Either the stars have aligned or the Banks children are in trouble again because there is a new Mary Poppins movie. The last adventure of the magical British nanny graced the screen in the 1960s. That film was a huge success, but Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers was extremely protective of her character and hated the movie. That might be why it has taken so long for a true Mary Poppins sequel to come to fruition.
It’s time to light the lamps for Mary Poppins Returns. Cherry tree lane is going through rough times during The Great Slump, also known as depression era Britain during the mid-1930s, and life has been difficult for the Banks children. It has been twenty-five years since Mary Poppins entered their lives. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widow and his wife’s passing has left an empty space and misfortune over Michael and his three children. Michael had dreams of becoming a painter, but without his wife, he had to take out a second mortgage and get a job at the bank. That same bank wants to reprocess his house based on missed payments. The only way Micheal can get out of this situation is if he finds the bonds that were left to him and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer).
That is only half the story. The other half is where the magic happens. Michael’s three children Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) are also still reeling from the loss of their mother. It hasn’t been easy on them to see their father struggle either, and that calls for the return of the Banks’ guardian nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). She has come to teach the children some important lessons while making sure everything goes smoothly for the family. They are joined by lamp-lighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who accompanies them on their adventures and takes the place of Dick Van Dyke’s famous chimney sweep, Bert.
Mary Poppins Returns isn’t so much a new story, but rather a new take on the original formula. Disney is no stranger to this approach as Star Wars: The Force Awakens took a classic story and enhanced it for the modern era. Everything old is new again as Mary Poppins Returns takes many of the same plot elements and adventures of the original and updates them with CGI and more elaborate set-pieces.
This time the children go on an underwater adventure courtesy of a bath, take a trip into the magical world of a vase, dance upside down in a topsy-turvy building, and enjoy a PG-rated Burlesque show. The vase sequence will probably draw the most comparisons to the original movie as it showcases the act of mixing live-action with animation that the original was iconic for. The animation during this sequence has a sketchy comic book edge adding to the hand-drawn characters. Another aspect of this sequence is that the outfits from costume designer Sandy Powell are spectacular. They fit in magically with the cel-shaded designs of the characters, each with their own little embellishments that really make them pop.
No amount of costumes and fancy CGI can sell a film if the musical talent isn’t up to task. Thankfully, Blunt and Miranda have their opportunities to shine. Blunt has shown her singing talents on screen before in Disney’s Into the Woods, but here she is given the reigns of one of Disney’s most revered films and she delivers. In a year full of great signing performances, Blunt shows she’s more than capable of hanging with the greats. The sequence where she truly shines is inside the animated world of the vase, and her two numbers here, “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover is Not the Book,” show her full range of talents, dancing, and singing up a storm.
Each song provides some kind of lesson for the children. Topics such as cleanliness, grief, accidents, perspective, and the act of being lost are all explored within the music. Miranda gets moments to perform his rapping skills that helped make Hamilton one of the biggest Broadway shows ever. He is also the lead singer in one of the most memorable music numbers in the film, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” Director Rob Marshall had set it up as the biggest set-piece in the film and fills it with parkour and bicycle tricks.
Supporting characters have their day in the sun when Blunt and the children aren’t the focus. There’s a budding relationship between Jane and Jack, orchestrated by Poppins. The chairman of the bank (Colin Firth) puts on a helpful demeanor, but he definitely wants the Banks to lose their home. Meryl Streep shows up in the film as Mary’s cousin, Tipsy. Streep famously did not appear in this year’s Mamma Mia! sequel. Perhaps she was saving her musical performance for this. There are even a few surprises including one from Dick Van Dyke who is still dancing into his 90s. Of the children, Joel Dawson really stands out. He acts as the catalyst for a lot of the trials in the film, but he is also a wonderful musical talent and steals the spotlight from the other children.
Mary Poppins Returns will leave a big old smile on your face. The story and themes will be familiar, but that can be ignored when everything else is so pleasurable. Mary Poppins Returns is a spectacular adventure for the whole family.