Mary Poppins Returns is a delightfully whimsical musical sequel that pays homage to its predecessor, yet by and large thrives on its own merits.
More than fifty years after Disney brought P.L. Travers' beloved character Mary Poppins to the big screen for the first time, the Practically Perfect nanny is back for the Mouse House's sequel, Mary Poppins Returns. Emily Blunt follows in Julie Andrews' footsteps to play Mary in the followup, in the process reuniting with both her and Disney's Into the Woods director (as well as the filmmaker behind the Best Picture winner Chicago), Rob Marshall. Thankfully, even with a very high bar to clear after the original movie, Blunt, Marshall and the rest of their crew have delivered a Mary Poppins sequel that's worth the long wait it took to get made. Mary Poppins Returns is a delightfully whimsical musical sequel that pays homage to its predecessor, yet by and large thrives on its own merits.
The Mary Poppins sequel picks up in London during "The Great Slump" (aka. the Great Depression) in the 1930s. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) are now grown-up, and the former even has three children of his own: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson). Michael is struggling in the wake of his wife's passing, and unintentionally ends up behind on repaying a loan that he took out from Fidelity Fiduciary Bank - the place where his father used to work, and where Michael is currently employed part-time as a teller (what with the Depression making it near-impossible for him to continue his career as an artist full-time).
When Michael learns that the bank now intends to foreclose on his house by the end of the week unless he pays his loan in full, he and Jane remember that their father had a share in the bank that should cover their expenses... if they can find the written proof that the share exists, anyway. Fortunately, who else should then show up to lend the Banks a hand than their former nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who quickly takes Michael's children under her wing while he and Jane try to secure their future. With a little help from Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a cheerful lamplighter who first met Mary as an apprentice to her old pal Bert, the Practically Perfect nanny does her part to bring some light (and more than a little magic) back into the Banks' lives.
While the Mary Poppins Returns script by David Magee (Life of Pi) is based on an original story - one credited to Magee, Marshall, and producer John DeLuca - it also adapts elements and characters from the Mary Poppins sequel novels that Travers wrote in her time. This allows the movie to honor both the spirit of Travers' source material and Disney's original Mary Poppins at once, even as it integrates more decidedly modern and timely concerns (e.g. financial insecurity in the wake of a faltering economy and banks that are more interested in profits than serving their customers) into its narrative in an organic fashion. The film is similarly successful in the way it retains its predecessor's comparatively episodic design, yet gives its musical numbers and set pieces enough structure to ensure that every scene and setup (no matter how small or idiosyncratic) serves the overarching story here. As a result, Mary Poppins Returns maintains a very brisk pace throughout its runtime, yet never feels rushed or even all that plot-driven (in a good way, mind).
Mary Poppins Returns flies by the way it does thanks in no small part to its song and dance numbers, which are pretty terrific on the whole. Many of the sequel's musical sequences harken back to those from the original Mary Poppins - most notably, the live-action/animated Royal Doulton bowl segment and the lamplighter scene "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" - but are visually dazzling in their own right, and span the emotional spectrum from the poignant "A Conversation" to the playful and, at times, cheerily ribald vibe of "A Book is Not the Cover" (which even allows Miranda to go full Hamilton and "rap", music hall style). Admittedly, Mary Poppins Returns doesn't include any true earworms on the same level with the Sherman Brothers' iconic tunes from the original film, but the songs by Hairspray duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are perfectly catchy and get your toes tapping in the moment. The musical portions are further elevated by top-notch staging/dance choreography and lovely costumes from Sandy Powell (Cinderella), as well as the equally detailed work by Marshall's trusted production designer John Myhre and DP Dion Beebe.
Blunt is equally good as the new Mary Poppins and does a nice job of putting her own spin on the magical nanny (with her cheeky wit and quiet wisdom), rather than trying to imitate Andrews' Oscar-winning performance in the original film. Miranda is similarly lovable as Jack and makes for a fitting replacement for Dick Van Dyke's Bert, especially in his scenes with Mary and the new generation of Banks children. Speaking of which: Mary Poppins Returns offers a welcome update of the dynamic within the Banks family, making the kids more practical (the result of them having to deal with some real challenges in their lives) and the adults Michael and Jane more willing and able to be emotionally vulnerable than their parents. The actors behinds the Banks are also pitch-perfect in their roles, as are supporting players like Julie Walters as the Banks' steadfast housekeeper Ellen, Meryl Streep as Mary's offbeat cousin Topsy, and Colin Firth as the cartoonishly wicked FFB president, William "Weatherall" Wilkins. And of course, there are a few cameos that will get audiences cheering, even if they already know what they are.
Like other noteworthy "legacy sequels" (see: Star Wars: The Force Awakens and this year's Halloween), Mary Poppins Returns is full of callbacks to the movie that started the Mary Poppins film franchise, but goes well beyond merely banking on nostalgia alone. While the sequel doesn't really feel like a "necessary" continuation of its predecessor from a storytelling perspective (at least, not in the same way that a belated sequel like, say, Blade Runner 2049 does), it's full of useful lessons for the generation of kids growing up today, yet also manages to nod to the difficulties of being a grown-up in the present. Mary Poppins Returns further avoids wrestling with the double-edged blade that is nostalgia, but that might be for the best. Like Mary herself, the sequel knows its job isn't to solve the world's problems - rather, it's here to give everyone a push in the right direction and let them figure things out on their own, all while bringing a little joy back into their lives.
All things considered, Mary Poppins Returns is a joyful return to the world of Mary Poppins and provides some welcome cheer for moviegoers of all ages to enjoy during this year's winter holiday season. Like the best throwback sequels before it, the film has a more modern outlook and visual style, yet recaptures enough of its predecessor's magic to feel like a worthy continuation. Those who are so inclined as thus advised to accompany the Practically Perfect nanny on her journey back to Cherry Tree Lane and its whimsical world of dancing lamp-lighters, talking umbrella heads, and other sorts of "impossible" things.
Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 130 minutes long and is rated PG for some mild thematic elements and brief action.
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- Mary Poppins Returns (2018) release date: Dec 19, 2018