Fifty-four years after Julie Andrews made her debut as “the practically perfect in every way” nanny, who flew in (courtesy of her parrot-handled umbrella) and introduced magic to the lives of the dysfunctional Banks family, the beloved Mary Poppins character is back in “Mary Poppins Returns.” The new Disney musical-fantasy picks up 25 years after the events of the classic, with Poppins, played by Emily Blunt, returning to help the Banks children after misfortune befalls the family.
Set in 1930s London during the Great Slump, a city of gaslights and chimney sweeps, “Mary Poppins Returns” sees the kids from the original Michael and Jane Banks all grown up and played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer. Michael’s wife passed away the year before and now he, his kids (Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson) and housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) live in the Banks’s family home on Cherry Tree Lane, the house made famous by P. L. Travers.
When the bank calls in the loan Michael took against the house the family risks losing everything. “Pay back entire loan on the house or it will be repossessed in five days,” cackles the lawyer who delivers the notice. On that very day Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), the nanny who helped Michael and Jane as kids, and her magic bag come to the rescue. “Good thing you arrived when you did Mary Poppins,” says Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), former apprentice of Bert from the original film. Mary “I suspect that I am never incorrect” Poppins, helps the Banks family regain the joy and wonder that made their childhood years magical.
From the first song, “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky”—“Count your blessings,” sings Jack. “You’re a lucky guy.”—the movie establishes its uplifting tone. It’s a frothy, satisfying concoction of nostalgia, music, fanciful visuals, elegance and optimism; a spoonful of sugar in bitter times.
Director Rob Marshall has made a full-on musical that mixes the best of old and new Disney. This thoroughly modern movie feels old-fashioned in the sense that it takes its time with the music, allowing the songs to breathe and the lyrics to sink in. But it isn’t simply an exercise in recollection. The smart new songs (written by Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Scott Wittman) refresh a familiar story, mixing seamlessly with snippets of songs from the original film blended into the score.
There are huge musical numbers, including a wild underwater spectacular, but the songs that work best are the more modest tunes like “A Conversation,” Michael’s requiem for his late wide. “These rooms were always filled with magic but that vanished since you’ve gone away.” It is heartfelt and heartbreaking. Ditto Mary Poppins’s “The Place Where Lost Things Go.”
Still, this is a movie that brims with joy. When the spunky Banks kids tell Mary Poppins (no one ever calls her Mary or Miss Poppins, its always first and last names) that they have “grown up a great deal in the last year.” She replies, “Yes. We’ll have to see what we can do about that.”
Like “Christopher Robin” from earlier this year, “Mary Poppins Returns” is ultimately about the importance of staying young at heart. The film essays Michael’s sense of loss and longing, his frustration at not knowing how to go on without his wife but it’s the upbeat attitude that gives it depth. “Everything is possible, even the impossible,” is a cliché but in context it is a call to believe, to have faith. If Michael believes in himself everything will be OK. That’s a potent message, delivered with a spoonful of sugar or not.
The cast impresses, delivering the film’s message with charm and verve. Emily Blunt brings a mix of strictness—“Sit up straight you’re not a flower bag,” she scolds.—and mischievousness to her character, effortlessly slipping into some very big shoes. Miranda provides a dose of musical theatre. Meryl Streep, as Mary’s eccentric cousin Topsy, offers a fun and funny lesson in perspective and Dick Van Dyke’s cameo as Mr. Dawes Jr. connects the old and new.
“Mary Poppins Returns” feels modern without sacrificing its nostalgic charm. There’s no “Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious” but, like the first film, there is plenty of heart.