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REVIEW: Mary Poppins Returns is Fun, But Not Groundbreaking

Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel half a century in the making, had some very big, red shoes to fill.

Disney’s original adaptation of P.L. Travers Mary Poppins series was an iconic film that broke new ground in animation and film, spawned timeless musical hits, and became a career-defining role for its breakout star Julie Andrews. It’s become a classic for all ages, so needless to say, expectations for its sequel flew higher than any kite ever dreamed. And considering that this film comes 54 years after the original premiered, advances in filmmaking and stylistic evolution meant that any sequel would be, at least in part, a reimagining – risky territory for any follow-up film, much less one so universally beloved as Mary Poppins. Luckily for old fans and new audiences, Mary Poppins Returns is largely a good time, even if it doesn't quite achieve the emotional resonance of the original.

The plot is patched together from elements of the later book in the Travers series as well as original material. It takes place roughly 20 years after Mary Poppins first visited 17 Cherry Tree Lane. A grown Michael Banks mourns the passing of his wife who died six months earlier and struggles to meet the financial burden of maintaining the family home as well as raising his three children, twins Anabel and John and youngest son Georgie. Having funded treatment for his wife’s illness through a loan taken out on the house, Michael finds himself in the unfortunate position of having to repay the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank within a week or lose their home. Enter: A nanny.

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True to form, Mary Poppins once more forces her way into employment at the Banks household, this time managing two generations of Banks children. The rest of the film follows the family as Michael and Jane attempt to save the home, Anabel, John and Georgie experience life with a magical, musical nanny and her gaslighting sidekick and little by little, Mary Poppins once more guides the Banks family to greener pastures. It’s packed with musical numbers, and while not every one of them will have you queuing up Spotify the minute you leave the theater, Rob Marshall knows what he’s doing, and both Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda nail it repeatedly (as do Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke in very memorable cameos).

As Poppins, Blunt wisely evokes Andrews without imitating, which comes as no surprise given Blunt’s considerable prowess. She gets Poppins’ odd mix of formality and warmth, but imbues it with her own style. She gives the nanny a bit more of an inner emotional life than Andrews did, while balancing that out with an almost crystalline unflappability that rings familiar and true, if not necessarily nostalgic. As Bert’s off traveling the world (and now far too old to serve as Poppins’ wingman), Miranda steps in as Jack, a lamplighter who’s as kind, optimistic and weirdly familiar with Mary and Cherry Tree Lane as his original counterpart was. The film’s fairly traditional music doesn’t allow Miranda to really show off, but he’s still an incredible performer and his kind nature is so genuine, he’s endearing every moment he’s on screen.

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As for the Banks family, Emily Mortimer isn’t given a huge spotlight, but her Jane feels the most connected to the original – her features, accent and general manner all evoke Karen Dotrice’s giggly schoolgirl. She’s utterly charming, but unfortunately takes a back seat her brother. Ben Whitshaw is heartbreaking as Michael, but the plot, which never quite settles on what it wants to say, dilutes the resonance of his performance. At first it feels like the movie’s going to focus on grief, but then it settles on focusing the bulk of its time and energy on the less compelling race to save 17 Cherry Tree Lane. In doing so, Mary Poppins Returns ensures it’ll never reach the height of emotion and pathos that’s George Banks getting fired from Fidelity Fiduciary in the original, nor will it capture the simple and profound joy of a father realizing how much his children mean to him. The story feels secondary to the musical numbers as though it was bent and changed to suit their needs rather than the other way around.

That said, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the sequel and it’ll no doubt get some love from the Academy for its music. This medicine's pretty good, with or without a spoonful of sugar.

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