It’s been 54 years since Julie Andrews graced cinema screens as Mary Poppins, the much-adored, singing magical nanny who arrives with her flying umbrella to take care of the Banks family. The eponymous 1964 film — for which Andrews won the Oscar for Best Actress — became an instant classic, its music becoming a core part of generations of children’s upbringing all over the world. Now, after one of the longest gaps between sequels ever recorded in cinematic history, the singing nanny returns to screens in Mary Poppins Returns, this time played by Emily Blunt with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, and Julie Walters in supporting roles.
Set decades after the first film, now adults Michael (Whishaw) and Jane (Mortimer) face growing financial concerns following the death of Michael’s wife and the possible acquisition of the Banks family home, leaving father Michael and children John, Anabel, and Georgie homeless. This prompts the return of Mary Poppins to the Banks household and, with her, an unforgettable adventure full of song and dance.
Especially spectacular is the film’s now Oscar-nominated production design. Each and every world Mary Poppins introduces the Banks children to is more mesmerising than the next: whether it is the upside-down world (where Meryl Streep randomly shows up for 10 minutes) or the London-influenced world of the leeries, the film enamours the viewer with its inventive quirks and marvels, and the cast members — particularly Miranda, whose turn as Jack never fails to impress — engage the many spaces around them to deliver wonderfully choreographed performances.
Filling the shoes of such a revered actress as Andrews cannot possibly be an ordinary task, but Blunt is, for all intents and purposes, extraordinary in her turn as the beloved nanny, . Combining the spirit of Andrews’s very proper, very British Mary Poppins with her own charm and elegance makes for character that is in touch with her roots but very much her own. From the enthralling musical numbers (which paid homage to Andrews’s singing style) to the wonderful choreography, Blunt carries the film start to finish, never missing a beat. As great as the performance itself is, however, the value of the character is diminished to a plot device the further along the film goes: Blunt’s Poppins is there to fix problems and little else most of the time and so becomes more a trope than a character, whereas Andrews’s Poppins was much more layered.
On some level, the entire film feels that way. To the unassuming child viewer, Mary Poppins Returns is a tremendously fun ride with imaginative visual effects, impossibly catchy tunes, and dreamy costumes (Sandy Powell will compete against herself once again for this year’s Academy Award for costume design). The film pays tribute to a time when Disney films were sweeping in a way that new films targeted at younger audiences are not, and it is refreshing to see director Rob Marshall conjure some of Disney’s old magic to make a Mary Poppins film for a new generation.
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In doing that, however, some of the film’s substance is lost on the older generation watching. Despite multiple references to the original film and cameos by some of its original cast members, including Dick Van Dyke and Karen Dotrice, the film’s main narrative is rather similar to the original film, leaving opportunities to explore the story arcs of Michael and Jane as adults rather amiss. The film in fact feels more like a reenactment of the original rather than a sequel to it, successfully maintaining the charm of the first but failing to properly bridge the gaps between the stories.
Mary Poppins Returns may not be the perfect sequel, but it remains a delight to the younger viewer and a generous reminder that every once in a while, whether old or young, we all deserve to feel everything is possible — even the impossible.