Special Effects: B+
Watching Mary Poppins Returns, I kept wondering how it might play to anyone who has never seen the classic 1964 original. Surely there will be plenty such people. Perhaps it makes a positive difference to them to be removed from how blatantly this sequel coming 54 years later traffics in nostalgia?
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the first film, with Julie Andrews in arguably her most iconic role, that nothing can possibly stack up to it. Mary Poppins Returns attempts to recapture a whole lot of the kind of magic that really only existed in a bygone era, but excels when making bits of original magic. In other words, this film is full of its own delights, and also a bit of a mixed bag — especially if you’re looking for something for which there is no comparison.
Comparisons are quite literally what this movie is asking for, though. So let’s start with the stuff which, if far from terrible, well, could have been better.
It’s not often that I wish a movie were longer than it is, especially when it’s already 130 minutes. (The original film was 139 minutes.) Much of Mary Poppins Returns is not quite frantic, but just shy of it; it feels very much a product of its time, ironically — as though made for people with no attention span. It’s packed to the gills with story, and the story seldom gets any room to breathe.
That said, maybe it doesn’t need to be longer — the story could have been given room to breathe if the first “magic of imagination” sequence were simply done away with, and all the rest of the scenes fleshed out a tad. This movie jumps right in with a bathtub number that is rather over the top with its undersea colors and effects, and it’s just a little much, a little early.
I might not have had so much of a problem with packing so much story in, if that story weren’t so contrived and undercooked. This time out, we get Colin Firth as a bona fide villain — a character type I don’t recall existing at all in the original Mary Poppins. The charm of the original film was the simplicity of its themes: if there were any villain, it was time itself, and how it robs grownups of their childhood wonder. This idea returns here, but it’s attached to a ridiculously predictable plot involving the search for shares in Michael Banks’s bank, in time to save his lifelong home from being repossessed.
So yes, some of this is outright nitpicking — but when it comes to the legacy of a film as pitch perfect as Mary Poppins, there shouldn’t be so much room for it. The music in particular is fine, but “fine” is not good enough for Mary Poppins, who once regaled us with such unfortgettable tunes as “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Feed the Birds.” Not one song here comes remotely close to such classic songs: no answer to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” no “Chim Chim Cheree.”
Granted, for those of us who grew up watching that film so many times we practically memorized it, it arguably doesn’t matter what anyone making a sequel did, they just couldn’t win. So from my perspective, it’s a great compliment to Mary Poppins Returns that while it’s nowhere near as great as I wanted it to be, it remains far better than I feared.
This movie falters when it attempts to recreate specific ideas and feelings from its predecessor, which it does a lot — instead of Dick Van Dyke as a chimney sweep, we get Lin-Manuel Miranda as a lamplighter, complete with many friends who come together for an elaborate dance sequence much like those of the chimney sweeps in 1964. The inclusion of stunts on bicycles feels strangely like a strained attempt at modern sensibility while coming up slightly short of the original choreography.
But, once it gets past that slightly ill-advised bathtub swimming sequence, Mary Poppins Returns does offer several sequences that are both original and an effective expansion on the original sensibility. Popping into the animated world of the etching on a ceramic bowl, a horse and carriage rides along a path that curves with the bend of the bowl. In this sequence, the blending of animation in a specific-era Disney style with live action has a comforting authenticity to it.
As for the live-action cast? Honestly, Emily Blunt, while otherwise very well cast in the title role, slightly overdoes it at times with the Poppins pomposity. Other times, in spite of there being no replacement for Julie Andrews, Blunt seems to channel her surprisingly well. Ben Wishaw and Emily Mortimer are serviceable as the grown Michael and Jane Banks. Michael, now a widower, has three children of his own, played with more childlike wonder than precociousness by Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson.
Poppins’s return is much more about setting things right with the grownups than the actual kids here — she simply uses the kids as a means to that end. Of course, the adults being the ones with a lesson to learn was the original idea — a tried and true concept that really needed no conceit about shares in a bank to be tied to it.
Mary Poppins is undeniably fun regardless, and I must admit, by the very end, after a truly delightful number involving balloons at a spring fair, I finally decided I was fully on board. Sequences like that convince me I’d enjoy watching the movie again, even with its many minor flaws. Not one of those flaws are fatal, after all — they simply weigh down the legacy it’s clearly attempting to live up to. For every flaw, though, there’s a new delight. Many of them involve brief appearances that inevitably bring on a smile: Meryl Streep as “Topsy,” Poppins’s eccentric cousin who fixes things; Angela Lansbury as the balloon seller; even Dick Van Dyke — not as Bert the chimney sweep, but this time as an old bank executive. His spry performance at 93 years old might be worth the ticket price alone.
Of course, I really wanted Dick Van Dyke to be coming back as Bert. Don’t get your hopes up on that one! Consider that less of a spoiler than a way to avoid being disappointed during the movie. It’s wonderful to see him onscreen no matter what part he plays.
And contrived as it is, the Mary Poppins Returns script does have its clever moments. You could call it uneven: slightly rough patches of story telling, and other parts that are smooth sailing. It’s the moments of smooth sailing that keep you believing in the power of imagination.
Opens Wednesday December 19.