Warm, sometimes touching, exciting, and uneven, with a compromised central performance. Plus, oh yes, it’s got to withstand the viewer’s recollection of its superior predecessor. That’s a lot for any film to bear. Mary Poppins Returns is mostly a delight, however, with its bright colors, accomplished dance numbers, and mostly strong, mostly English cast. It’s just too bad that the whole wasn’t quite the sum of its parts.
Most serious film viewers and writers try to see a film in its proper context, which usually means working to see the film in relation to itself. That’s impossible for this film, which must either beat back or transcend the fond memories of the 1964 original. Mary Poppins Returns succeeds to some degree, with knowing but humble references to the original (some of which you might miss if not paying attention), strong secondary performances, and solid production numbers (one of which makes use of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop talents.) The completely uncynical mood throughout is refreshing, and the film is beautiful to look at, evoking the original while setting a color palette of its own.
The original chimney sweep Bert has been updated to lamplighter Jack (Miranda), who gives an open-hearted performance with a clearly improved Cockney accent over Dick Van Dyke’s original. Miranda is such a talent, and has achieved such success, that I feared a certain knowingness and smug aloofness might taint the performance. But Miranda, neither the best singer nor best dancer around, gives a thoroughly joyful performance and makes the best use of his talents—the songs fit him perfectly and the most challenging dance number (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”) is edited to let us enjoy the fine choreography of the main dancers and at the same time give us the impression that Miranda has their same dancing abilities. That’s no dig at Miranda, the heart of the film, but a compliment to the editors. And (spoiler alert) he becomes involved romantically in an arc that is gently (and beautifully) developed and provides a love connection that the first film lacked.
The core of acting Brits keeps the film grounded. Ben Whishaw (the dad), Emily Mortimer (the aunt, Dad’s sister), Julie Walters (the maid) don’t get too serious, but they lay a solid foundation for the leads to go magical when necessary while holding the film together with their charm and honesty. Colin Firth, however, doesn’t exactly make the most of a paper-thin bad guy.
The main problems are the plot, the songs, and Emily Blunt (sort of). The plot is gruel-thin, and boils down to a “will-they-or-won’t-they lose the house?” scenario. Of course ,the end is never in doubt, but the last-minute suspense sequence tends to strain even Mary Poppins credibility while taking the film into a risky direction that fortunately doesn’t erase the childlike joy of the previous two hours.
Some of the numbers are enchanting, mostly because of director Rob Marshall’s choreography and direction rather than the songs themselves. They are, to use a term popular in my household, “fine.” The aforementioned “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” “A Cover is Not a Book,” and “Nowhere to Go But Up” are particularly strong. “A Cover is Not a Book,” though, fits lyrically into the film yet suffers from the lack of connection to either the plot or the overall mood and sentiment of the film, which never is firmly established. This is another area in which the film unfortunately has to battle with the original—those songs were classics, working on their own while also working for the film of which they were a part. Perhaps one or two songs will live on after this film, but they tend to be solid rather than transcendent.
The classic animation in the film is a welcome change from all the CGI work clogging up current movie screens, but not all those numbers work, either. The dangerous chase sequence is classic Disney on one hand in its scariness, but it disconnects from the rest of the film and seems unnecessary. Also unnecessary and seemingly shoehorned in is Meryl Streep’s number “Turning Turtle,” an homage of sorts to the “I Love to Laugh” number of the original. If I were Marshall, and Streep requested to be in my next film (which is what apparently happened), one could do much worse than this number, but it’s the kind that would have been cut out on TV viewings 20 years ago in the interest of time and momentum.
Which brings us to Blunt, one of my favorite young actresses (A Quiet Place, The Devil Wears Prada, The Young Victoria). When I saw the preview of the film and noted her entrance from the sky to the park, I saw some body language that caused some concern. Unfortunately, that was a genuine preview of a performance that is more of an impression or impersonation of the Poppins character than a genuine performance. I had always tended to under-appreciate Julie Andrews’ work because I assumed her Oscar was mainly due to Hollywood making up for her not getting the lead in the film version of My Fair Lady. But subsequent viewings of the 1964 film show a solid, inhabited performance by Andrews that was funny, mischievous, and slyly subversive. And that voice—one of the great voices of the second half of the 20th century. How could anyone compete with that? Blunt has a fine voice, but no one could be in Andrews’ league. So kudos to Blunt for tackling the project. But she never finds her inner Mary Poppins. The performance varies from scene to scene, and Blunt keeps defaulting to an upper-crust sophisticated attitude that is put on rather than lived in. She is a talented triple threat of actress, singer, and dancer, and some of her lines are delightfully delivered. She shines (if not really dazzles) in the musical portions of the film, but never locks down on her own version of the classic character.
Even with all of that, the film is a pleasant and occasionally charming film with more strengths than weaknesses. Miranda and the secondary players (save Firth) are wonderful, and the musical numbers are genuinely entertaining. Then there is the “just-in-the-nick-of-time” appearance of the then 91-year-old Dick Van Dyke that rushes the ending of the main narrative, but does so with so much surprise and energy that it doesn’t really matter. And then there is the surprise appearance of another legend at the end of the film, which is a lovely revelation that dovetails perfects with the film’s final musical number and finishes the film on a literally high note. The whimsy and wonder of the film may not match those of its predecessor, but there are some enjoyable moments and the occasional highlight in this sequel.