WARNING: Small spoonfuls of sugary spoilers ahead!
Now that’s what I call a fantastic follow-up of a pop-in.
A mere 54 years after Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins descended from the sky with her umbrella, working her magic with one downtrodden family onscreen in a movie destined to become a timeless Disney classic cherished by multiple generations of viewers worldwide, the practically perfect nanny has returned.
The good news: While it would be all but impossible to match one of the most beloved and acclaimed musicals of all time, “Mary Poppins Returns” is a sequel worthy of the name.
This is a wall-to-wall smile of a movie: big of heart and large in scale, lavishly staged, beautifully photographed and brimming with show-stopping musical numbers. Again, it would be folly to expect any of the individual numbers or the soundtrack as a whole to attain the lasting pop culture status of “A Spoonful of Sugar,” et al., but you’ll likely be humming the melodies of more than a few of the tunes from “Returns” as you exit the theater, and in the days and weeks to follow.
Of course, all the noble intentions, all the infectious musical numbers, all the clever call-backs in plot and character, all the potentially funny and exhilarating and heart-tugging adventures — all of that hinges on the casting. If we don’t love the new Mary Poppins, how are we to even consider falling for the movie itself?
Ah, but from the moment Emily Blunt lightly floats to the ground through the snarling winds of a ferocious storm, umbrella in hand of course, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else more suited to the role, more at home inhabiting the cheeky, strong-willed, delightfully adventurous, politely subversive and always loving Mary Poppins. She is sensational.
And there’s star power a-poppin’ in the supporting cast, from Lin Manuel-Miranda’s brightly shining and winning performance as Jack, the lamplighter with a heart of gold and the spirit of a hero who is our singing guide throughout the fantasy adventure; to Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer as the grown-up Banks siblings, who have nearly forgotten Mary Poppins’ lessons in the face of real-life troubles; to the “surprise” cameos from a couple of living legends in their 90s.
“Mary Poppins Returns” is set in London during the economic depression, aka the Great Slump of the 1930s — about a quarter-century after the events of the original film.
A year after the death of his wife, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) remains a broken man, stumbling through everyday life in a haze, barely hanging on. To be sure, Michael is a devoted father to his children — Annabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathanael Saleh) and little Georgie (Joel Dawson) — but without the help of the daffy but loving housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) and Michael’s selfless sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), he’d be lost.
In fact, even WITH their assistance, Michael is facing ruin. He’s on the verge of losing the family house on Cherry Tree Lane — the very house in which Michael and Jane grew up. Even worse, Michael is becoming increasingly impatient and distant with the children, and he’s in danger of forever losing sight of what really matters in this world.
That’s just about the time Mary Poppins re-appears and announces she’ll be taking on the role of the nanny for Michael’s children, because heaven knows they need some discipline and guidance (oh and maybe some heaping scoops of magic and wonder as well).
Poof! Just like that, a mundane thing like bath time for the grimy, grumbling kids turns into an exhilarating and surreal underwater and on-the-water thrill ride. (By the time it’s over, even the most cynical of the children is fully with Team Poppins.)
And in perhaps the most memorable adventure in the entire film, a crack in a ceramic bowl in the Banks home leads to Mary and Jack and the kids plunging into the world depicted in the etchings on that bowl. Costumed as if they’re animated characters but retaining their live-action forms, they interact WITH animated, talking animals, from a dog to a horse to a badger, in a prolonged sequence featuring an elaborate musical number and some genuinely harrowing escapades.
Great stuff, taking advantage of modern-day technology while remaining lovingly true to the visual spirit of the original.
Meryl Streep has a single-scene, comic-relief, almost exhaustively over-the-top appearance as Mary’s eccentric cousin, Topsy. It’s reminiscent of one-offs in many a Broadway musical, and I’m not sure it was all that necessary, especially in a film that, with all its bright spots, does lag here and there over the two-hour, 10-minute running time.
David Warner is a hoot as the retired naval officer Admiral Boom, still living across the way from the Banks house. Colin Firth is a hiss-worthy villain as William Wilkins, the current president of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, who is essentially the Mr. Potter to Michael Banks’ George Bailey. I don’t think it’s much of a surprise any more, given all the pre-film publicity, but I’ll issue a SPOILER ALERT one last time before noting the absolutely lovely and sweet and funny and touching cameos by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury.
What a gift it is to see the 92-year-old Van Dyke and the 93-year-old Lansbury on the big screen again.
And what a magnificent and joy-inducing holiday present “Mary Poppins Returns” is for all of us.
‘Mary Poppins Returns’
Disney presents a film directed by Rob Marshall and written by Dennis Magee. Rated PG (for some mild thematic elements and brief action). Running time: 130 minutes. Opens Dec. 19 at local theaters.