By Andrea Thompson
“Mary Poppins Returns” certainly knows it’s kind of a tall order to ask the world to once again embrace the values of wonder and magic. The movie picks up a few decades after the orginal left off in 1930s London, about as far from the prosperous world the original took place in as we are from 1964, when Julie Andrews first charmed as the character in the original.
Disney is very aware of this, kicking off the movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack, bicycling around London singing a cheerful song amidst the squalor and harshness of the Depression. As this generation’s optimistic Cockney, previously played by Dick Van Dyke, Miranda is a fitting replacement, able to speak to the current generation, while his theater background gives him the skills to pull off the rousingly old-fashioned musical numbers.
As with any sequel to a beloved pop culture staple, there are plenty of callbacks. Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) are now grown. Jane has found her calling as a labor organizer, and anyone tempted to shake their heads at the movie’s attention to politics should also remember the original movie also acknowledged this, though it was far more condescending towards Mrs. Banks and her efforts to secure women the vote.
Meanwhile, Michael is now a single father, since absent mothers are once again all the rage in Disney holiday movies. He’s working at the same bank his father did, even if he is much less committed, harboring ambitions as a painter, which the movie completely fails to follow up on. His three children Annabel, John, and Georgie are far more acquainted with hunger, want, and very aware of the fact that they will lose their home in a matter of days if they can’t either cough up some money or the certificate for the shares Michael’s father secured for them.
Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to this mild chaos on a literal kite, soon winning over the children with her combination of whimsy and firmness. Blunt has some big shoes to fill, but she fills them well, effortlessly charming as much as she sings her way into the hearts of a whole new generation, aided by some fun songs and old school animation. The film actually has a surprising amount in common with the original. It knows how to embrace childlike wonder and be respectful to adult concerns. It doesn’t need to pretend to add an unnecessary story arc that involves firing Mary, or making Michael too much of a caricature. He loses his temper, but he’s also more vulnerable than on-screen fathers are typically allowed to be, openly acknowledging how lost he is without his late wife.
However, “Mary Poppins Returns” is also restrained in some of the wrong ways, and excessive where it could use some perspective. Instead of musical numbers that flooded the streets and roofs of London, they’re hidden away like the secrets at the end of the best treasure hunts imaginable. The movie also seems to think it needs a villain. With any major British adaptation, Colin Firth is mandatory, and he steps in to be one of the lazier types, the dastardly high-ranking banker who’s looking to rake in all the cash he can for a profit, even if they come at the expense of families in need. Even if the bankers in the original intended to fire Michael’s father at one point, they were still given good reasons for it.
Another unwelcome change is the climactic showdown, which feels especially unnecessary. It involves a race to Big Ben itself to turn back time, with Mary Poppins barely lifting a finger to help. And after spending the whole time with her magical brand of whimsy, it’s hard not to think that she could not only make the whole showdown a lot easier, but also unnecessary. Why doesn’t Mary Poppins just magically get Jane and Michael to the bank? Or tell them the information she’s obviously been aware of all along? The rest of the film makes a good case for embracing the wonders of childhood, but when the movie can’t seem to embrace the wisdom that comes with it, it’s bound to ring a bit hollow at the end.