“Mary Poppins Returns” to theaters Wednesday, Dec. 19, with a sequel 54 years in the making, and for the most part, it’s made in the most delightful way.
Emily Blunt accepted the task of playing Disney’s magical, musical nanny, which was Julie Andrews’ first iconic film role and won her a best actress Academy Award.
While no one familiar with the original is going to forget Andrews, Blunt makes the character her own, sticking close to the most nostalgic elements of the flying nanny who arrives to help an English family’s children through tough times.
Blunt also employs a bit more strictness to her nature, which follows P.L. Travers’ books more closely than the 1964 movie, so this isn’t a mimic of a performance; it’s original, and it’s clever.
Blunt can sing (songs that are smartly made for her voice), and she can dance, too, so she’s the total package in what might have been the film’s biggest challenge to face.
If she wasn’t this exceptional, there wouldn’t be a movie.
But there is, and it’s quite a bouncy little entertainment, despite its many songs not being of a caliber that I can hear little ones leaving theaters singing, as was the case with “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
So much of “Mary Poppins Returns” is dependent on the first film, from characters and tone to song inspirations and largely cloning the broadly sketched plot.
With updates, of course, such as the Banks children of the original now grown up in 1930s London, and adult siblings Michael an artist (read: Bohemian) and Jane a labor organizer (read: a feminist).
This is Depression-era London, and we immediately find that the Banks family home where (starving) artist Michael and his three children live is endangered, compounding the loss one year earlier of the kids’ mother to illness.
The bank where Mr. Banks of the original film worked is now run by a money-grubbing scoundrel played by Colin Firth, who’s just short of a mustache-twirling villain you boo and hiss.
He’s given Michael, who fell behind in payments, an ultimatum: Pay off your loan in five days or lose the residence.
This is serious stuff for Michael and for a family film (like Mr. Banks’ alcoholism in the original), and Ben Whishaw delivers as a man appropriately frustrated and alone as the scared father, which leaves his children in need of support and love.
Enter Mary Poppins, who blows in on the children’s kite in that magical way that she does everything, in events which can only be seen by the Banks family and which go unexplained.
That includes the first film’s events, which Michael and sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), as adults who have to be serious, cannot recall as having even happened.
We just accept that she’s a kind of superhero nanny, the kind that can get kids to take a bath they don’t want to take because she can sing about it and take them from the tub into an under-the-sea adventure.
“Can You Imagine That” is that “take your bath” song, which is the equivalent of the first film’s “clean your room” song, which was “A Spoonful of Sugar.”
Mary Poppins is aided by London lamplighter Jack (think Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep Burt from the original), played by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame, who even squeezes a rap into one song — but very much a Disney kind of rap.
There’s a lot of familiarity here, including the integration of animation (remember the penguins?), but always in a respectful nod to the past more than a copycat affair.
It doesn’t allow for much story originality, but that’s balanced by director Rob Marshall’s dynamic staging, with the “Chicago” Oscar winner showing he can still choreograph a song to wow-factor precision and perfection.
Just watch the leaping lamplighters during “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” ... wow.
In other roles that will feel familiar, look for Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Julie Walters, David Warner and even a cameo by Van Dyke that should make everyone smile.
“Mary Poppins Returns” should make most everyone smile. It’s the kind of family-film fun that can change the heart of even the most cynical this holiday season.