I pictured her arriving on a skateboard, midriff bare, singing a Katy Perry tune. I pictured twerking. Instead, Mary Poppins Returns is a seamless continuation of the story, free of all modern rubbish and defiantly lacking in edge.
It’s absolutely adorable. I picture the starchy English politician Jacob Rees-Mogg attending with all six children and regularly calling out, “Quite so!” and “Jolly well done!” Whether the kiddies will go for this movie, I have no idea, but Mary Poppins Returns is going to wow grandparents.
Mary Poppins wasn’t broken, so in its wisdom Disney didn’t fix it. Almost everything is the same, right down to costumes and sets that closely follow the 1964 original, the batty old admiral firing cannons across the street, the ride up the bannister, the mirror gag, the carpet bag. The only bits that changed were those that had to: Emily Blunt is not Julie Andrews, just as Theresa May is not Margaret Thatcher, but (unlike May) Blunt is briskly effective.
Also there is a new slate of songs. My scorecard rates five tracks from the original Mary Poppins as classics. Mary Poppins Returns? Well, zero. Many are isotopes of the indestructible numbers from the first film: A nonsense song to follow “Supercalifrag . . . [etc.],” a dancing-lamplighter number as homage to the dancing-chimney-sweep tune “Step in Time,” even a concluding one about soaring balloons that echoes “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman are essentially journeymen, both with many not-great credits to their names along with their one unqualified success Hairspray. It’s a shame Disney didn’t instead hire the Frozen team, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Still, if the songs aren’t memorable the show-stopping numbers built around them work nicely in context.
Once again Mary arrives amid chaos, this time guided by the famous kite from the 1964 film, and immediately begins tidying up the lives of the three Banks children who live in the same house where their father Michael (Ben Whishaw) grew up with his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer). The place is in danger of being repossessed by an evil banker, who is played by Colin Firth instead of the choice I would have preferred, Hugh Grant, because, I suppose, Grant couldn’t bear getting bested by Whishaw for a third time in movies this year. The Banks family has until midnight Friday to vacate the house . . . unless they can find a piece of paper proving they hold enough shares in the bank to pay off their mortgage. (Yes, Disney is the studio that recently built an entire blockbuster movie around buying a steering wheel on eBay and perhaps would do well to make its plots a bit more complex.)
Meantime, Mary Poppins leads the kids on colorful adventures with her new Cockney sidekick Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a former assistant to Bert the chimney sweep who rides his bicycle around London lighting the gas-fired street lamps. There’s a visit to the ceiling of a junk shop with a kooky Russian-accented fixer-upper (Meryl Streep, having a great time), an underwater fantasy that plays like the cleanest imaginable sequel to the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene in Trainspotting, and an animated trip alongside animal characters depicted on the side of a china bowl, plus cameos from Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury (but not Andrews, who nevertheless pops up doing a voice in Aquaman, released the same weekend). Each of the musical set pieces, plus a thrilling climax on the face of Big Ben, inspires lots of high-energy razzmatazz from one of Disney’s favorite directors, Rob Marshall. Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, and the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid) isn’t a visionary, but he is sturdy.
Which is exactly what’s needed: Though Mary Poppins Returns is a digital spectacle, it retains that Edwardian feel of sweet, tame music-hall humor and low-tech delights such as balancing a ladder on a bicycle so five people might ride on it. I can’t remember the last time a movie so completely transported me to dreamy early childhood — I first saw the original aged seven — when the bar for wonder was set far lower than in today’s megabits-per-second world. I hope today’s kids will flock to Mary Poppins Returns, not to teach them any lessons about How Things Were but to remind them how much the imagination can do without a single electronic gizmo.