Directed by Rob Marshall, Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat, musically whimsical sequel to Disney’s iconic 1964 original Mary Poppins that picks up events twenty years later during a time of depression in 1930s London, England. The two Banks children, Jane (Emily Mortimer, The Bookshop) and Michael (Ben Whishaw) are all grown up. Unfortunately, we soon learn things aren’t going well in the Banks house. Michael is a widower and struggling to raise his three children, twins John and Anabel Banks (Pixie Davies and Nathanael Saleh) and little Georgie Banks (Joel Dawson). They always seem to be getting into trouble, just like their father once did.
Things appear even more dire when two lawyers from the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank inform the family they are just days away from losing their home after Michael took out a second loan after his wife passed away. Despite working as a teller for the bank, Michael has little money to this name as he was already a struggling artist prior to taking the job.
A sliver of hope emerges after he informs the lawyers that his late father, George Banks, left the family stock in the bank, an amount that should be enough to cover his remaining debts. Unfortunately, neither Jane nor Michael know where to look for the missing certificate, and just when things can’t seem to get much worse, little Georgie is lifted off the ground by an old kite caught in a huge gust of wind. And just like magic, who else is holding on to the other end of that kite but the most practically perfect nanny of all-time, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt).
What follows is an adventure that strives to remain faithful to the original film, often to the point where it feels almost like an anachronism in this era of superhero blockbusters and angst-riddled dramas. Much of what made Robert Stevenson’s award-winning film so magical has been reproduced here in ways that seem to honor, and not simply mimic, the original’s aesthetic. Huge choreographed dance numbers and dazzling animated sequences abound – even the hand-drawn penguins make their welcome return here. Those who feared a modern take on Mary Poppins would attempt to update the magical whimsy for the modern age will feel relieved the moment they realize this is truly a sequel and not a remake.
Played by Emily Blunt, this version of Mary Poppins is delightful and magical, but the whole time watching her performance it felt like something was missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on just what this was as Blunt has the quick-witted retorts, new songs for every occasion and, like her predecessor, never explains anything. Perhaps it’s the inescapable power of Julie Andrews, who rightfully won the Best Actress Oscar – and our hearts – in one of cinema’s most beloved performances that any attempt to ‘replace’ her would be met with some resistance. Blunt really was quite remarkable, though she just didn’t have the right “spoonful of sugar” Mary Poppins needs to help make this medicine go down smoothly.
The rest of the cast were truly wonderful, especially Ben Whishaw as the adult Michael Banks. The pain from losing his wife radiated over his face, and his distraught demeanor over the possibility of leaving the home he shared with her was heartbreaking. The whole time watching I couldn’t help but see little Michael Banks, with that brown hair and those cute freckles, as a little boy played by Matthew Garber in the original (who passed away only thirteen years after appearing in the film). One of Whishaw’s best moments was his reaction to when his children bring Mary Poppins home, where he instantly recognizes her. Mouth agape, his beloved nanny responds simply, “Close your mouth, Micheal. We are not a codfish.”
Lin Manuel Miranda, who plays Jack, the street lamplighter, was really a breath of fresh air. It was clear from the very beginning he’s the “Bert” of this film, but unlike Blunt who had to play an established character, Miranda had the freedom to make Jack entirely his own…and this he does! Aside from his wonderful singing voice and stunning dance moves, Miranda’s acting just lit up the screen no matter what he was doing or who he was doing it with.
Meryl Streep’s Topsy is a hilariously fun character that nearly steals the whole show and Colin Firth will definitely be the guy we love to hate as he marvelously plays the antagonist. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for a welcome appearance by Angela Lansbury as The Balloon Lady. However, what really brings Mary Poppins Returns home is the cameo of Dick Van Dyke, not as Bert but the crusty old banker from the original (or the son of the crusty old banker, anyway). Despite only having a few minutes of screen time his return to this world, and wild dance moves, will remind everyone just how much of a national treasure he is. And he might even bring on a few tears, just for good measure.
One of the most iconic things about the original Mary Poppins was the music. To this day, many of the Sherman Brothers’ iconic songs remain classics, sung happily by many adults and children alike. It saddened me each time a new song started to play in Mary Poppins Returns because the studio chose to use the prelude of one of the original songs each and every time. While it may have created a nostalgia for the older songs, I felt this cheapened the new songs and didn’t allow them to stand on their own.
However, one song in particular, called “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, brought many people in my screening audience to tears. Whether you’re a child who’s lost a favorite toy, or a grieving adult whose mourning a loved one, there will be many misty eyes when this song plays on the screen.
Mary Poppins Returns is a wonderful family movie guaranteed to be loved by just about everyone, though not without some reservations. The decision to continue the legacy of the 1964 original was a wise one – there’s simply too much built-in goodwill and magic waiting to be rediscovered. However, it must be said that some will struggle to accept anyone but Julie Andrews as the beloved nanny, despite Emily Blunt delivering an otherwise remarkable performance. My advice is to accept this new movie on its own terms, embracing its own magic that stands apart. Mary Poppins Returns, while striving to look ahead, actually keeps looking back, almost as if to say true happiness lies ahead – just as long as you don’t forget the past.