Mary Poppins as a character has loomed large over Disney’s cannon ever since her inception. It’s a bit surprising, given Disney’s track record of dusting off, refurbishing and remaking all of their IPs, that it’s taken this long for her to return to the big screen. And when you throw in Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meryl Streep and Rob Marshall, it’s enough to quantify “Mary Poppins Returns” as an event movie. The end result is more of a mixed bag, but the familiarity of the story and its themes compensates for many of its shortcomings.
Following much in the same vein as other soft reboots, “Mary Poppins Returns” is very much the same story as its predecessor. This time it is Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), now grown up, who has lost his sense of inner child as his wife has died and his home is about to be foreclosed. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), tries to help, but his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathaneal Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), find themselves lost and lacking imagination. Enter in Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), here to save the day as it is, along with admirer lamp lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda).
The idea of another soft reboot is a tad sad. It’s bad enough that sequels have proliferated the marketplace, but so many of them simply repeat the plot points of earlier films. Something different that tests the formula while remaining true in spirit to the original is the recipe to creating a memorable, worthwhile sequel. “Mary Poppins Returns” gets the spirit right, but simply retreads with plot.
What’s most surprising about the film is how old school it feels. With its old style dancing and singing and slow sensibilities, it reflects the time management and temperament of a 1960s film like its predecessor. Musical sequences last for several minutes and have old-fashioned dance numbers and wide shots that emphasize an entire set. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a commitment to an older style and a film that feels different. On the other hand, it also creates a somewhat boring movie where whole sections of story feel unimportant. The mind wanders.
What the film has going for it are strong visuals and music. Director Rob Marshall has always been able to create engaging set pieces in his musical films from “Chicago” to “Into the Woods.” Composer and songwriter Marc Shaiman crafted some memorable, if not quite comparable to the original, songs that are strong additions to the Mary Poppins mythos.
All in all, the film is carried by the actors who shine with charisma, from the likeable kids to Ben Whishaw’s earnestness to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s terribly charming cockney accent to Emily Blunt’s brisk manner imbued with love. They elevate a film that suffers from some uneven moments and pacing issues yet excels with optimistic tone and visual splendor.