"Mary Poppins Returns" Is A Little Bit Fantastic

Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) could direct “Mary Poppins Returns” in his sleep. At times, the end result doesn’t make clear that he didn’t.

Initially, the Julie Andrews-less sequel to 1964 Disney classic “Mary Poppins” lumbers along from song to song, wedged uncomfortably between imitation and invention. It finally leaves this limbo behind with mid-film song-and-dance number “Trip A Little Light Fantastic,” a sequence that makes no bones about retreading the original movie’s “Step In Time” – to glorious effect. The verdict is in: imitation.

At its best, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a pretty good one.

Star Emily Blunt (“Sicario”) ends up a best-case scenario for replacing the irreplaceable. As a direct (albeit much belated) follow-up to the motion picture that catapulted Julie Andrews to film stardom, the now 83-year-old actress’ absence weighs on the film. But Blunt imbues the title character with the same genteel, kind-but-firm spirit – without doing a straight impression. It’s her unwavering presence (and marvelous singing voice) that allows the best moments of “Mary Poppins Returns” to credibly scan as one with Robert Stevenson’s 55-year-old film.

Scripted by David Magee, “Returns” is frontloaded with its most forgettable tunes. A few brief instrumental cues invoke Robert and Richard Sherman’s classic melodies, but the songs are all new (music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a lamplighter named Jack, kicking things off with “(Underneath The) Lovely London Sky,” a trifling mid-tempo table setter.

Soon Mary Poppins makes her long-awaited reappearance at 17 Cherry Tree Lane (it’s been two decades) to help former charge and recent widower Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) and his three children Annabel, John, and Georgie. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) is around, too, she and her brother scrambling to save the family house from being repossessed by a malevolent banker (Colin Firth).

An elegy sung by Michael to dead wife is overly sentimental, while Mary’s first musical number “Imagine That” is all empty spectacle. A visually gaudy ode to bath time, the sequence begs wildly unfavorable comparisons to the infectious simplicity of “A Spoonful Of Sugar.” An overlong, perfunctory sequence of live action mixed with hand-drawn animation follows, yielding only two slightly more successful musical numbers. A lithe Lin-Manuel Miranda rap keeps “A Cover Is Not The Book” from stalling out entirely.

But then, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.” In one four-minute ballad, “Returns” becomes a “Mary Poppins” film. The song is a wistful one that, combined with a spectacular vocal performance by Blunt, singlehandedly justifies the movie’s existence, opening a conduit between past and present. It’s such a graceful, lovely ode to people, places, and things lost that it makes Michael’s earlier lament seem even more mawkish by comparison.

Regrettably the pic’s nadir follows: a forgettable extended cameo from Meryl Streep as Mary’s cousin Topsy, with the movie’s worst musical number attached. But then we’re on to the aforementioned “Trip A Little Light Fantastic.” From here “Returns” is a nostalgic delight, culminating in a Dick Van Dyke cameo (no Bert the chimney sweep here; the 93-year-old actor plays the son of the bank chairman he played in the 1964 film) and “Nowhere To Go But Up,” an agreeable musical number featuring fellow nonagenarian Angela Lansbury whose singing voice is as expressive as ever.

Marshall’s film meets most reasonable expectations, with Blunt’s range and a couple of Shaiman’s songs raising it above the din of most creatively questionable sequels. “Returns” could never hope to match its predecessor – no surprise that it doesn’t come close – but it’s eager to please, and its stubborn old-fashioned-ness is not without its charms. A few more knockout songs might’ve gone a long way, but as is, the movie passes a tough test.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 18, 2018
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: David Magee
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury
MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements and brief action)