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Mary Poppins Returns — with a sadder story and forgettable songs

The new sequel tries hard to recapture the magic of the 1964 version. It doesn’t offend. But it doesn’t sparkle, either.

Emily Blunt is the new Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins Returns.
Emily Blunt is the new Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins Returns.
Walt Disney Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

P.L. Travers wrote eight novels about Mary Poppins, the severe, magical nanny who appeared at the Banks family’s London home seemingly whenever they needed her most. Published between 1934 and 1988, the novels are both fanciful and menacing; at times they’re a little reminiscent of the fantastical, dreamlike, slightly sinister logic that powers Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

As with Alice, Mary Poppins was nabbed by Disney and defanged for its 1964 film starring Julie Andrews, which was — to quote Poppins herself — practically perfect in every way. It’s a high point for Disney musicals, with some of the most memorable songs from any film of its sort: “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cheree,” “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag),” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and more. Andrews and her co-star Dick Van Dyke are indelible in their performances, the dance sequences are tightly delightful, and the whole film is richly deserving of its status as a classic.

So the 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, has enormous (but demure) shoes to fill. (Travers followed up her first Mary Poppins novel with Mary Poppins Comes Back, published a year later in 1935, but its story bears no resemblance to this film.)

How does one approach such a challenge? For screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi), who developed the story with producer John DeLuca and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, Chicago), the answer appears to have been to map out every story beat from the 1964 film and then mold a new tale around the older one, beat for beat.

Thus, Mary Poppins Returns feels mostly like a cover of Mary Poppins, with stars in Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and a new, more grown-up storyline. It’s focused on pleasing fans of the original without taking any risks. It’s a pleasant, diverting, modestly ambitious film, fun for the whole family.

But it leaves much to be desired, too.

Emily Mortimer, Ben Whishaw, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh, and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns.
Emily Mortimer, Ben Whishaw, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh, and Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns.
Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns finds Jane and Michael all grown up — but still in need of some Mary Poppins magic

Mary Poppins Returns is set in the 1930s, several decades after Mary Poppins and during “the days of the Great Slump” — that is, the Depression — according to the film’s opening titles. The children of the original movie are now adults. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) is a labor organizer and activist and an attentive aunt to the children of her brother Michael (Ben Whishaw), whose wife died just a year ago. Michael and the children — Anabel (Pixie Davies), Georgie (Joel Dawson), and John (Nathanael Saleh) — along with their housekeeper, Ellen (Julie Walters), live in the big house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

Michael is straining to maintain a brave face while still grieving his late wife. In the wake of her death, he’s had to drop his work as a painter and pick up a job as a teller at the same bank where his and Jane’s father was a partner. Michael took out a mortgage at that bank when his wife was ill, and one day, he receives a visit: He’s behind on the payments, and he’s going to lose the house.

Michael is a bit of a disorganized mess, illustrated by the fact that when he and Jane suddenly remember that their father owned shares in the bank — shares that could potentially save the house — he has no idea where the certificate of ownership could be.

Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies, and Joel Dawson in Mary Poppins Returns.
Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies, and Joel Dawson in Mary Poppins Returns.
Walt Disney Pictures

They start looking, but they can’t find the certificate anywhere. And the man who runs the bank now, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), insists they get the certificate or the money to him within a few days. The clock is ticking. The odds are looking bad.

But into this mess sails — quite literally, on a gust of wind, holding her signature umbrella aloft — Mary Poppins herself, returned to take care of her former charges. She’s joined in the effort by lamplighter Jack (Miranda), who was just a boy the last time Mary was at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Now he’s grown, a relentless optimist who knows a bit about finding magic in the everyday. Together, Mary and Jack take Anabel, Georgie, and John on a few adventures while Michael and Jane try to sort things out. And, with a bit of magic, Mary helps everyone find joy in life again.

Mary Poppins Returns repeats some of what made the original magical, but falls down on its music and story

Mary Poppins Returns belongs to a category of film I mentally refer to as “completely fine.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, unless you can’t adjust to Miranda’s slightly cartoony take on a Cockney accent. (It’s a bit jarring at first, perhaps especially for Hamilton fans, but if you just surrender to it, it becomes kind of endearing.)

As Mary Poppins, Blunt is unsurprisingly terrific. She’s not doing a Julie Andrews impression; instead, she’s nailed her own precise version of the clipped, severe nanny with a twinkle in her eye, a worthy Mary for a new generation. Yes, she can sing and dance (she previously worked with director Marshall on Into the Woods) — but it’s her slight edge masking a warm heart and draped in an air of mystery that makes her feel real and familiar.

Jack, Mary, and the children off to trip a little light fantastic in Mary Poppins Returns.
Jack, Mary, and the children off to trip a little light fantastic in Mary Poppins Returns.
Jay Maidment / Walt Disney Pictures

There are moments in the film that come near to matching the visual enchantment of the original — particularly a long sequence during which, as in the 1964 film, the human children find themselves in a 2D animated world of imagination, having been transported there by Mary. There’s also a whimsical scene set in a topsy-turvy fix-it shop (wo)manned by Mary’s appropriately named cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), and a couple of fun cameos, too.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that some of the magic has worn off. The primary reason is also the saddest: The songs of Mary Poppins Returns are almost shockingly forgettable. Penned by the movie’s composer Marc Shaiman and his longtime co-writer Scott Wittman (the duo co-wrote songs for Smash and Hairspray, among many others), they’re trying very hard. I defy you to hum any of the tunes on your way out of the theater; if anything, you’ll retain the key phrase from an interminably long interlude — “trip a little light fantastic” — which may embed itself into your brain as a not terribly pleasant earworm. (Based on a true story.)

That Mary Poppins Returns is the only proper movie musical actually nominated in the Golden Globes Best Picture category for comedy or musical, but didn’t earn any nominations for Best Original Song, seems to underline the problem. The music of this sequel is fun while you’re watching it, but the hummable quality of its predecessor’s songs is gone.

Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack the lamplighter in Mary Poppins Returns.
Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Jack the lamplighter in Mary Poppins Returns.
Walt Disney Pictures

And without that musical element, Mary Poppins Returns eventually starts to feel like a slog. The story, about a bereaved father who is struggling to save his family home for his motherless children, is a lot darker — and far less fixable by a magical nanny — than that of the original film, where the biggest hurdle is a brief loss of employment that seems to inject a spring into Mr. Banks’s previously dour step.

That makes the relentlessly upbeat ending — with its dutiful deus ex machina and an exhortation to just forget your worries since tomorrow has to be better — land with a thud. Mary Poppins Returns is a lighthearted musical fantasy, but frothy head-burying doesn’t really seem like a conclusion to the sad events that drive its story.

Marshall has been trying to construct an awards-season narrative around the film that deems it the “movie we need right now,” by which he seems to mean that it’s a bit of escapist fun that takes us away from the anxious age we live in. But if that was the effect he hoped to achieve, a less melancholy plot probably would have been more successful, and made the cheerful ending feel less like an encouragement (especially in the midst of national austerity and political upheaval, two things the movie also contains!) to engage in willful denial and just assume that everything will turn out all right in the end.

These kinds of misfires keep Mary Poppins Returns from truly fulfilling its potential. It’s still a nice-looking, entertaining movie, and a fine way to spend a few hours with your family over the holidays. But I found myself wishing that an extra spoonful of sugar and a pinch of magic had been sprinkled in too.

Mary Poppins Returns opens in theaters on December 19.

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