In Mary Poppins Returns, the famously perfect-in-every-way nanny resurfaces in a movie that sometimes feels a little too perfect.
This glossy, handsomely budgeted musical deploys topflight talent throughout, from casting to choreography to songwriting to animation and modern digital effects, and though it achieves a Poppins-like level of hyper-competence, it lacks the most elusive attribute we associate with Mary — magic.
I almost hate to complain, especially as that’s what the movie instructs us not to do. Returns opens with Jack the Lamplighter (Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda) singing “Under the Lovely London Sky,” when in fact the sky is gray and threatening, and London itself is looking a bit haggard (there are the usual Burberry models in the street, but also homeless people). Look on the bright side, says the movie, even when it’s dark and dreary.
Cut to the home of the Banks family, where decades after the original Mary Poppins left off, the Banks children are now grown, and Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are fighting to save their childhood home. He’s a failed artist and widower with children of his own who’s taken a job that’s not paying the bills. A bank (run by sinister Colin Firth) is about to foreclose, and on top of that there’s a burst pipe in the kitchen.
The children miss their mother, they miss the sense that their father had things under control. It’s the kind of domestic chaos just right for the corrective influence of Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), and she blows in on a storm, dropping primly from the clouds as the wind ruffles everything but her perfect suit and hair.
Let’s pause here for boilerplate acknowledgment that Julie Andrews is the quintessential Mary. You could hardly pick a more apt successor, though, than Blunt, a resourceful actress who puts her stamp on the character, adding an arched eyebrow (and matching attitude) that gives Poppins a necessary measure of mischief. I’d rather watch Blunt as the hardened heroine in Edge of Tomorrow (for the 50th time), but she’s fine here as a mysterious force of nature who takes the Banks house by storm during a storm.
Blunt can also sing, and she’s given the movie’s best song, “The Place Where Lost Things Go.” It’s about grief and remembrance, and she sings it in a way that reveals a layer of empathy under Mary’s bossy surface — she understands the emotional undercurrents of the situation and is quietly managing them, as well.
Blunt also sings “Can You Imagine That,” an ode to whimsy she uses to get the Banks children into the tub, a scene that expands into an animated fantasy sequence almost as long as Aquaman. It exemplifies the way the movie’s abundance of resources sometimes works against it — what’s meant to be whimsical starts to feel mechanical (the frozen, practiced looked of “wonderment” on the young actors' faces is a dead giveaway).
Ditto another sequence later in the film, with Blunt and Miranda on stage singing “The Royal Doulton Music Hall” and trying to out-Cockney each other (Blunt wins, hands down), while the movie wanders off on another live-action/animated combo that finds Michael’s children kidnapped by cartoon animals (it’s actually a little creepy, and weirdly evocative of the stagecoach sequence that concludes the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).
Eventually, the movie returns to its who-cares plot, which has the Bankses looking for a missing stock certificate that will resolve all their financial difficulties.
Quibble, quibble. As I write this, I’m looking over my shoulder, worried that Mary Poppins might pop me with an umbrella. But I wonder what Mary herself might have done with access to director Rob Marshall’s editing room — my guess is she’d give the 130-minute movie a nice, spiffy trim.
Easier said than done, once we’ve finished with the generous cameos for supporting players (Meryl Streep), beloved returning stars (Dick Van Dyke), and shout-outs to important beats in the original. They’re all there, even if the ineffable elements are missing.
Mary Poppins Returns
Directed by Rob Marshall. With Emily Blunt, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Dick Van Dyke, and Meryl Streep. Distributed by Walt Disney Co.
Running time: 130 minutes
Parents guide: PG
Playing at: Area theaters.