It only took Disney 54 years to produce another Mary Poppins movie, and they were smart to construct it as a sequel, not a remake. That way the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke version can continue to stand on its own, while a new generation watches different actors inhabit some of the same characters, but with the story line advanced about 25 years.
Now, it’s the 1930s and England is in the middle of The Great Slump (their term for The Depression). Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) lives in the house he grew up in, while sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) has her own apartment but stops by often. Michael’s three kids are there, too, as is housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters). The Admiral (David Warner) still resides next door, and fires off his cannon at regular intervals, shaking the Banks’ home each time. As if that’s not enough, two lawyers representing the bank visit to announce that, because Michael has missed three consecutive payments on the mortgage, he has mere days to come up with the full amount of the loan or lose the family home to Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, now run by William Wilkins (Colin Firth).
That’s when Mary Poppins floats in, ready to assist in taking care of the children while the adults deal with their grown-up obstacles. In that lead role, Emily Blunt is, as Mary would say, practically perfect in every way. So is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack, a lamplighter, who’s the new designated sidekick for the adventures Mary takes the children on. It’s unfair to compare him to a legend like Van Dyke, but let’s just say Miranda does a better Cockney accent.
Movies like this live and die with the musical score, and it’s tough to match the work the Sherman Brothers did for the original. But Marc Shaiman (who’s written several Broadway shows including “Hairspray,” Bette Midler’s “Divine Madness,” and “Catch Me If You Can,” along with those clever parody medleys Billy Crystal used to open the Oscars with) is up to the task. He not only keeps up the spirit of the past, but also incorporates intervals of the Sherman Brothers’ tunes in his orchestrations.
As for the songs, they’re not as instantly memorable as the original — in fact, I can’t remember how any of them go — but this generation of kids will download them, look up the lyrics, and drive their parents crazy singing them around the house. There is no “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but Miranda and his fellow lamplighters (called “leeries,” a word I’d never heard before) have a big number called “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” that will get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Unfortunately, director Rob Marshall over-edited that production number, cutting from one angle to another too quickly and often, as if it were a hyperactive music video. If he’d used more wide shots, we could have seen the full span of the dozens of performers doing what seems to have been some rather nice choreography. Instead, we’ll have to wait 15 years to get that perspective when the touring stage version comes to the Fox Theatre.
Like the original, “Mary Poppins Returns” has an extended animation sequence in the middle that goes on too long. Disney’s animators are no slouches (notice how they work Big Ben and Tower Bridge into the Disney logo at the beginning), but the story drags a bit as long as Marshall keeps us in that world. Better is an upside-down scene featuring Meryl Streep (with echoes of Ed Wynn singing “I Love To Laugh”). There are some other celebrity faces you’ll recognize, including one towards the end that put a big smile on my face, but I won’t spoil them for you.
Will “Mary Poppins Returns” be the family movie hit of this season? I’d have to say yes, judging by the half-dozen kids sitting behind us in the theater. They were quite rambunctious before the movie started, but from the first scene, they paid rapt attention, except when laughing at the silly parts. They had a great time. So did my wife, who was really caught up in the adventure, to the point I noticed her dabbing tears several times. She walked out with a big smile on her face, having enjoyed it more than I did.
That’s not to say I hated it. I’m giving “Mary Poppins Returns” an 8 out of 10. If you have kids under 13, go ahead and introduce them to the new flying nanny with a bag full of tricks. They won’t need a spoonful of sugar to make it go down, in the most delightful way.