There’s no one right way to reboot a beloved property. For “Mary Poppins Returns,” director Rob Marshall and writers David Magee and John DeLuca have taken the “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach when it comes to creating a sequel to the multiple-Oscar-winning 1964 film “Mary Poppins.” Beloved nanny Mary Poppins does indeed return, this time in the form of Emily Blunt, but despite its best efforts, the film around her doesn’t quite achieve liftoff.
The character of Mary Poppins is positively staunch about magic, fun and imagination, and her former charges Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) have lost their sense of play. Michael’s a widower with three young children, Jane is a labor organizer. The grieving Michael is on the verge of losing their family home to the bank because if there’s one thing a Disney reboot needs, it’s Seriously Heavy-Duty Issues like “home foreclosure.”
Sometimes less is more when it comes to emotional stakes. The original film found poignancy in Michael and Jane simply wanting to spend more time with their busy parents. But “Mary Poppins Returns” just feels a bit too busy for the truly emotional moments to breathe, such as how the Banks children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) mourn the loss of their mother.
Blunt’s Mary Poppins is crisp, proper, with a hint of barely-contained chaos lingering around her toothy smile. “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the equivalent of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert as Jack, one of Bert’s chimney sweeps who moved on to lamp-lighting. While Blunt and Miranda are indeed charming, they are missing a sense of the innocent playfulness and mischief of Andrews and Van Dyke. It’s an unenviable task stepping into the roles played by two living legends, but Blunt is nearly sinister as Poppins, while Miranda’s Jack is a bit too mild.
Marshall and team have made the effort to replicate the unique moments of the original film, like the fantasy sequences Poppins conjures up, including a musical number and animated sequence where the children, Mary Poppins and Jack explore the painted surface of their family’s Royal Doulton china bowl. It’s a blend of live-action and hand-drawn 2D animation that recalls the groundbreaking “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Costume designer Sandy Powell contributes incredible hand-painted costumes.
Another musical sequence, “Turning Turtle,” features Meryl Streep as a kooky repair shop proprietress who teaches the children how to get a new perspective on things. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” performed by the lamplighters, seems to be the equivalent to “Step in Time,” complete with BMX bike tricks. But somehow it just doesn’t get the heart racing like high-stepping sooty chimney sweeps hopping over the roofs of London. Marc Shaiman’s songs are catchy, the performances fun, but it all just feels incredibly effortful, not effervescent and light.
In “Mary Poppins Returns,” the sum is not greater than the whole of its parts. The individual components are there, but they don’t add up to something that knocks our socks off. And that’s because it’s so slavishly faithful to the original film, which was a boundary-breaking, completely original movie musical. “Mary Poppins Returns” is just a lot more of the same, which is pleasing, if a bit dull. Perhaps the real way to pay tribute to “Mary Poppins” is not to re-create what once was, but to find magic in new ways of seeing.
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