To ask why Mary Poppins Returns exists would be to ask why Disney would want a license to print money. The studio has been on a tear remaking, remixing, and revisiting its old classics, to great box-office success; Mary Poppins Returns, with its nostalgia-inducing premise and family-friendly holiday release date, will surely be no different.
Now that Mary Poppins has returned, though, it seems worth asking: Did we really need her to?
The Banks family seems to. Returns picks up in the 1930s, with the Banks children now grown. Jane (Emily Mortimer) is an activist like her suffragette mother, while Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a struggling artist with three little moppets of his own—John (Nathaneal Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson).
Everyone looks very cozy and cute in their bright wool cardigans and smart little peacoats, but the truth is they’re struggling. Michael’s wife has recently died, and as if grief weren’t heavy enough already, the Bankses find themselves unable to pay their rent.
Into this chaos flies Mary Poppins, sassy parrot umbrella in tow, eager to get the Banks family back in order and impart some crucial life lessons.
Emily Blunt is practically perfect in every way
The new Mary is played by Emily Blunt, and she is, to quote the old Mary, practically perfect in every way. She recaptures the spirit of Julie Andrews’ performance in her stern yet loving attitude, in the almost imperceptible smirk playing at her lips—but she makes the character her own, with an extra dose of sauciness.
Blunt’s voice is clear and confident as a bell, and her footwork graceful and quick. Whenever she’s onscreen, she casts a spell. It’s easy to see how care and advice from this woman might change the entire course of a young person’s life, as they did for Jane and Michael so many decades ago.
A new generation of children may grow up thinking of Blunt’s Mary as an enduring icon, in the way older generations did of Andrews’, and I wouldn’t mind that one bit. If Returns has one saving grace, it’s that they chose exactly the right woman to bring everyone’s favorite nanny back to life.
Lin-Manuel Miranda deserves better
Unfortunately, the film does not treat everyone in the cast with such care. Before we reunite with Mary, we’re first introduced to Jack, a lamplighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The opening scene has him cycling around early-morning London, warbling out a tune about the sky, and it’s… an inauspicious start.
Miranda can be a spectacularly compelling performer, as anyone who’s heard Hamilton or even just watched Miranda speak can attest. But Returns tends to play into his weaknesses, rather than his strengths. The songs are ill-suited for his voice, the Cockney accent sounds uneven and uncertain (at least Dick Van Dyke committed), and the character himself lacks the charisma that’s made Miranda so beloved.
It gives me no pleasure to say any of this, as a fan of Miranda’s. He tries his best and gets a few nice moments, like his Hamilton-style rap in “The Cover Is Not the Book.” If nothing else, he deserves credit for trying to step outside his comfort zone. But Returns does him few favors. I can only hope his next projects do better by him than this one did.
There are a lot of musical numbers (and most of them are bad)
If it’s any comfort to Miranda or his fans, he’s not the only victim of Returns‘ mediocre songwriting. The film’s 130 minutes are positively stuffed with all-new musical numbers; you’ll rarely go more than a few minutes without stopping for another one. The problem is that none of them are especially memorable, though Returns seems determined to drill them into your head by making them both repetitive and interminable.
The most superfluous of these is “Turning Turtle,” which exists for no other reason than to give Meryl Streep anything, anything at all, to do. The most disappointing is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” clearly this film’s answer to the original’s “Step in Time,” without that number’s infectious rhythm.
Songs like the latter would be easier to tolerate if they were at least fun to look at—a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as a much better song once taught me. But between the frequent cutting and the close-ups, director Rob Marshall makes it difficult to sit back and admire the artistry of the dancers and the intricacy of these sets. There’s not much to do during most of these numbers but wait for them to be over.
But at least that animated sequence is great
Most, that is, but thankfully not all. One sequence in Returns stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, and it’s an homage to the dazzling “Jolly Holiday” number from the original. (If you’re wondering why I keep insisting on comparing Returns to its predecessor, it is because Returns is in so many ways a beat-for-beat recreation.) In this one, Mary, Jack, and the children enter the illustrations on a porcelain bowl, traveling through the countryside to a music hall where Mary and Jack perform.
The entire sequence is a visual wonder, done up in a 2D style reminiscent of classic Disney. Yet the live-action characters fit seamlessly into this world, right down to Mary’s trompe l’oeil dress collar. This is Returns at its best, blending old-fashioned magic and newfangled technology to deliver something that truly stuns.
It is the one part of Returns that approaches anything close to the inventiveness of the original, and it’s a shame that more of Returns couldn’t reach quite that level.
Mary Poppins Returns is accidentally about the limits of whimsy
Once that sequence ends, though, the Banks children return to the real world, where they are faced once again with their real problems. Like missing their dead mother, and taking care of their overwhelmed father, and worrying about paying for groceries, and scraping together enough money to save the house.
It’s not that Returns‘ more emotional moments fail to land. If anything, they land too well. An early number has Michael singing to his dead wife, his voice trembling. Another scene has the children planning to sell one of their late mother’s most cherished possessions. Returns is an extremely effective tearjerker, and I found myself reaching for the tissues multiple times over the course of the movie.
Which is precisely why Mary’s insistence on whimsy feels so odd. In this grim context, her fanciful diversions are just that, diversions, when what this family really needs is solutions. Being told to worry less won’t make their problems go away, and fantasies can’t keep the lights on. There’s a difference between taking a break from your worries and repressing or ignoring them, and Mary’s regimen of cheer feels more like the latter.
No one needs that extra jolt of magic more than Mary Poppins Returns itself.
Perhaps I’m way overthinking this. Maybe I’m reading too much into Mary’s methods, or getting too invested in the Banks family drama, or fussing too much about what these fictional children “need” when they seem perfectly happy with what they’ve been given. Mary would surely purse her lips at me. But that’s what happens when you find yourself in the middle of a slog. Your mind starts to wander.
There is nothing wrong with seeking out joy and escapism in hard times. Indeed, they’re often how we make it through those times. It’s probably the case that another, better movie could’ve shown us how Mary’s charm fuels the Bankses through crisis, giving them something to smile about again in the midst of so much pain.
As it stands, though, Mary is just some lady distracting a family with warmed-over fantasies, while their lives fall down around them. All throughout the film, Mary tries to spread wonder where she goes. But ultimately, it seems, no one needs an extra jolt of magic more than Mary Poppins Returns itself.