‘Mary Poppins Returns’ review: Emily Blunt and that ‘Hamilton’ chap take a strenuously jolly holiday

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

Families could do a lot worse this holiday season than to take out a home equity loan for a bucket of multiplex popcorn and take in “Mary Poppins Returns,” director Rob Marshall’s hectic sequel to the 1964 Disney musical cherished by millions.

Those who don’t want their memories of the original messed with unduly can take comfort in how the sequel’s storyline follows the narrative and musical beats of the original, right down to a radically square 2-D animation sequence. And it’s hard to imagine either slaves to the ’64 musical or newcomers of any age having a problem with Emily Blunt.

This image released by Disney shows, from left, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh and Emily Blunt in "Mary Poppins Returns." (Jay Maidment/Disney via AP) The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

The actress’s incarnation of the magical, gently fearsome nanny created by author P.L.Travers (who hated Disney’s version) suggests a hint of the paradoxical imperious sparkle Julie Andrews brought to Mary Poppins. Then Blunt adds streaks of witty, sly playfulness that are more her thing. And it all works.

24 years later: The costumes do a lot for Blunt’s characterization. “Mary Poppins Returns” takes place 24 years after “Mary Poppins,” in 1934. The effects of the global economic downturn feed into screenwriter David Magee’s misery-adjacent storyline concerning the grown-up Banks children. Grieving widower Michael (Ben Whishaw, quite moving) is raising young John (Nathanael Saleh), Annabel (Pixie Davies) and Georgie (Joel Dawson), while the children’s aunt, Jane (Emily Mortimer), pays homage to her late mother’s interest in the suffrage movement with her own organized labor efforts.

The plot deals with a threatened foreclosure on the Banks family home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, and greedy capitalist pigs personified by the steely two-faced banker played by Colin Firth. But then there’s Mary, who arrives via kite this time and swans around in fabulously smart ’30s hats and delightful footwear. All hail costume designer Sandy Powell! Her work for all the characters here evokes ’34, the ’64 Disney film and fantasy realms that know no boundaries.

This image released by Disney shows Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, and Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins Returns." (Jay Maidment/Disney via AP) The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, that “Hamilton” chap, takes second billing as Jack the lamplighter, who we’re told was once apprentice to chimney sweep Bert. You’ll recall Dick Van Dyke in that role back in ’64. In “Mary Poppins Returns” Van Dyke, now 92, more or less reprises the cameo he played in the first Disney “Poppins” film. It’s a serious treat to see Van Dyke jump up on a table and soft-shoe a few bars, as the son of the ancient banker, Dawes.

The other major nostalgia bonus is Angela Lansbury, 93, who pops up in the final scene as the Balloon Lady. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray,” one of the sturdiest Broadway scores of the century) reward her with the swell waltz “Nowhere to Go But Up,” which echoes the original’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” for a sunny, open-air finale.

Alas, that’s the only song from “Mary Poppins Returns” I can recall, several days after seeing it. That’s a significant drawback in a well-cast but rather strenuously jolly holiday of a sequel. The nine songs run the gamut from male-chorus spectaculars (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”) to eccentric comic turns (“Turning Turtle,” an upside-down discombobulator sung by Meryl Streep as Mary’s Aunt Topsy) to a music hall song-and-dance duet for Blunt and Miranda (“The Cover is Not the Book,” more frantic than clever, though it’s fun to hear Miranda bust a few lines “Hamilton” style).

This image released by Disney shows Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins in "Mary Poppins Returns." (Disney via AP) The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

Workmanlike: Director Marshall stages things with workmanlike efficiency. The movie piles on, the barrage of effects and diversions largely dictated by the demands of the animation interludes and the surfeit of routine digital effects. The 2-D vignette, in which Mary, Jack and the kids pop into a porcelain bowl illustration for a mad chase sequence, almost works, but it too sweats and strains for the magic.

Of his six features to date, four of Marshall’s films have been musicals: “Chicago” (2002), “Nine” (2009), “Into the Woods” (2014) and “Mary Poppins Returns.” He’s devoted to the form, though his two non-musicals, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) and the eternity that was “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (2011), point to a clunkiness never entirely absent in this uneven picture. The original “Mary Poppins” was exuberant, fueled by terrific Sherman brothers songs. “Mary Poppins Returns” is often just pushy.

So I’m mixed on it. You can enjoy various bits and pieces of “Mary Poppins Returns,” and a lot of the performers, even as you roll your eyes at, for example, the anachronistic BMX parkour stunt biker interlude. I’m no purist, but really. The first “Mary Poppins” managed perfectly well without consulting the latest fads and spicing up “Step in Time” with a bunch of hula hoops.


2.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements and brief action)

Running time: 2:11