Mary Poppins must really love the Bankses to keep coming to their aid in their direst times. When old London seems too stuffy, dark, and depressing, she flies in all proper to bring some dignity and imagination back into the lives of the Banks family. Her 2018 return is less of a remarkable transformation and more of a second visit, where you can’t wait to show your kids what that stern Poppins can conjure up, be it a brilliant song or fantastical and imaginative worlds.
In Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt takes on the title role of the figure who’s practically perfect in every way. Poppins apparently hasn’t gotten any older, given how youthful she looks and her refusal to answer the question of her age. (It’d be improper to ask.) The Banks children, though, have grown. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is now a single father with a thick mustache fit for his bank-teller job during tough times in England. He has three children, Annabel, John, and Georgie, whom he struggles to support in the face of being evicted. Not even his single sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), can push back the sternly sinister new Fidelity Fiduciary Bank president (Colin Firth) who has it out for Michael and his family.
In comes Mary Poppins to look after the children while Michael and Jane scurry to find money. She gives the new Banks children the standardly imaginative Poppins treatment: A mere bath turns into an undersea experience. Fixing a fragile heirloom turns into an adventure to a land of cartoon animals and glass surfaces. A trip to see one of Poppins’s old pals turns into a topsy-turvy walk around a room where gravity takes a day off. And a new batch of boys working dirty jobs on the streets of London delight the children with their singing and dancing. Each of these adventures comes with a song, naturally—given an added dose of magic from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice and performance as the new cockney tagalong, Jack.
Director Rob Marshall has crafted a film built to function best as a tribute and love letter to the 1964 film rather than take it in a new direction. He brings to light many old-fashioned qualities, from the easy and bouncy wonder of the soundtrack to the classic-style credits of paintings against a very faithful version of the Poppins theme. It should go without saying that the screenplay by David Magee isn’t especially interested in adhering any closer to the books by P. L. Travers than the original did.
But let’s face it: most audiences are likely coming for the music, and they won’t be let down in the least. Broadway talent Marc Shaiman supplies the film with plenty of catchy and zippy songs to push that imaginative wonder and give Miranda’s voice a good workout with some fast-paced rhymes. The visual effects of the fantasy sequences are also a real charmer, even this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a live-action actor dance with cartoon penguins. (The penguins must be having whatever Poppins is having to remain ageless.)
Mary Poppins Returns works best as a reunion of sorts with the same beats on a slightly different drum. There’s thankfully no recognizable attempt to rework the same old musical numbers, as so many of Disney’s latest remakes aim to do, and there were plenty of opportunities to do so, what with two instances of flying kites. There’s a winking cameo by Dick Van Dyke, but it’s a fitting one now that he’s old enough to play banking chairman Mr. Dawes without so much old-people makeup. But I found myself most excited by the appearance of Angela Lansbury in the singing role of a lady who hands out some rather special balloons. I got positively giddy in a moment where she and Blunt talk about the power of imagination, hoping that the film was crossing over with Bedknobs and Broomsticks—I don’t know if I could handle that reveal. Nostalgia aside, the film is perfectly suitable for kids of all ages and will charm them just as well as the original has for decades, even if it doesn’t have as many new tricks in its fancy bag.