is undeniable. While lacking the divine vocals of Andrews, Blunt is a lovely singer in her own right and likewise takes ownership of Mary. Closer to the vain and snobbish diva P.L. Travers wrote the nanny to be in her original stories, Blunt also imbues her Mary with an even greater degree of poshness. However, this Mary is noticeably less cross and stern with the children than Andrews, never mind Travers’ authoritative disciplinarian. Likely a concession to 21st century understandings of childrearing, this is almost the only element which gives away that Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a mid-20th century fantasia.
The highlight of the picture is when Mary, Jack, and the children detour from the plot for a jolly holiday inside the late Banks mother’s prized china bowl. Shamelessly a redo of a similar sequence in the original movie, director Rob Marshall pulls out all the stops by mixing live-action and glorious, gorgeous hand-drawn animation. These scenes return to the visual splendor and vanished warmth of Walt Disney’s original medium, and consequently Mary Poppins Returns is most alive when it’s on a page, mixing high-quality Broadway production style with the kind of artistry that’s all but been abandoned in major American animation. Hence the best musical number in the film is when Jack coaxes an allegedly reluctant Mary Poppins to join him in a cockney Vaudevillian number bathed in violet that wouldn’t have been out of place in Yankee Doodle Dandy. It is also the moment where this critic couldn’t hide an ear-to-ear grin.
That song, “A Cover Not in the Book,” is one of several showstoppers written by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. All of the tunes manage to convey the sweeping grandeur associated with ‘60s musicals, albeit without necessarily creating any songwriting classics of their own. The clear intention is to homage what Robert and Richard Sherman achieved in the original Mary Poppins with compositions like “Feed the Birds,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” But the new songs here lack even anything quite as instantly memorable as “Step in Time,” so while the music in Mary Poppins Returns is beguiling, it is also primarily forgettable.
Other small imperfections include that the movie resists reinventing the wheel, sometimes to a fault. Other than insisting on a climactic rush to the bank in the third act, thereby attempting a more modern climax than original Disney movies (and thus something also remarkably similar to Disney’s own Christopher Robin earlier this year), the picture is nearly a beat-for-beat reprise of the ’64 film. Luckily, only a few echoes fail to reverberate. The one exception is that instead of having tea on the ceiling with Mary’s uncle, Mary Poppins Returns’ brood meets her cousin Topsy Turvy (Meryl Streep) in the film’s only truly disappointing musical sequence. It’s odder still since Streep is appearing in a sequel to a Walt Disney classic after she famously called Walt a racist and sexist in 2014, which just so happened to undermine Disney’s awards prospects on a film about the making of Mary Poppins.
Nevertheless, these small blemishes in an otherwise pristine ceramic are only as noticeable as one wishes to make them by squinting and scrutinizing. Only a true curmudgeon will be able to keep their feet on the ground when everything else is urging audiences to get lost in Mary Poppins’ inviting clouds, quite literally so by film’s end. As it turns out, lightning can strike, and strike again, for every time Blunt or Miranda get to dominate the frame in Sandy Powell and Jane Law’s pastel costumes, or fill your ears with the voice of earnest astonishment, the impact is downright blinding in its razzle dazzle. Fifty-four years later and it is still no wonder that it’s Mary that we love.
Mary Poppins Returns glides, ever so gracefully, into theaters on Dec. 19.