Film Review: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Precisely When We Need Her

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“We’re on the brink of an adventure, children. Don’t spoil it with too many questions!” says Mary Poppins, the world’s favorite nanny. And with that cheery admonition, she invites the Banks children – and the audience – to join her on a journey of wonder and imagination.

Mary Poppins Returns” is a sequel to the 1964 Academy Award-winning film from Walt Disney Studios. Based on a series of children’s books by P.L. Travers, the original film shifted her stories from Depression-era 1930s to the more optimistic pre-war 1910. For the sequel, the story now moves forward twenty years, into the decade envisioned by the author.

Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up now. Their parents have passed away, leaving Michael (Ben Whishaw) as the head of house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. His wife has recently passed away too, and he finds himself raising their three children alone. Financial strains forced Michael to push aside his career as an artist and take a position at the very bank where his father worked years ago. Jane (Emily Mortimer), who has never married, lives in a flat across town and spends a lot of time with her niece and nephews in between organizing labor protests.

As she tends to do, Mary Poppins arrives precisely when she is needed most. Not just for the Banks family, but also for us. In a year that has seen escalating violence, market volatility, devastating disasters, and political upheaval around the world, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a welcome break from the chaos. Charming, bright, and endlessly optimistic, Rob Marshall’s sequel captures all of the heart of the first and teaches a few new lessons for a new generation.

Emily Blunt takes up the mantle of Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews won an Oscar for the role in 1964 and created an icon that seemed impossible to replicate. At least until Emily Blunt came along. Blunt manages to both pay homage to Andrews and turn Poppins into something that feels entirely her own. She is wise and patient, her amused smirks showing that she always knows more than she is letting on. There is no “practically” about Blunt’s perfection. She was born to play this part. She is endlessly joyful, but there are moments, quick flashes really, where even Mary Poppins feels the weight of the sadness in the Banks home.  Kindness and love radiate from her core and shine in each note of her pitch-perfect song.

Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda joins the cast as Jack, a lamplighter who once served as an apprentice to a certain chimney sweep named Bert. Miranda beams his way through, providing something of a link between the children’s bleak world and Mary’s extraordinary one. Jack is a delightful addition without being a fully formed one. Miranda gets the chance to show his musical prowess. He sings (and raps) through memorable tunes and leads a show-stopping dance number that is, in itself, one of the year’s best cinematic moments.

Whishaw and Mortimer are good, too, as Michael and Jane. As are the three children, John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). While Michael has moments of wistfulness, the entire Banks family is one that gets things done. John and Anabel, in particular, were forced to grow up during their mother’s illness. This makes them the kind of children that know exactly what to do when a pipe bursts or their brother goes missing. And yet, they are still children and readily embrace Mary’s adventures with very little prodding.

Julie Walters takes over the role of Ellen, the family’s maid played originally by Hermione Baddeley. Ellen’s part in the story is not substantial, but she provides one of many links that recall the 1964 film without making you wish you were watching that instead. And cameos from Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke are clever, sweet, and fun.

Just as in the original, director Rob Marshall and writer David Magee make no attempt to provide a history for Mary. We don’t know who she really is or where she comes from, or why she seems to know everything. In the information age, it is refreshing to sit back and accept a tale without needing all the answers. Not a direct adaptation of any particular book in the series, “Mary Poppins Returns” uses elements from several of the stories. The result is a new set of adventures that feel at once reminiscent of the first and yet somehow fresh and original. Clearly, they understand and admire the original film. These are characters that matter to them. And they use that admiration to tell a story that feels like a natural sequel. This isn’t a “cash grab” movie. Marshall and Magee had something to say, and they say it beautifully.

On the subject of fresh and original, five-time Oscar nominee Marc Shaiman writes all new music. It is easy for some to say the songs from “Returns” aren’t as instantly iconic as those written by the Shermans in the 60s. But this isn’t a fair comparison for music that has been in our lexicon for more than 50 years. Can anyone remember a time before “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?” Of course not. And when taken on their own merits, numbers like “Can You Imagine That?” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” are dazzling tunes. Paired with choreography from musical theater veterans (including Marshall himself), each musical moment is glorious, big, and bold. The soundtrack is full of fun and feeling and there are half a dozen choices that could easily compete for the Oscar.

Tying together the performances and the music are exquisite costume designs by Sandy Powell and production design by John Myrhe. Together they move from the bleak, smog-choked London to glorious animation. Each new design is a gift for the eyes, with brilliant use of color that blends reality with fantasy. Powell’s hand-painted costumes and Myrhe’s design of a world within a Royal Daulton porcelain bowl could be reason enough to see this film.

“Mary Poppins Returns” is the film we need right now. Without asking too much of the viewer, it invites you to cozy up and be entertained. At the same time, Mary’s loving lessons remind us that sometimes we need to simply let go of the bad, embrace the good, and leave ourselves open to a little bit of imagination. What better message to end a year of heartache than with a reminder that better days are coming?

“Mary Poppins Returns” is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and will be in theaters Dec. 19.

GRADE: (★★★★)

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “MARY POPPINS RETURNS” ranks among the contenders.