Movies

Mary Poppins Returns Brings a Spoonful of Sugar to a Rough Year

Let Emily Blunt take care of you for a couple of hours.

Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns.
Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns.
Jay Maidment/Disney

Even in an era of perpetually cycling remakes, reboots, and franchises, a sequel that comes out 54 years after the beloved classic it’s based on is an unusual and dicey proposition. Mary Poppins Returns, a new Disney musical adapted from elements in several of the books by P.L. Travers and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods), has an especially daunting pair of turned-out button-down shoes to fill. Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews as the no-nonsense magical nanny and Dick Van Dyke as her chimney-sweeping admirer, is etched into the primal sense memory of generations of audiences. Viewers who saw it as kids in the theater are now old enough to watch it with their grandchildren, and it’s the rare churl of any age who doesn’t occasionally whistle “A Spoonful of Sugar” or smile at the memory of Mary’s Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) laughing at his own bad jokes until he bounces off the ceiling.

In its own time, Mary Poppins was both an industry dinosaur and an industry unicorn. It came out as the era of big studio musicals was drawing to a close, and it was the first Disney film to be nominated for Best Picture. Though it lost that award to My Fair Lady (with a voice-dubbed Audrey Hepburn in the role Andrews had originated on Broadway), it won five of the 13 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Actress and Best Score. Mary Poppins was also a monster hit: the top-grossing film in the country in 1964, it continued to dominate the box office well into the next year.

Mary Poppins Returns will never take up that much space, either in the cultural firmament or at the global box office, and that’s OK: With the fragmentation of the audience into countless niche markets and streaming platforms, that kind of blockbuster musical may be gone for good. What we need from a Mary Poppins movie right now is something much humbler and easier to achieve: a few catchy songs, a well-choreographed dance sequence or two, half a dozen familiar faces from Hollywood past and present. Fine, I’ll say it: It’s been a long, anxious year, and all we ask is a warm blanket of family entertainment, a nice place to go with our kids or parents or grandparents some chilly afternoon after the presents are opened and the latkes consumed.

Mary Poppins Returns delivers on all those fronts except maybe one, to be detailed further on. But in the Yuletide spirit of giving, let me start with the things this return to 17 Cherry Tree Ln. gets exactly right. The first is casting: Every actor chosen to play a role already familiar from the original is practically perfect in every way, from Emily Blunt as the unfazeable nanny, to Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw as the adult versions of her former charges Jane and Michael Banks, to Julie Walters as Ellen the housekeeper. And when the only returning actor from the 1964 film, the 92-year-old Dick Van Dyke, showed up to tap-dance on a desk in the last half-hour, a whole screening room full of cranky critics burst into applause. I haven’t heard such a spontaneous outburst of love for an on-screen figure since many of the same people sniffled audibly through the Mr. Rogers doc earlier this year.

Other characters are not exact matches to figures in the 1964 film, but rather their structural counterparts. In place of Van Dyke’s friendly sweep, Bert, we have Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, a “leery” (London slang for lamplighter) who, like Bert in his day, seems to know Mary Poppins from prior adventures. This time, there’s no hint of a past romance between the two. (Bert and Mary’s backstory is never clarified, but the way he looks at her offers ample scope for imagination.) Instead, Jack gets a crush on the idealistic Jane, who like her suffragette mother before her is devoted to a worthy cause: her labor organization SPRUCE (the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Underpaid Citizens of England). In place of the old lady feeding the birds on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, there’s Angela Lansbury selling balloons in the park. In place of the airborne Uncle Albert, there’s Mary’s cousin Topsy Turvy (Meryl Streep), a professional tinkerer whose bric-a-brac–jammed workshop turns upside down for one day every month. Finally, in place of the younger Jane and Michael there are Michael’s three somewhat undifferentiated children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson).

This structural fidelity to the original is so pronounced it can subtract from the new Mary Poppins’ capacity to surprise. Nearly every story beat from the original recurs in slightly changed form. There’s even an extended fantasy sequence that mixes live action and 2D animation in the style of the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number, except that this time Mary, accompanied by Jack and the kids, leaps not into a sidewalk chalk drawing but into a painted Royal Doulton bowl on the children’s mantelpiece. Unlike in the original, though, the colorful animated world they enter is not completely conflict-free: along with swirling bluebirds and cheerful livestock, there’s a scheming wolf voiced by Colin Firth, who also plays a live-action bigwig at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.

That august institution is, of course, the same one the Banks children inadvertently saved from ruin at the end of the first Mary Poppins. Ungraciously enough, the bank is now attempting to seize the family’s childhood home, where Michael still lives with his children. Their mother has recently died, leaving the family both bereaved and financially unstable. As the film begins, Michael and Jane get a warning: They have till the end of the week to locate a document proving they own shares in the bank that would provide them with enough assets to save the house.

With the Banks family in disarray, it’s naturally time for Mary Poppins to show up through a hole in the clouds, mysteriously unaged since her last visit 20 years before. The Mary Poppins of the books, described by Blunt in a recent interview as “a little more acerbic and vain and weird,” is closer to the one on display here. She’s a shade brusquer and less sweet than Andrews’ version of the character and even more fond of admiring her own reflection in the mirror. Once Michael and Jane have recovered from their amazement at the reappearance of their childhood nanny (“Close your mouth, Michael, we are still not a fish”), Mary moves in to care for the children and remind both them and their preoccupied father of the healing properties of nonsense, magic, and fun.

The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the music-and-lyrics team behind Hairspray) are clever and hummable, even if they never match the timeless perfection of the 1964 score by the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman—whose capacity for creating earworms can be measured by the fact they also wrote “It’s a Small World (After All),” another moneymaker for Disney that’s been cited as the most frequently played song of all time. The most memorable songs in the new film include “A Cover Is Not the Book,” an English music hall–style number performed by Blunt and Miranda on a stage set made of giant books, and “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” a melancholy lullaby Mary sings to the grieving children. The equivalent of the original’s rollicking rooftop dance “Step in Time” is a major production number in which the leeries of London come together to light the Banks children’s way home through the fog, incorporating everything from acrobatic stunts to BMX bike parkour.

All this childlike whimsy and wonder only occasionally start to feel strenuous. The cast is spirited and charming, the evocation of 1930s-era London (some backgrounds were filmed on location, others created digitally) is playful and painterly, and the movie’s 130 minutes generally zip by, even if the closing song, in which the whole cast ascends to the sky clutching Angela Lansbury’s magic balloons, never achieves the euphoric liftoff of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” This Mary Poppins may not be strictly necessary, but it’s more than sufficient.

In her introduction to the Mary Poppins in the Park, the fourth book in the series, P.L. Travers writes of her fictional caregiver that “she cannot forever arrive and depart.” Henceforth, the author announces, all of Mary Poppins’ published adventures can be assumed to have taken place over the course of her three original visits. Similarly, this 21st-century installment of the Mary Poppins story depends perhaps a bit too much on our lasting goodwill for the first one. But it also provides enough pleasure on its own to leave us hoping it won’t be 54 years until that familiar prim figure makes her next appearance through an opening in the clouds.