Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw
Directed by Rob Marshall
It takes guts to tamper with the legacy of a beloved pop cultural fixture like Mary Poppins. Which is probably why Disney only dared tiptoe around it with a behind-the-scenes origin story in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks. Enter Rob Marshall who, with Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, has proven to be the closest thing to a musical impresario Hollywood has; add Emily Blunt’s charm and considerable pipes, plus Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda—and 54 years later, we have Mary Poppins Returns.
The story opens a few decades after the timeline of the original, during what a title card calls “In the days of the Great Slump”, with Lin-Manuel Miranda as a dubious Cockney lamp lighter warbling ironic about the overcast weather in “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky”. Little Michael Banks has grown up to be Ben Whishaw, a sad widower too preoccupied with the potential loss of his family’s townhouse to pay much attention to the good-hearted ministrations of his activist sister (Emily Mortimer) or to the lack of parenting over his three little kids, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and the suggestible Georgie (Joel Dawson). Into this family dysfunction once again floats Mary Poppins (Blunt), seemingly unchanged from the decades she has spent in that magical nanny agency in the sky, to set the Bankses back on the right course.
You can feel director and co-writer Marshall conscientiously trying not to mess with the gargantuan legacy he’s taken on, from employing the same flat ‘60s animation and dancing penguins of the original for maximum nostalgia, to commissioning Marc Shaiman to write songs that hew as closely to the textures of the indelible tunes written by the Sherman brothers. His biggest weapon, though, is Emily Blunt, who juggles prim propriety and twinkling mischief with supernatural ease. She seems born to follow in Julie Andrews’ footsteps, and the confidence with which she inhabits the role is enough to make you overlook the miscasting of Miranda, whose Latin fire is tamped down to accommodate a studied Cockney accent.
Miranda is the least of Marshall’s problems, though. Saving Mr. Banks laid bare the subtext of P.L. Travers’ source material—a father that needed redeeming—and brought into sharp relief the spine undergirding the original film’s flights of fancy. In Mary Poppins Returns, the musical numbers have valuable life lessons as a running theme, such as being wary of appearances (“A Cover Is Not the Book”), the importance of gaining new perspectives (“Turning Turtle”, featuring a superfluous cameo from Meryl Streep), and having fun with detours (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, the best musical set piece). And yet the film feels disjointed, skipping along on a plot that flutters along like a kite in a capricious wind until a punitive time bomb—a lost stock certificate that must be recovered by a prescribed deadline—comes along to exert a sense of direction to the proceedings. Emily Blunt is the sugar that helps this musical go down, but Mary Poppins Returns is supercalifradequate at most.