Mary Poppins Returns Is an Enchanting Throwback
Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda star in the sequel to the beloved Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins Returns is the Creed of movie musicals.
Let me finish.
In Creed, writer and director Ryan Coogler created a spin-off and sequel to the Rocky franchise, while simultaneously remaking the original movie for a contemporary generation. It wasn't a note-for-note remake, obviously, but it called back to the formula of the 1976 original via its narrative structure, characters, fan-service Easter Eggs, and, of course, training montages.
Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, written by David Magee, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, and featuring a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, pulls off a similar feat and does it in as wonderfully enjoyable a fashion. It reinvigorates cherished characters, presents lovable new ones, and introduces the flying nanny to a whole new generation.
Set in the 1930s, Mary Poppins Returns finds the lives of the Banks family in disarray. With their parents long deceased, now-grown Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) have followed in their footsteps: Michael, a struggling artist, works part-time as a teller in the same bank his father worked; Jane is a union organizer in a similar vein as her suffragist mother.
But there are sadder undertones here, too, ones that are far darker than in the original: Michael's wife has recently passed away and he is raising their three children as a widower. Making matters worse is that the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, now run by the deceptive Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), is calling for payback of a loan Michael took out in order to pay his wife's medical bills — and if he can't find the financing, the bank will repossess 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Seems like the right time for Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to fly back into the lives of the Banks family to bring order to the chaos.
In short order, Mary, alongside her lamplighter pal Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), has the younger Bankses, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), running from adventure to adventure, all while trying to save their home and give their grieving father the strength to move on.
Even with one or two surprisingly scary moments, Mary Poppins Returns is a fun, sweet experience for the whole family that stands on its own quite well. But let's be honest: It was designed for those who grew up on the original. You can hear it in Shaiman and Wittman's absolutely glorious and moving Golden Age score — their very best since Hairspray — which occasionally pays homage to the songs from the original score by Richard and Robert Sherman.
It's also visible in Dion Beebe's cinematography, filled with sweeping wide shots of Depression-era London, and Marshall's highly theatrical staging of musical moments. "Trip a Little Light Fantastic," is a "Step in Time"-style dance for the magnetic Miranda and a chorus of lamplighters. "A Cover Is Not the Book," an ambitious, "Jolly Holiday"-esque production number, blends Miranda, the megawatt charming Blunt, and a backup chorus of animated characters, including several beloved, tuxedo-wearing penguins. There's even a reference to Uncle Albert's tea parties on the ceiling, here in the personage of Topsy, Mary's cousin played by Meryl Streep. She's an eccentric Eastern European whose fixit shop turns upside down every week.
But there's no greater nostalgic moment — and it's the highlight of the movie — than the appearance of Dick Van Dyke, who played chimney sweep Bert and bank owner Mr. Dawes in 1964, now stealing the entire movie in a single scene as Mr. Dawes Jr. At 92, Van Dyke is still the whole package, singing and dancing with the same rubbery nimbleness he had 54 years ago. Just as good: Angela Lansbury, 91, makes a cameo at the tail end. Bring tissues.
Most of all, Mary Poppins Returns encourages all of us, from the young to the young-at-heart, to retain the spirit of childhood for as long as we can, even when the going gets tough. In this jaded and angry world, we'd all be best to remember what that's like.