Emily Blunt makes the iconic role her own in an affectionate sequel
Mary Poppins Returns (U) ****
It takes about three seconds from the moment Emily Blunt blows in to transform Mary Poppins Returns into a worthy sequel to the twinkly 1964 Disney musical. That’s no mean feat. With songs that have wormed their way into the consciousness of generations of movie lovers, Mary Poppins has become such a bona fide family classic that the possibility of a belated sequel tarnishing its legacy was a very real possibility. But Blunt really is practically perfect in every way – and because practically perfect people don’t allow sentiment to muddle their thinking, the film works hard to earn your love rather than coasting by on affection for something you liked when you were younger.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t embrace or pay tribute to that. In the spirit of one of its best throwaway gags, Blunt plays Mary Poppins as a sort of magic-mirror image of Julie Andrews: embodying the character
in a way that’s reassuringly familiar yet bursting with life and an identity all her own. Her Mary Poppins is
prim and proper, anarchic and sarcastic, and has a wicked way with a song-and-dance number, razzling and dazzling her way through a new set of show tunes that have all the delightful wordplay and old-school, music hall-inspired joyfulness you’d expect from the sequel to a film that gave the world Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Where that film was set in pre-war Edwardian London, Mary Poppins Returns takes place amid the economic slump of the interwar years and finds the magical nanny arriving to help the now grown-up Banks children as they contend with the prospect of losing their family home on Cherry Tree Lane. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), who lives there with his three children (his sister, Jane, played by Emily Mortimer, lives in a flat across town) is a struggling artist who’s taken a job as a part-time bank teller in the wake of his wife’s recent death. Now he finds himself with an eviction notice after defaulting on a loan taken out with his employers — the very same employers that caused his father so much strife in the first film.
We know from Disney’s own Saving Mr Banks that the original books grew out of real hardship and while it’s doubtful Travers would have approved of this sequel given her refusal to let Disney make one while she was alive, it’s good at tethering its wild flights of fancy to something relatable and real. The show-stopping set pieces that mix live action and animation, for instance, help externalise the distress the new Banks children are processing as they witness their own father’s world fall apart (like the original, the animation is done in the gorgeous, classic, hand-drawn Disney style of old).
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) also smartly gives the film the feel of a classic movie musical, one that understands the value of having performers at the top of their game delivering their best routines. And in keeping with the way he’s given London a bit of a Broadway makeover, he pulls in its current king, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, to play the salt-of-the-earth Jack, a former apprentice to Dick Van Dyke’s chimney-sweeping Bert, whose own notoriously mangled cockney accent Miranda has, rather sweetly, decided to homage. Van Dyke himself gets a lovely little cameo near the end, and there are enjoyably showy turns from Meryl Streep (who worked with Marshall on Into the Woods) and long-time Disney stalwart Angela Lansbury. It all adds up to a charming celebration of the value of stuff and nonsense in difficult times — and who doesn’t need a reminder of that at the moment?