“Mary Poppins Returns” could just as easily be titled “Mary Poppins Remade.” That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but a movie that descends from the clouds with a huge gust of nostalgia behind it only sporadically conjures magic between the title character’s arrival and departure. The result is thus perfectly passable, but well short of practically perfect.
Disney, notably, is behaving as if it thinks otherwise, aggressively pushing the film for awards consideration – a strategy already validated by its Golden Globe nominations, exploiting that group’s traditional fondness for musicals. (Emily Blunt is also nominated for a SAG Award for her performance as Poppins.)
The sense of anticipation surrounding this 54-years-later sequel to a beloved family classic should pay off handsomely – spooning out the box-office sugar – while showcasing the considerable talents of Emily Blunt in the title role, and “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Nevertheless, once you get past the basic outline – Mary Poppins does indeed return, now that the Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), have grown up – the allure of the exercise comes down to the quality of the songs and visual wonder. The former, alas, are generally lacking, and the latter tends to overplay its hand, including an extended animated sequence – with clever callbacks to the original – that seems to waddle around too long.
The story’s emotional hook comes from Michael, who is raising three children of his own, while wrestling with the pain of having lost his wife. As if that weren’t enough, the story unfolds during “the Great Slump,” a financial downturn that has put the Banks in danger of losing the family home unless they can locate their late father’s stock certificates to satisfy the lender.
“I can’t lose our home, Jane,” Michael frets.
That thread, however, is dangled and then dropped for long stretches, as Mary goes about bringing her special brand of nanny magic to her young charges. Like Julie Andrews before her (and not incidentally, even closer to the slightly darker stage version), her Mary is both mysterious and frequently exasperated, bringing an elfish charm to the festivities, and a fine voice to the music.
Miranda, similarly, is no slouch, occupying what amounts to the Dick Van Dyke role as Mary’s cheerful sidekick in the kids’ fantastic adventures. That said, when the real Van Dyke shows up in what feels like a too-brief cameo, it provides the movie with an enormous jolt of energy that had been conspicuously lacking – so much so that you wish the actor and his fellow nonagenarian, Angela Lansbury, would hang around a bit longer.
Director Rob Marshall’s credits include the Oscar-winning “Chicago” and “Into the Woods,” so he’s no stranger to bringing musicals to the screen. In that regard, there’s something decidedly old-fashioned about “Mary Poppins Returns” and its unapologetic approach to the genre that many will find at the least comforting, and at best thrilling, if only to re-experience such entertainment with new generations on a big screen.
Disney, of course, has already unearthed plenty of gold from its vaults, reviving and remaking various family properties, which has included transforming animated classics into live-action extravaganzas.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is well worth seeing. But the live-action movies pose a somewhat more complicated challenge, one that even the title character – with all the tricks up her sleeve – can’t entirely pull off.
“Mary Poppins Returns” premieres Dec. 19 in the US. It’s rated PG.