Much like the titular character, Mary Poppins Returns arrives at a time when we need it the most. While we live in a day and age where cynicism can easily eat at us from the inside out, Rob Marshall’s sequel to the classic 1964 film decides that it’s going to refuse to bend to the trends of grit and blast its audience with radiance and optimism. In fact, this film is the equivalent of copping some happy beams from a care bear at point blank. Through its searing optimism and abundance of joy Mary Poppins Returns is going to make you smile and fill your heart whether you want it to or not.
Set 25 years after the first film, we’re reintroduced to the Banks children this time under very different circumstances. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a bank clerk and failed artist attempting to make ends meet following the death of his wife while his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a labor organizer who also helps her brother raise his three children, Annabel, John and Georgie. Things take a turn when debt collectors come calling for Michael to pay up on a loan he had taken out previously and a mad scramble begins in order to save the family home. And just when things look especially dire, salvation arrives in the form of the umbrella-riding magical nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt).
The story is a classic “save the house / save yourself / rekindle child-like imagination”, and in lesser hands with a lesser cast, you’d expect it to go straight to the VOD pile. However, Marshall along with a host of talent (I’ll get to Blunt in a sec) manages to tease out a joyously old fashioned time at the movies. While not a complete classic like the original – I dare say, give it time – there’s enough in here that’ll warm even the coldest of hearts and end up being the ultimate go-to comfort movie for many, enchanting us with its magic.
Speaking of magic – Emily Blunt. It was always going to be a difficult venture attempting to follow up the playful authority that Julie Andrews brought in the original. Here, though, Blunt takes the character and very much makes it her own, almost doing away with the playful vibe Andrews brought to the role. In a way, Blunt’s performance encapsulates the entire intent of the film – the children WILL have fun and live freely in their imaginations, by hook or by crook. Blunt’s Poppins is a little older (in spirit), a little more abrupt and lacking in any BS tolerance. But, the many moments of warmth she does have are heart melting and they couldn’t have chosen a better actress to fill such large shoes.
Blunt’s surrounded by a pretty impeccable supporting cast. Whishaw and Mortimer have great energy together, with Whishaw playing the terse, grieving man trying to keep everything afloat to perfection while Mortimer has a wonderful plucky energy about her. But it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda who, along with Blunt, carries a lot of the film. As the former apprentice to chimney sweep, Bert, Miranda’s Jack acts as our guide through the reintroduction of this world. Along with his usual lyrical acrobatics and a halfway decent cockney accent, Jack acts as a kind of mobile sun ray, lighting the screen up with a musical number or just his presence when things get a little sour, particularly before the arrival of Poppins.
Musically, while the numbers aren’t as initially memorable as the first film – again, give it time – they are just as joyous, with Marshall handling the set pieces deftly, even giving a nice little wink and a nod to his old Chicago days. Marc Shaiman’s work on the score harkens back to the original while ushering in something new for a younger generation. Nothing touches “A Spoonful of Sugar” but “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” damn near comes close and I can almost guarantee the musical heads among you will be Spotifying the soundtrack once you hit the car ride home.
Mary Poppins Returns is Disney’s most successful attempt at weaponizing our nostalgia and childhood to date. While the abundance of joy can hit you like a ton of bricks from the outset, so too can the flood of emotions and rush of memories when being brought back to the world of the Banks children. Personally speaking, when it came time for the finale my eyes began to well up with tears as I was reminded of times as a child watching the original film with my sister on the floor of my nonna’s living room. Now we have a film worthy of the original that will help create cherished memories for a new generation and a much needed escape from the world outside.